America has been spared the gut-wrenching losses experienced by others in Afghanistan, most notably the Soviet Union, but neither have we much to show for 2,400 casualties and billions of dollars spent. President Trump’s impending decision to strike a harder line and recommit the U.S. to America’s longest war will likely keep the country out of enemy hands for the present, but will do nothing to achieve a long term peace.
In order to achieve victory, either the Taliban must be neutralized, or the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) must be made strong. In destroying the enemy, the U.S. still faces the same insurmountable challenge of Taliban sanctuary and support in Pakistan. With regards to the ANSF, if U.S. national building efforts over the last sixteen years have failed to produce an effective fighting force, perhaps it’s time to admit that you can’t polish a turd.
The failure of American strategy in Afghanistan is a repeat, albeit on a far smaller and less tragic scale, of America’s failure in Vietnam. In both instances, we supported an incompetent and corrupt government against a determined and committed enemy operating from a safe haven. Poor terrain minimized technological advantages and denied open field maneuver. Unsecured local populations collaborated with the side threatening them with the greatest violence, allowing human cover to an insurgency. Lastly, each conflict played out against the wide expanses of mainland Asia, a continent that our limited land forces simply have no business being in.
The United States is, first and foremost, a maritime power. Control of the oceans is the basis of American military dominance of the world today. Our land power projection depends upon anchoring our rear upon the water, bringing massive material advantages to bear via high-capacity shipping, fighting and destroying identifiable enemy assets — and leaving.
A maritime strategy only works if the target country has a leadership vulnerable to threats — either by American forces or their own enraged populace — or who actually cares if their country’s assets get blown to bits. The Taliban have no country, hold no assets, couldn’t care less if they die, and can’t be separated from a large and opaque non-combatant population. That is not, however, the case with Pakistan.
Classifying Pakistan as major non-NATO U.S. ally might have made sense as an incentive in 2004, but must seem in retrospect as a sick joke. Pakistan provided sanctuary, arms, intelligence and local manpower to create the Taliban some twenty-five years ago, and have been supporting them ever since. Asking Pakistan to get tough on the Taliban is like asking the North Vietnamese to crackdown on the Viet Cong.
Any sane strategy in Afghanistan has to recognize that the ally of our enemy is also our enemy. Does anyone really believe that the Pakistani government was unaware that Osama bin Laden was living in Abbottabad, the Pakistan military equivalent of West Point?
As long as U.S. forces remain in Afghanistan, our influence with Pakistan will be limited by what they could do to make things worse. Pakistan’s central foreign policy objective is to prevent their archenemy, India, from gaining control of Afghanistan and threatening them on two fronts.
Given the power disparity between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the former’s determination to dominate the latter, there simply isn’t much that can be done to prevent the Taliban from re-establishing their rule, unless the U.S. stays forever. Keeping Afghanistan on low boil to provide combat experience for our forces is about the only scenario in which the current strategy makes sense.
Caring about Afghanistan ought to rank south of whale excrement on America’s order of priorities. Our vital interest is in preventing a safe haven for terrorists, but that’s where Pakistan could actually be useful. By assigning ownership of Afghanistan to Pakistan via the Taliban, the U.S. can also assign responsibility.
If Pakistan fails to police terrorist activity targeting the West, then they should be made to own the consequences in the form of a maritime blockade. Rather than fight Pakistan on land in their backyard over their vital long term interests, the U.S. should threaten them from the sea to fulfill what ought to be a reasonable request.
In order to credibly threaten Pakistan, they will have to be parted from their nuclear weapons. The U.S. will probably have to convince the Indians to give up theirs, which means placing them under our nuclear umbrella vis-à-vis China, a small price to pay for a de-nuclearized subcontinent. India would likely go along with mutual nuclear disarmament since they hold the edge in conventional forces, and would like to use them when Pakistani terrorists launch attacks, as they did against Mumbai in 2008.
If Pakistan doesn’t surrender their nukes and submit to snap inspections, they get the blockade. If it doesn’t keep terrorists from operating in the AfPak theater, they get the blockade. If it doesn’t . . . well, you get the idea, and so will they.
Pakistan could — in a fit of sheer insanity — use their nuclear weapons, but they currently lack the means to hit the U.S., and employing them against our surface ships wouldn’t do much beyond invite massive retaliation.
After sixteen years, America needs to recognize that its strategy in Afghanistan has failed; failed because the human capital needed to construct a nation state is non-existent; and failed because we refused to recognize Pakistan as our primary enemy in the region, despite a mountain of evidence taller than the Hindu Kush.
Pakistan, and their cat’s paw, the Taliban, understand that America will eventually tire of this war and leave; they have only to wait us out. An addition of 5,000 troops to the 8,000 currently in place changes nothing. If this is the best the Pentagon can come up with, perhaps it's better if we simply left now rather than later.
P. H. Guthrie is a former Republican campaign operative. His work has appeared in USA Today, Real Clear Politics, The Federalist, and The Daily Caller. He has also appeared on "The Dan Caplis Show" on KNUS 710. He currently resides in the Washington, D.C. area. Follow him on Twitter @PHGuthrie. To read more of his reports, Go Here Now.
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