The United States is the latest in a long list of powerful states to invade Afghanistan only to find that victory is, to put it mildly, elusive. As he attempts to navigate the most recent Afghan war, President Donald Trump announced his administration’s strategy, promising, “in the end, we will win.” This promise, however, assumes that the meaning of victory in Afghanistan has been identified for the administration, and that it is indeed achievable. The White House’s definition of an American victory is important and, characteristically for Mr. Trump, hazy. Whether defined as a total defeat of the Taliban, an Afghan government and military capable of caring for its people and providing security, or simply the absence of major terrorist activity in the country, victory will not come easy. Will President Trump’s Afghanistan policy lead the United States closer to a successful outcome? A variety of factors make this prospect anything but certain.
Victory in any situation is dependent upon a clear understanding of the task at hand, and the task here is an inordinately complex and difficult one. The main adversary for the United States is the Taliban, a group of fundamentalist Islamists that took advantage of the chaos left by the Soviet Union in its failed attempt to conquer the country during the 1980s. In that conflict the United States supported an amalgamation of Afghan warlords known as the Mujahideen in their fight to expel the Soviet invaders. They were ultimately successful, but shortly after their victory these warlords resumed their long-fought internal struggle for dominance, rendering any sort of effective power-sharing government impossible. Some elements within the Mujahideen then morphed into the Taliban (admittedly, this is an oversimplification) and managed to take effective control of the vast majority of the country by the mid-1990s. Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization developed, gained strength, and planned attacks on various Western targets as the Taliban’s guest deep in the mountains along the Pakistani border. These developments culminated in the events of September 11th, and shortly thereafter the ongoing American war was initiated.
The Taliban has proven to be an especially resilient foe. As Sameer Lalwani put it, “the Taliban have hemorrhaged troops even faster than the Afghan national security forces, but they have still been able to capture territory at alarming rates” (9). Presently, some 40% of Afghan districts are controlled by, influenced by or facing challenges from the Taliban (3). They carried out multiple significant attacks in what turned out to be an especially bloody week in mid-October, 2017. Taliban fighters broke through a checkpoint in a captured Humvee killing 43 of the 60 or so soldiers stationed at a post in Kandahar, bombed a mosque in Kabul killing 54 and injuring 55 more, and killed roughly 80 in a raid on a police station in Paktia on the Pakistani border. Some analysts believe that these attacks are a response to President Trump’s strategy and accompanying troop surge (14). (It is likely the Trump Administration would object to the use of the word “surge” as it may remind some of a similar troop increase during the Obama years.) In any case, it is safe to say that the Taliban remains a significant threat to security and stability in the country, and this seems unlikely to change in the near term.
Being an enemy of the United States, it is not surprising that the Taliban has enjoyed a certain amount of international support. Russia and Iran, always looking for ways to gain a competitive advantage at the expense of the US, have given ongoing support to the Taliban, with the Russians beginning weapons shipments toward the end of 2016, and the Iranians supporting the group along the Afghan-Iranian border since 2014 (19). Though it seems that halting the spread of the so-called Islamic State was a major impetus behind the actions of both countries, it will be interesting to see what comes of these alliances once ISIS is no longer considered a threat. Setting aside the irony of the situation — Russia is supporting Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan less than 30 years after Islamic fundamentalists in Afghanistan directly contributed to the fall of the Soviet Union, and Iranian Shiites are funding and harboring Sunni fundamentalists — this support is something that will continue to complicate the American mission in the country. Once the Islamic State has been dealt with to Russian and Iranian satisfaction, will they continue their support of the Taliban knowing that it will make life more difficult for the US? This prospect does not seem wholly outside the realm of possibility, and it will undoubtedly make the Taliban a more potent fighting force.
