The “Forever War” Keeps Going

Evaluating the Trump administration’s plan for Afghanistan

Go to the profile of Nicholas Grossman

On August 21, President Trump outlined America’s strategy for Afghanistan, where the United States has been fighting for almost 16 years. In a primetime address, the president announced an escalation, justified America’s commitment on national security grounds, and discussed the role of Pakistan and India.

Though there are some questionable aspects to the administration’s approach, the overall strategy moves in the right direction.

The Dangers of Withdrawal

The premise underlying Trump’s renewed commitment is the threat of a power vacuum. An absence of government-provided security creates an opening for terrorist groups to gain territory, plan, recruit, launch attacks, and inspire followers.

The president cited America’s withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which led to the rise of ISIS. But the same argument applies to the U.S. ignoring Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, or failing to follow through in Libya after helping overthrow Qaddafi in 2011.

In 2008, George W. Bush signed a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) promising to withdraw all American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011. The United States wanted to leave a residual counter-terrorist force, but Iraq would not agree to grant them immunity from prosecution in civilian courts. In December 2011, Obama carried out the withdrawal, and in June 2014, ISIS swept across northern Iraq, taking Mosul and other strategic locations as the Iraqi army the U.S. spent years training folded.

Though Bush signed the SOFA, there was a tacit understanding it could be renegotiated. The Iraqi government could reap political gains from announcing the withdrawal, and later accept a partial revision satisfying America’s conditions. In 2011, Obama put little effort into finding a way to leave a residual force, even though Joe Biden said Iraq was open to the idea.

Obama’s motivations were partially strategic and partially political.

He wanted to pressure the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al Maliki, who governed as a Shia sectarian, rather than an inclusive leader, which pushed Iraqi Sunnis towards insurgency. Obama didn’t want to give Maliki a blank check, and made U.S. support conditional on a change in Iraqi leadership.

Two years after the American withdrawal, many Sunnis were willing to work with ISIS, seeing the jihadists as a less-bad alternative to Maliki’s government. As ISIS advanced on Baghdad in June 2014, the Iraqis agreed to replace Maliki with Haider al Abadi, who has worked to include all of Iraq’s major ethno-religious groups.

However, a significant part of Obama’s motivation was his desire to be seen as the president who ended the war in Iraq. He didn’t really try to revise the SOFA, and then made the American withdrawal a central part of his 2012 reelection campaign.

The result was a power vacuum, filled by ISIS, and Obama sent troops back in on June 15, 2014. Instead of extricating America from Iraq, Obama’s decision to withdraw ended up getting the United States more involved, but in a less advantageous position.

Trump is right to be concerned about making a similar mistake in Afghanistan. ISIS and al Qaeda both have a presence in the country, as do other, more localized terrorist groups. A power vacuum would allow them to gain territory and launch attacks elsewhere. That directly threatens the United States and allies.

Additionally, the Afghan government does not have Iraq’s 2011 problem of a sectarian leader. The 2014 Afghan presidential elections led to a unity government between the top two finishers, Ashraf Ghani, who got the most votes and became president, and Abdullah Abdullah, who became chief executive.

Ghani represents the Pashtuns, while Abdullah represents the Tajiks — Afghanistan’s two largest ethnic groups — and their agreement to work together brought hopes of national unity. However, the government has been marked by infighting, and has considerable problems with corruption.

America has a willing local partner in the Afghan government, but it’s capabilities and long-term stability remain uncertain.


To fight the insurgents and continue training Afghan security forces, Trump will send additional U.S. troops, though he wouldn’t say how many.

We will not talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities. Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on. America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out.

Hiding the number of troops and what they will be doing is undemocratic and unnecessary. This continues a shallow understanding of modern warfare Trump displayed during the campaign, when he criticized announcements that the American-supported coalition in Iraq planned to attack Mosul. First, it was obvious the U.S. would do so at some point, and ISIS began preparing defenses as soon as it gained control. And second, just because they know we’re coming doesn’t mean they know where, when, or with what.

Announcing specific details of military movements and battle plans would tip off the enemy, but no one’s asking for that. To evaluate the decision, the American people deserve to know how many troops are being deployed (and reporters covering the military will almost certainly find out anyway). The Taliban won’t change its strategy if it knows that, say, 7,000 additional American troops are coming, rather than 5,000.

However, basing future decisions on conditions on the ground rather than an arbitrary timetable is smart. Obama escalated in Afghanistan, deploying 17,000 troops in 2009 to join the 36,000 already there. However, he made clear the escalation was temporary, and in June 2011 announced the United States would begin drawing down forces, culminating with a withdrawal in 2014.

And he stuck to that timetable, no matter how the war was going. Obama did not make the same mistake as in Iraq, and left 9,800 troops behind as a residual force. But he once again allowed his desire to end the war to dictate his thinking. And once again, America’s enemies gained after American forces withdrew.

