U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with military officers as he departs after announcing his strategy for the war in Afghanistan during an address to the nation from Fort Myer, Virginia, U.S., August 21, 2017. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

August 22, 2017

Trump outlines the foundation of a changed approach in Afghanistan

Originally published in AEIdeas

President Trump’s decision to recommit to Afghanistan was right and important. He explained the stakes of the fight accurately: to prevent al Qaeda and ISIS from regaining the base from which al Qaeda launched the 9/11 attacks and from which both would plan and conduct major attacks against the US and its allies in the future. He also described the minimum required outcome: an Afghan state able to secure its own territory with very limited support from the US and other partners. This outcome is essential to American security and it is achievable.

Recent commentary has cast doubt on the feasibility of any kind of success in Afghanistan.  The doubts are understandable, but their framing is incorrect. Yes, America has had troops in Afghanistan for 16 years. But it is wrong to suggest the US has been pursuing a single policy or strategy in that time, and equally wrong to suggest that no progress has been made.

American forces and Afghan partners toppled the Taliban quickly in 2001 and chased the remnants of al Qaeda from the country the next year. Continued American involvement prevented al Qaeda from ever re-establishing bases in Afghanistan on a scale remotely like those they had before 9/11 — that is an important accomplishment that is very much at risk now.

The US and the international community focused on helping the Afghans set up a new government and on economic reconstruction between 2002 and 2005 — a small number of American forces continued to operate against al Qaeda attempts to re-enter the country, but not against the Taliban, which was reconstituting in Pakistan. That policy has also had important effects measured in the rapidly-lengthening average lifespans of Afghans, boys and girls going to school, the proliferation of modern communications, access to healthcare, and so on — all at risk, again, if Afghanistan collapses.

The Taliban launched its large-scale insurgency in 2005, steadily expanding its capabilities within Afghanistan over the following few years. But the US and NATO refused to recognize that it now faced an insurgency and instead remained focused on development, counter-terrorism operations, and efforts to build a very small Afghan military and police force on a NATO model.

America’s view of the fight changed dramatically only in 2009 as the result of the McChrystal review, which compelled both the Obama Administration and, more reluctantly, NATO, to accept that a full-blown insurgency was underway, that a counter-insurgency strategy resourced with significant numbers of American and NATO troops was needed, and that the plans for building the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) had to be dramatically expanded and changed.

The ensuing few years saw several hundred thousand Afghans brought into the new security forces and sent to fight the Taliban while American troops and their allies helped clear Taliban strongholds and provided critical enablers (air support, artillery, intelligence collection and analysis, communications, medical services, and so on) to the ANSF.

The new plan for building the ANSF recognized the inevitable trade-off between trying to construct a small, professional force with everything it might need to fight and building a large infantry force that could put a lot of soldiers in the field quickly but relied on American and NATO help for more advanced capabilities. It rightly chose the latter approach, and Afghan troops began to bear the brunt of the actual fighting as American troops drew down starting in 2011.

The decision to focus on getting Afghans into the fight assumed that the US would continue to provide those key enablers for a long time — but President Obama chose not to do so.  He largely stripped the ANSF of American enablers when he reduced the American footprint to its current level, forcing the Afghans to fight the Taliban on even terms, which neither they nor the US had expected they would have to do.

The deterioration in the military situation that ensued should have surprised no one — the Taliban had prepared to take advantage of the reduction in the US presence that President Obama had said when announcing the surge in 2009 would occur in starting in 2011, and the ANSF struggled without the high-end support it could not possibly replace.

Afghans continued to fight hard against the Taliban, and have held on to key gains made during the surge period. Central Kandahar and the central Helmand River Valley have not yet fallen to the Taliban despite massive Taliban campaigns to take them. Kabul is under threat, but the Taliban has not yet recreated the near strangle-hold it had on the capital in 2009. Taliban and ISIS attempts to gain control of the critical province of Nangarhar have made more progress than is acceptable, but have been repulsed before seizing really vital areas.

The security situation is nevertheless very fragile and deteriorating. The ANSF has been reactive, unable to formulate and conduct offensives of its own. Stripped of American enablers, it has been unable to respond adequately when the Taliban has launched multiple operations at the same time. It faces growing threats from new international terrorist organizations, moreover, including ISIS, pushing into areas that the ANSF is unable to protect and taking advantage of local and national schisms. It will not be able to continue to hold onto gains, or even hold the Afghan state together, without urgent additional help.

Afghanistan suffers from multiple challenges beyond ANSF capability as well, including a dysfunctional government  (partially imposed upon it by the US after the contested elections of 2014); the fragmentation following the death of key leaders of the Northern Alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras that has been a key partner for the US since the 1980s; and the deterioration of security in the previously relatively peaceful north. There is still no agreed-upon political accommodation among the vast majority of Afghans who reject the Taliban, moreover — the people whom we most need to support. But there is no reason to despair of meeting these challenges. As General Petraeus said of Iraq, “hard is not hopeless.”

The policy President Trump just announced is yet another change in the kaleidoscopic strategy the US has pursued in Afghanistan since 9/11, but it is largely a positive one. It seeks to reverse the focus on withdrawal that characterized Obama’s approach after 2011, recognizes the importance of trying to win in Afghanistan, attempts to establish a reasonable definition of success, and begins to make available the resources necessary to achieve such a success.

President Trump’s announcement and strategy are not without flaws. The new approach remains, at least publicly, vague and lacking details. The president offered no political strategy for Afghanistan and did not adequately describe the process by which a political strategy would be developed. The number of US forces being discussed as reinforcements this year (around 4,000) seems too low to be decisive. Everyone is right to be dubious about what pressure on Pakistan can actually achieve.

Yet, for all that, it offers a foundation on which a successful strategy can be built. It gets important things right — the importance of the theater to American vital national security interests, the re-commitment of the US to this fight, the willingness to adjust strategy and resources to changing conditions on the ground, and the belief that success remains both necessary and possible. We should support fulfilling these real national security requirements while making every effort to improve the new strategy so that it can succeed.