The Afghan Government and Pakistan
Perhaps the biggest complicating factor in this conflict is the Afghan Government itself. Afghanistan is an intensely tribal country. Its citizenry has always been marked by a considerable amount of division, socially and politically. Historically, this has made strong, effective governance difficult to come by and the current government is no exception as it is marked by weakness and corruption at every turn. To illustrate, Afghanistan is ranked 169 out of 176 in Transparency International’s list of most corrupt countries. Only Libya, Sudan, Yemen, Syria, North Korea, South Sudan, and Somalia rank worse (17). In the words of Daniel Byman and Steven Simon, “its inability to rein in corruption, establish the rule of law, provide security, or otherwise perform basic governance functions leads Afghans to turn to local rulers, militias, and the Taliban, further undermining the government’s influence” (2). Decades of weak central government and a history of powerful tribal warlords holding sway over their respective localities has made this set of circumstances rather inevitable. Unfortunately, for the United States to make any gains, much less be able to divest itself without condemning the country to chaos, the Afghan Government must prove capable of bucking these historical trends.
Making things more difficult is the involvement of Pakistan, whose support, and thus influence, in Afghanistan is far greater than that of any other country outside of the US. Much of this support takes the form of funding, advising and protection in Pakistan for Taliban fighters by elements of the Pakistani intelligence service, the ISI, and began with the aforementioned Soviet invasion during which the support for the Mujahideen flowed though Pakistan. The ISI has operated outside the confines of the Pakistani Government to one degree or another for much of the service’s life, at times acting as an entirely independent entity. It continues to shelter Taliban leaders planning for the day that US will leave altogether (7). Even as the country has been nominally allied with the United States and providing logistical assistance in the current war, elements within Pakistan have not stopped their support for the Taliban since the organization’s inception. This is an issue that President Trump has said will be addressed by applying pressure on Islamabad to encourage a change in strategy. However, experienced US diplomats have not been able to persuade the Pakistanis to change their ways in Afghanistan since the beginning of the US war, and the White House today is rather short on diplomatic experience. The prospect of diplomatic progress, therefore, looks bleak.
The Trump Strategy
As we can see, the Trump Administration has inherited a difficult situation, to say the least. Though President Trump played no role in the initiation of this conflict, it is nonetheless his to deal with now. In August 2017, the President gave a speech outlining, albeit in very broad strokes, his administration’s policy in Afghanistan. For many who have been on board with his “America First” rhetoric, it came as a disappointment, if not on some level a betrayal, but regardless of the politics involved, the troop levels in Afghanistan are on the way up, and the end to the surge, let alone to the conflict itself, looks to be a long way off.
The Trump strategy has a few key aspects. First, as mentioned above it is an increase in troop strength and autonomy in the country. President Trump, in his August speech gave little detail as to just how many additional troops would be sent, but it seems to be around 3,000, bringing the total to roughly 14,000 as of September 2017 (18). These additional troops are obviously meant to add more manpower to the fight against terrorist organizations, though it is questionable whether this number will be a game changer in a country with such difficult terrain. Be that as it may, they will most certainly enjoy greater freedom to operate than the military had under the Obama Administration. While Obama generally restricted US soldiers to their bases and to the training of Afghan soldiers, they are likely to be much closer to the action under Trump. This is in keeping with a general relaxation of civilian control of day to day military operations since President Trump took office. Whether that is a good thing or not depends upon whether one values greater freedom for battlefield commanders over maintaining strong civilian control of the military. Military leaders are not elected by the people, but military decisions can have an enormous impact upon both foreign and domestic policy in a country. In a perfect world, Mr. Trump would work to gain expertise in the military field, specifically in the parts of the world in which the US in actively engaged, so that he can perform this function. Alas, the President has shown little interest in such endeavors. In any case, there will be more US troops in Afghanistan with more autonomy, for better or worse.
Second, the goal of the conflict for the Trump Administration seems to have strayed from fostering democratic institutions in Afghanistan to a more narrow aim of combatting terrorism in the country. Judging by some actions of past administrations it is not clear that nation-building was always the aim, but supporting democracy seemed at least to be part of the strategy. During his speech, Trump said, “we are not nation-building again; we are killing terrorists.” This was a welcome statement to many, and for good reason. Any nation-building that has been attempted in Afghanistan recently seems to have had limited success. Perhaps eschewing this political goal and focusing on more achievable military aims having to do with counterterrorism will streamline the American effort and lead to more positive results. Conversely, focusing on counterterrorism instead of supporting Afghan institutions may amount to neglect of security concerns in the country making counterterrorism problems more complicated, thus requiring a longer — perhaps much, much longer — commitment.