Announcing an arbitrary timetable allowed the Taliban — which has always taken a long-term view of the conflict — to bide its time until most American forces left. They didn’t stop fighting, but they took fewer risks and focused more on consolidation and building up forces. Then, after 2014, they resumed their offensive.

As of July 30, 2017, the Taliban controls 11 of Afghanistan’s 407 districts, and influences another 34 (11% combined). The Afghan government controls or predominantly influences 60% of the country. 29% is actively contested.

Trump’s approach signals that the United States isn’t going anywhere. That shows Afghans the U.S. won’t abandon them, encouraging them to support the American-allied government. And it shows the Taliban they can’t just wait us out.

Changing Positions

Critics jumped on Trump’s call to send more troops to Afghanistan, pointing to past statements denouncing America’s involvement there.

There’s no reason to give any credence to Trump’s pre-campaign public statements. They were clearly driven by a desire to attract attention and criticize whatever Obama was doing, rather than an expression of considered strategy.

But more importantly, he switched his position to align with experts. Some of Trump’s most ardent fans extol a not-our-problem isolationism, which we used to call paleoconservative. But the world is too interconnected. Withdrawal doesn’t isolate America from international problems, it just lets them fester, metastasizing until we’re forced to pay attention.

This policy shift follows a thorough review — it was so thorough that hawks such as John McCain became annoyed at how long it was taking — and experts such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis played a central role in developing the strategy. Instead of pandering to his isolationist fans and insisting he could handle an issue he knows little about, Trump deferred to people who understand the situation. That doesn’t mean anyone who disagrees with the new strategy is being unreasonable, just that Trump deferring to experts is a reason to be happy, not critical.

Trump also refrained from using the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism,” which he used to claim was key to defeating jihadists. Nothing about using that phrase aided U.S. strategy, and it alienated some of America’s most valuable allies in the fight against terrorism. Calling out America’s enemies by their names — Taliban, al Qaeda, ISIS, etc. — singles them out, instead of grouping them with the world’s 1.5 billion Muslims. That helps America’s efforts to gain partners and gather intelligence — at least a little — and Trump’s choice to avoid it is another sign he’s listening to experts more than rabble rousing pundits.

Donald Trump listens to James Mattis give a speech on Memorial Day, 2017

Pakistan and India

The president called out Pakistan for harboring terrorists — or at least looking the other way — and promised to hold them accountable. He also called on India to play a greater role in Afghanistan, especially regarding financial aid.

Both of these ideas have merit in isolation, but they’re contradictory.

The India-Pakistan rivalry is a major reason we’re in this mess. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and withdrew ten years later, unable to suppress the mujahideen insurgency. Pakistan and the United States backed the mujahideen, proving weapons and training. Both helped cultivate a religious nationalist/tribalist solidarity among Afghan Muslims, held up as a contrast to the “godless” communists.

After the USSR withdrew, Afghanistan collapsed into a multi-sided civil war along tribal, religious, and factional lines. While the vast majority of Afghans are Sunni Muslim, levels of religiosity differ, and tribal ties are strong. Pakistan, fearing an India-friendly Afghanistan, backed the Taliban, a fundamentalist faction of Pashtuns (the largest ethnic group, who make up approximately 42% of the diverse country).

Pakistan’s goal was “strategic depth.” With a Muslim state on its northwest border, the Pakistani military could focus on Hindu-dominated India to the southeast.

With Pakistan’s help, the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in 1996, seven years after the Soviet withdrawal. The Taliban later agreed to host Osama bin Laden and allow al Qaeda to establish training camps. That gave al Qaeda the space to plan the September 11th attacks, prompting the American-led invasion.

Trump is right that Pakistan has been playing both sides. The Pakistanis are actively fighting insurgent networks in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) on the Pakistan side of the Afghan border, but Pakistani intelligence has continued cultivating relationships with the Taliban, Haqqani network, and others fighting the American-backed Afghan government.

The U.S. provides billions in aid to Pakistan, and Trump implied reductions unless Pakistan does more to deny Afghan insurgents sanctuary on its territory. That’s not a bad idea, but it’s also risky. The money isn’t a gift — it buys the U.S. access and influence. Granted, that influence isn’t worth much if Pakistan acts against American interests, but distancing from the Pakistani government will make them less cooperative in the region, not more.

Trump is also right that it makes sense for the United States to cultivate an alliance with India. It’s the world’s largest democracy, and the two countries have a good economic relationship. When it comes to long-term geopolitical strategy, if China is America’s rival, then India is our natural ally, and the U.S. should help India balance China in Asia.

This is especially important after Trump abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership, forfeiting a close economic relationship with Southeast Asian, East Asian, and Oceanic countries, which would have helped contain China’s rise.

