Blog No. 147: Afghanistan: Return of the Forgotten War

During the campaign, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton did battle on a wide variety of subjects, but neither had much to say on the subject of Afghanistan. Although the United States had spent billions of dollars and suffered thousands of casualties in what Barack Obama once called the “good war,” it had been pushed from the headlines and public consciousness by the conflicts in Iraq and Syria. Now however, the Afghan conflict has again forced itself into a position requiring the attention of the media and the public.

It has been obvious for some time that matters in Afghanistan were not going well. The Taliban has regained much territory (by some estimates 40% of the country) and has demonstrated the ability to mount vicious attacks in the capital, Kabul. Last week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis testified that “we are not winning” in Afghanistan. Mattis also confirmed that President Trump has authorized an increase in U.S. troop levels from the present 8,400 to an exact number to be determined by the Pentagon. While there has been no official limit placed on the increase, it is widely expected to be in the range of 3-5000. There is no indication of any plan or authorization to change the fundamental role of the American troops to participating in ground combat. The need for additional troops was foreshadowed in a March 19 report by Central Command to the Senate Armed Services Committee.  The report indicated “a shortfall of a few thousand personnel needed to conduct the complementary mission of training, advising, and assisting” the Afghan National Defense and Security Force.

Some have criticized Trump’s move as an unwise ceding of civilian control to the military, but that criticism seems misplaced. The authority delegated to the military appears to fall within a relatively narrow range and is a welcome change from the practice of the previous administration. As the Washington Post put it:

President Trump’s resolution to delegate decisions on troop levels in Afghanistan to the Pentagon is a worthy corrective to the approach of President Barack Obama, who micromanaged U.S. military forces in a way that badly undercut their ability to achieve their goals. By politicizing force levels in Iraq and Afghanistan and setting timetables for withdrawal unlinked to conditions on the ground, Mr. Obama helped to ensure failure on his watch in both countries. The Islamic State gained control over much of Iraq, forcing the redeployment of U.S. troops, while a Taliban resurgence in Afghanistan now demands a similar reversal of previous withdrawals.

When President Obama decided in 2014 to reduce troop levels in Afghanistan and set a deadline for withdrawal, was among the chorus of voices criticizing that decision. An August, 2014 blog quoted the present Secretary of Defense who spoke presciently:

James N. Mattis, the retired Marine general who oversaw the war in Afghanistan as head of the United States Central Command from 2010 to 2013, said it was particularly unwise to set a public deadline for removing American troops.

When you set a deadline, you give the enemy a reason for optimism, and in foreign policy, we should be reticent at telling our adversaries in advance what we will not do,” General Mattis said in an interview.

Then, as now, there were critics who questioned whether we should maintain any substantial military force in Afghanistan and, from this vantage point, the answers remain much the same. As summarized in the 2014 blog:

If a precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan should allow the Taliban to regain control of the country, the potential consequences are obvious and severe. Foremost, it would again make Afghanistan a safe haven for Islamic jihadists. It would also discard and dishonor the sacrifices of the men and women killed and wounded while fighting what we were told was the “good” war. Further, it would subject the women and children of Afghanistan to the Taliban’s relentless brutality. While we would never have gone to war to improve the lives of Afghan women and children, we will not be able to witness their subjugation and abuse without a good measure of guilt at having betrayed them along with the Afghan men who followed our leadership. (Anyone who has doubts on this score should read the portrait of the Taliban in I Am Malala, written by the courageous young Pakistani woman whom the Taliban attempted to assassinate.) Beyond the borders of Afghanistan, restoration of Taliban control would undermine the stability of neighboring Pakistan where the Pakistani Taliban are a continuing source of unrest. It would also be seen as a powerful example of America’s lack of resolution that would have reverberations around the world.

Critics of Trump do have a point in insisting that he owes the public a statement articulating his own view of our reasons for increasing our force in Afghanistan and describing our overall strategy going forward. Secretary Mattis has promised to provide a strategy by mid-July, but when that strategy emerges, it should be one for which the President assumes explicit responsibility and asks the support of the public.