Third, there will be no date set for an American withdrawal. This is a complicated issue. President Obama, while imposing his troop surge in 2009 set a date at which American troops would withdraw from the country. He likely did this partially for domestic political reasons, as the war had become a lengthy engagement and the American people had grown tired of US involvement in seemingly endless wars, both there and in Iraq. Along with that, he set the deadline hoping that the Afghan Government would not grow complacent and dependent upon an endless American presence, but instead take more ownership of their situation and work harder to improve Afghan security and institutions. It does not seem that either of these objectives were met to any significant degree. The war has obviously not ended and it continues to be a source of frustration for many Americans. Also, as discussed above, the Afghan Government is not marked by strong, effective institutions, nor has it shown the ability to provide consistent security in the country. In this respect, the Trump Administration’s plan seems to be a welcome change from the Obama years. It bears repeating, however, that it does present the very real prospect of a long commitment to come in what is already the longest war in American history.
The question asked at the outset of this post was whether or not this strategy will lead to victory. According to Byman and Simon, “Victory is simply not in the cards. The reality is that the United States is best off keeping a residual force in Afghanistan—but not escalating, as Trump plans to do” (2). Victory for the United States in Afghanistan has been an elusive goal, as it has been for many unfortunate invasion forces dating back to Alexander the Great. Afghanistan is a socially and politically complicated place. Three American Presidents have now presided over its war in the country, and all three have escalated the American engagement at some point in their terms in office. The definition of victory in Afghanistan has been problematic from the beginning. For George W. Bush it seemed to be about defeating the Taliban and al Qaeda militarily, and he famously proclaimed that he had done that on a battle carrier in 2003. It was premature. President Obama was focused on keeping terrorist groups from operating in the country, and President Trump has said his goals are essentially the same. None have expressed much interest in nation building, but their strategies have necessarily featured support for the Afghan Government, military and institutions. Without this type of development, terrorist groups would quickly reconstitute themselves in the country soon after the American mission ends.
Herein lies the problem. President Trump doesn’t want to nation build, he wants to kill terrorists. However, if the nation doesn’t get built, the President will be playing terrorist whack-a-mole in Afghanistan for the entirety of his term in office. And thus a definition of achievable victory, to say nothing of victory itself, continues to prove elusive.
1 Abrams, Elliott. “Trump the Traditionalist: A Surprisingly Standard Foreign Policy.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 96, no. 4, July/August 2017.
2 Byman, Daniel, and Steven Simon. "Trump's Surge in Afghanistan." Foreign Affairs. 18 Sept. 2017. Web. 2 Oct. 2017.
3 Eggers, Ashley J. Tellis Jeff. “U.S. Policy in Afghanistan: Changing Strategies, Preserving Gains.” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 22 May 2017.
4 Feaver, Peter D, and Hal Brands. “Trump and Terrorism: US Strategy After ISIS.” Foreign Affairs, vol. 96, no. 2, March/April 2017.
5 Hirschfeld Davis, Julie and Mark Landler. “Trump Outlines New Afghanistan War Strategy With Few Details.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 Aug. 2017.
6 “In Afghanistan, Donald Trump Has Bowed to the Advice of His Generals.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 24 Aug. 2017.
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16 Rubin, Barnett. “It's Much Bigger Than Afghanistan: U.S. Strategy for a Transformed Region.”War on the Rocks, 24 Apr. 2017.
17 Transparency International. “Corruption Perceptions Index 2016.”Www.transparency.org, Transparency International, 25 Jan. 2017.
18 Ward, Alex. “Trump Is Sending More than 3,000 Troops to Afghanistan.” Vox, Vox, 19 Sept. 2017
19 Worden, Scott. "How to Stabilize Afghanistan." Foreign Affairs. 26 April 2017. Web. 4 Oct. 2017.