But Pakistan will see American-Indian cooperation in Afghanistan as a threat, especially if America also reduces aid to Pakistan. That risks pushing Pakistan towards the Taliban. As much as Pakistan has suffered fighting FATA-based groups, it will always see India as a bigger threat.

Pakistan is the more appropriate partner in Afghanistan. The two share a long border and some of the same enemies, and Pakistan’s Afghan contacts go back decades. The U.S. should cultivate its relationship with India, but not in a way that will make Pakistan fear encirclement.

Nation Building

Ultimately, it is up to the people of Afghanistan to take ownership of their future, to govern their society, and to achieve an ever-lasting peace. We are a partner and a friend, but we will not dictate to the Afghan people how to live or how to govern their own complex society. We are not nation building again. We are killing terrorists.

Trump signaled that the United States will emphasize kinetic military operations, reducing emphasis on other aspects of the mission, such building up government institutions.

The U.S. won’t be nation building “again” in the sense that America won’t forcibly remove one regime and replace it with another. But Trump’s strategy — any Afghanistan strategy, really — depends on the success of the elected governments resulting from the democratic system the U.S. installed.

As Trump’s premise acknowledges, Afghanistan’s government would collapse without international support—or at least lose control of large swaths of territory. Even with foreign support, the Afghan government has been losing ground.

Left to “take ownership of their future,” Afghanistan, or at least significant parts of it in the southeast, would choose the Taliban. Not a majority, perhaps, but enough to provide the Taliban with the recruits, sanctuary, and intelligence it needs to expand territorial control.

We’re not fighting a few well-equipped terrorists everyone hates. We’re fighting a long-running insurgency sustained by some popular support. The only way to win is to get Afghans to choose the elected central government over the Taliban.

Killing insurgents is an important part of that. But so is providing sustained security, basic services — such as water and electricity — a path to economic development, and a responsive, representative government that can win and maintain public support.

No one understands counterinsurgency better than National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, which is why I suspect Trump’s anti-nation building line was more some red meat for his isolationist fans than an honest presentation of America’s strategy.

The U.S. won’t be nation building from scratch. But if it abandons the effort to build up Afghan institutions, the additional forces Trump’s sending will play an endless game of whac-a-mole — gaining territory, only for the Afghan government to lose it later.

What’s the Endgame?

Maybe there isn’t any. Maybe that endless game of whac-a-mole is the best we can hope for.

Trump outlined the endgame like this:

From now on victory will have a clear definition: Attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terrorist attacks against America before they emerge.

But most of that describes an ongoing mission. He defines victory against the transnational jihadists of ISIS and al Qaeda as their elimination, which won’t happen. They’re manifestations of a movement — an idea — which exists on the internet as much as in any physical location. The U.S. and allies can weaken various affiliates, deny them open control of territory, and thwart many of their plots. But completely defeating them is virtually impossible.

The president cited the recent ISIS-linked attack in Barcelona that killed 13 as an example of the “extremely predictable consequences of a hasty withdrawal.” But that just highlights the disconnect. The Barcelona terrorist was a self-starter — inspired by ISIS to launch an attack on his own — rather than an operative trained in Syria, Iraq, Libya, or Afghanistan and sent to target the West. He rammed pedestrians with a vehicle, which requires no training or specialized equipment, and is very difficult to stop. No matter what the U.S. does in Afghanistan, the threat from self-starters will continue.

In this sense, the War on Terror has always been like the wars on drugs and poverty; an ongoing struggle against a sustained human problem, rather than a war against an enemy that can be defeated.

Total victory against jihadists may be impossible — at least in the foreseeable future — and the other aspects of Trump’s “victory” lack the finality usually associated with the term. Attacking, preventing, stopping. These are ongoing challenges, not end goals.

That being said, “preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan” is a reasonable aim. Building a self-sustaining democracy capable of securing all its territory, without assistance, would take a very long time, and require immense resources (if it’s possible at all). But just preventing the Taliban from winning can be done with much less.

The Resolute Support Mission (RSM)— as the international force has been known since 2015 — consists of about 13,000 troops, including nearly 6,000 non-U.S. Italy, Germany, Georgia, Turkey, Romania and the UK have all contributed at least 500. Trump’s escalation might bring the total up to 20,000, though it could be less. There are also over 25,000 private military contractors supporting the RSM and the Afghan government, which controls an Afghan National Security Force numbering over 300,000. But fewer than 10% of the Afghan troops are capable of offensive combat operations.

Most of the foreign forces have training or supporting roles. There are about 3,000 American combat troops in Afghanistan, and the escalation could add another thousand, maybe two. They could prevent the Taliban from making further gains, and may be able to recapture some territory.

But they’re not going to win. To avoid leaving behind a vacuum, the United States is poised to fight in Afghanistan indefinitely.

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