Nothing, of course is certain, and it must be acknowledged that a reasoned case can be made against any increase in troop levels in Afghanistan. One of the more thoughtful arguments was made in Foreign Affairs by Aaron B. O’Connell, an Associate Professor of History at the Naval Academy in “A Flawed Plan for Afghanistan, The Trouble With Deploying More U.S. Troops.” O’Connell analyzed the complexity of historic conflicts within Afghanistan and Pakistan and concluded that the goal of making Afghanistan a stable and peaceful member of the international community “no longer exists, if it ever did.” In O’Connell’s view, America’s national security interests can be maintained with a minimal U.S. presence:

The question now is not how to defeat the Taliban permanently but how to manage the international terrorist threats emanating from the Pashtun regions. An American de-escalation might accomplish that goal. History suggests that, without the unifying force of a foreign invader, Afghanistan’s various Pashtun factions will fight each other instead of the West. New terrorist bases can be destroyed with cruise missiles, air strikes, and Special Forces raids.

O’Connell’s arguments cannot be dismissed, but they may underestimate the gravity of the situation that would exist if the Taliban were to succeed in becoming once again the governing power in Afghanistan. Setting aside our grander aspirations for Afghanistan, it is far from clear that our most fundamental security needs can be met under such a circumstance. Indeed, O’Connell devotes but a single sentence of a lengthy essay to assert that cruise missiles, air strikes and Special Forces raids can do the trick. But is that so if a Taliban government sits in Kabul? On balance, I find more persuasive the views of General David Petraeus recently expressed on the PBS Newshour. Speaking in support of the proposal to send approximately 4,000 troops to Afghanistan, Petraeus emphasized the need for a long term commitment at a sustainable troop level:

I think what we need to get to in Afghanistan is a sustainable, measuring the expenditure of blood and treasure, a sustainable, sustained commitment. We need to recognize that we went there for a reason and we stayed for a reason, to ensure that Afghanistan is not once again a sanctuary for al-Qaida or other transnational extremists, the way it was when the 9/11 attacks were planned there.

That’s why we need to stay. We also have a very useful platform there for the regional counterterrorist effort. And, of course, we have greatly reduced the capabilities of al-Qaida’s senior leaders in that region, including, of course, taking out Osama bin Laden.

But this is a generational struggle. This is not something that is going to be won in a few years. We’re not going to take a hill, plant a flag, go home to a victory parade. And we need to be there for the long haul, but in a way that is, again, sustainable.

In terms of United States domestic politics, there needs to be informed discussion and debate with a view to reaching, if not unanimity, at least consensus. To that end, readers of this space are invited to weigh in with their own views (as, of course, they always are.)

5 thoughts on “Blog No. 147: Afghanistan: Return of the Forgotten War

  • I hate to admit it, but much as I’d like us to be “out” of Afghanistan, Gen. Petraeus is probably right. We’ll need to stay there with a modest force level indefinitely, with no way to “win” by staying, but many ways to “lose” by leaving. Just dreadful.

  • Doug,
    Thanks for your historical and current perspective, re Afghanistan.
    Our moral high ground should never be forfeited there or in any nation undersieged by terrorism.
    There is, in my mind a moral capitulation, of the United Nations. Founded as a unified and shared body for reasonable solutions through out the world, and as a bastion for humanity, there has been only token participation and not a general condemnation of terrorism and with little financial and military support
    As we are terribly shocked and saddened by daily tragedies amongst are allies and other non violent nations the silence/ response of the UN is deafening.
    Thanks for listening!

  • While it is not surprising that military leaders are recommending more troops for Afghanistan, it is difficult to foresee the US, or any Western power, being able to control the outcome of any of the sectarian or tribal battles that are endemic to the Middle East. History suggests Western attempts to set up friendly governments there are folly, bound to end in failure or continued patronage and conflicted occupation. Regime change and control policies are no longer in vogue with the public, but our leaders, once in power, seem unable to resist the temptation to use our impressive military strength in ways that may infringe on the right of self-determination of local populations to resolve their own conflicts and establish their own governments. Thanks, Doug, for including O’Connell’s argument. Any action are government takes in the Middle East involves risk. His position may involve less risk in the long run.

    • I agree with Bill & Leon. The United States has accomplished nothing after spending trillions of dollars fighting endless wars in the Middle East. At the same time, our own country is falling apart and many Americans are ill-fed, ill-clothed and ill-housed. I say Charity Begins ar Home.

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