The Trump administration seems set to roll-out a mini-surge of up to 5,000 additional troops in Afghanistan, likely increasing U.S. taxpayer costs to $30 billion per year. Before committing more money and troops to the intractable conflict, Congress should be sure that the United States is not throwing good money after bad. Here are seven questions to ask.
1. Are the Taliban an international terrorist group or an Afghan insurgent group? Many Afghan elites insist the Taliban are terrorists. A negotiated outcome to the war in Afghanistan is possible if the Taliban are insurgents. With the Taliban reportedly in control of 11 percent of the country and contesting roughly 29 percent, hundreds of thousands of Afghans seem to have answered that question for themselves. 40 years of conflict, to include over 30 years of fighting between those supporting the Taliban and those supporting the government produces deep-seated animosities. The United States needs to understand these animosities, but not be held hostage to them.
2. How does the U.S. intervention end? There are four ways interventions end: a decisive victory, a negotiated settlement, a transition to the host government, or a decisive loss. A sound strategy is based on a determination about which outcome is most realistic and able to achieve a favorable and durable result at acceptable cost, not the outcome that is most desirable.
3. What is the strategy to achieve this outcome? The United States and Afghan government have never developed a common strategy for how to bring the war to a successful conclusion. It is time to start. Such a strategy must be based on common aims and a realistic outcome, a clear diagnosis of the challenges, an understanding of the adversaries and partners, a coherent theory of success, and a concept for how the elements of national power (political, diplomatic, military, economic, intelligence) will be integrated to achieve a successful outcome. Should American send its sons and daughters and resources to fight a war for which there is no common strategy?
4. Who is in charge? Who, in Kabul, manages the full range of U.S. efforts on the ground in Afghanistan? To this point, nobody has been managing the war 24/7. Instead, the United States operates in bureaucratic silos, each of which report to respective departments and agencies in Washington, D.C. That means the only person able to prioritize, direct and manage the full range of American efforts on the ground is the President of the United States. The same goes for every other conflict zone — Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, etc. An analog to this absurd situation is if Ford manufacturing plants across the world had no plant manager, and every senior vice president reported to a different official in Detroit. This is a silly way to run a business, and a dangerous way to run a war.
5. What to do about Pakistan? The Pakistan national security establishment believes that India and Afghanistan will team up to dismantle Pakistan. To prevent this, Pakistan permits the Afghan Taliban senior leadership to use its soil for sanctuary. No amount of persuasion, lecturing, or feasible carrots and sticks will change this calculus. It is frustrating, and our current policy of regarding Pakistan as a major non-NATO ally and providing over $700m in aid and security assistance is absurd. The tendency of American officials to provide hope to Afghan elites that the United States will go to war with Pakistan is also problematic.
6. How to improve conditionality? Simply sending more money and troops to Afghanistan without accountability for good stewardship of our aid and assistance is wasteful. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and key members of his administration are serious about reform, but the government continues to operate as a predatory kleptocracy due to the overweening influence of warlords. Such practices damage government legitimacy and give disaffected Afghans reason to support the Taliban. When U.S. officials in Kabul press for reform, warlord acolytes go running to American officials in Washington D.C., to relieve the pressure. Conditionality on aid can be self-defeating; actions against spoilers and blockers have far better chances of success.
7. What will the additional troops accomplish? If 140,000 international and 350,000 Afghan forces could not force the Taliban to sue for peace in 2011, certainly a more modest 15,000 international forces will not do so in 2017. The first six questions should sober expectations about what the mini-surge can and cannot achieve.
The United States can win in Afghanistan. Winning, in this case, means that international terrorist groups are unable to use Afghan soil to plan and conduct large-scale terrorist attacks against the United States. That outcome is in reach, if the United States has the will and wisdom to pursue it.
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