US Foreign Policy


Focused engagement: A realistic way forward in Afghanistan

PUBLISHED February 13, 2017
120229-A-8536E-817 U.S. Army soldiers prepare to conduct security checks near the Pakistan border at Combat Outpost Dand Patan in Afghanistan's Paktya province on Feb. 29, 2012. The soldiers are paratroopers assigned to Company A, 3rd Battalion, 509th Infantry Regiment. DoD photo by Staff Sgt. Jason Epperson, U.S. Army. (Released)

The United States can succeed in Afghanistan, but only by letting go of the fantasy that destroying the Taliban is the only way to win.

In his February 9 Congressional testimony, General John Nicholson described the war as a stalemate. He requested additional troops for advising the Afghan army. The Trump administration should meet this request, but only with a serious change in strategy.

The war is stalemated but not at a standstill. Neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government are going to force the other to capitulate, provided external support continues for each.

The Taliban, however, continue making battlefield gains. They use shadow governance, terrorist tactics, military operations, and propaganda to advance their insurgency. The group now controls or contests roughly 40 percent of Afghanistan’s districts – up from less than 10 percent at the end of 2014. They will not negotiate until further gains prove too costly.

Their only chance of winning outright is if the United States withdraws.

Pakistan provides sanctuary to the Taliban, fearing that a hostile Afghanistan will become a client of India. Although they support groups that kill American soldiers and undermine U.S. goals in Afghanistan, the United States considers Pakistan a major non-NATO ally and provides them over $700 million per year.

An insurgency that has internal support and external sanctuary has not lost since WWII.

The Afghan government, on the other hand, developed into a predatory kleptocracy during the Karzai administration. This succeeded in making elites fabulously rich but alienated much of the population. Many disaffected turned to the Taliban.

When well-led, the Afghan security forces fight bravely and hold their ground. I have fought proudly alongside them.

Sadly, too many army and police officials have been co-opted. Positions are sold at exorbitant prices. The going rate for a brigadier general, I am told by Afghan and international officials, exceeds $100,000. For police chiefs, they report the cost can reach $3 million. These are not patriotic donations. For too many officials, winning the war takes a back seat to more prosaic motives.

The Afghan government, thus, has been unable to retake and retain territory that is contested or under Taliban control. No feasible amount of support is likely to reverse this situation.

A host government unable to win the battle of legitimacy in insurgent controlled areas has not won outright since WWII.

The United States has unwittingly fed into these problems. Bureaucratic silos have been a major culprit. No U.S. official in Kabul is responsible and accountable for coordinating and managing the full range of American efforts on the ground. Each agency does its own thing.

These silos have undermined military operations and capacity-building programs, led to civilian casualties, been exploited by local elites, and damaged American credibility.

This is part of the reason so much “progress” has had so little impact.

Micromanagement from Washington, a side effect of these silos, has led to poor decision-making and crisis management.

Nearly 2400 American troops have been killed. At $117 billion and counting, the United States has spent more in real dollars in assistance to Afghanistan than to rebuild Europe after the Second World War.

Continuing to provide nearly $6 billion per year without conditionality throws good money after bad.

America needs a change of strategy and someone in charge of implementing it.

Preventing terrorist groups from using Afghan soil to launch large-scale international attacks remains in America’s interests.

Focused engagement recognizes that the most realistic way to achieve a favorable and durable outcome is through a peace process in which the Afghan government is negotiating from a position of advantage. Here are the key steps to bring this about.

  • Stabilize the battlefield by improving U.S.-Afghan strategic alignment, enforcing conditionality for political and security sector reform, approving Nicholson’s troop request, and removing withdrawal timelines. These will help to make attempts at further gains too costly for the Taliban.
  • Promote Afghan sovereignty and reduce destabilizing regional competition by supporting Afghan regional neutrality and demanding non-interference from regional actors, developing a forum for dispute resolution, and penalizing states that enable the Taliban and other groups.
  • Advance a peace process to bring the war to a successful conclusion that protects U.S. interests and respects the service and sacrifices of the American and Afghan people. A third-party facilitator will need to begin setting the foundations for this process.

To implement this new approach, the Trump Administration needs to break bureaucratic china: put someone in Afghanistan in charge of U.S. civil-military operations and hold that person accountable for results.

After nearly 40 years of conflict, a peace process in Afghanistan may require decades to unfold. A decisive move along these lines by the Trump administration, executed with conviction and strategic patience, offers the best prospects for success.

Christopher D. Kolenda, is a senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy, a Pentagon senior advisor from 2009-2014, and an adjunct senior fellow at CNAS. This article originally appeared in The Hill on February 21.

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