On Wednesday, Sep. 13, co-author Raymond Tanter attended a panel discussion of President Trump’s new policy toward Afghanistan. The meeting took place at the Center for the National Interest, which publishes The National Interest, an online and print journal. Attendees included Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, Iraq, and the United Nations, as moderator.
Invited Speakers: General John Allen (Ret.), Chair, Security and Strategy, and Distinguished Fellow in Residence, the Brookings Institution, and a former Commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force as well as U.S. Forces in Afghanistan, among other senior military posts; Ambassador James Dobbins, Senior Fellow and Distinguished Chair in Diplomacy and Security, RAND Corporation, a career diplomat and former special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan in the George W. Bush and Obama administrations; and Thomas Graham, Managing Director, Kissinger Associates, and a former Special Assistant to the President and National Security Council Senior Director for Russia during the George W. Bush administration.
Some issues discussed: After 16 years of war in Afghanistan, has President Donald Trump defined his objectives clearly? Are those objectives achievable? And how might other governments in the region, such as Iran and Russia, contribute to or hinder U.S. policy?
Coauthor Tanter's take on the presentations and discussion is the way that President Trump defined his objectives they are hardly achievable, in view of lack of a sufficient number of NATO ISF forces committed to Afghanistan. There was less consensus whether Russia and Iran might contribute to achievement of U.S. goals.
On one hand, some thought Moscow and Tehran would make a positive contribution; on the other hand, others considered Russia and Iran as hindrances to a successful pursuit of the Trump strategy. My take is Iran is tacitly training and recruiting insurgents in Afghanistan, and Russia still has ties to the Taliban. Both contribute to instability not only in Afghanistan but in the region as a whole.
Here is where President Trump could reach out to the pro-democracy National Council of Resistance of Iran to put pressure on the Iranian regime. Expecting Tehran to help bring peace to Afghanistan without pressure from its dissidents would be like asking two arsonists locate and put out a fire they set, on the basis of their own interests or distorted ideals!
The Story Behind the Story
The backstory is the contradiction between President Trump’s goal of winning wars and his understandable desire to avoid the trap of sending more U.S. troops to places like Afghanistan to achieve this purpose; this predisposition may have inhibited his staff from placing on the table sufficient numbers to achieve victory.
The generals presented four options to the president for decision: Total withdrawal; use of private contractors; surge of troops between 4,000-5,000; and continued presence of U.S. troops in Afghanistan in a training-and-advising capacity, while working with Pakistan and India to bring about a longer-lasting political-military solution. The surge was the only serious one for presidential consideration.
On Aug. 21, President Trump laid out his Afghanistan policy: “My original instinct was to pull out — and, historically, I like following my instincts.” Trump went on to describe how he would increase the number of U.S. troops in that country and threatened Pakistan with possible sanctions, unless they take a stronger role challenging the Islamic State, a.k.a., ISIS. But, “By inviting India to be more active in Afghanistan,” writes Mosharraf Zaidi, a foreign policy analyst in Islamabad, “Trump has confirmed the worst fears of Pakistan’s generals: that America is in cahoots with India against Pakistan.”
In 2013, private citizen Trump tweeted: “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!”
President Trump frequently referred to White House Chief of Staff Gen. (ret.) John F. Kelly as one of “my generals.” He recruited three senior military leaders for his team: Kelly; Jim Mattis at Defense; H.R. McMaster at the National Security Council. And there is chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Joseph F. Dunford Jr.
Fortunately, there was pushback from the generals against the president, but especially by Gen (ret.) H.R. McMaster, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs. He is one of the intellectual architects of the counterinsurgency strategy employed in Afghanistan and Iraq. It is a troop-heavy approach that focuses as much on providing security for the population as on killing the enemy.
“The upshot of President Trump’s decision to surge U.S. forces is that he now owns the war in Afghanistan; it’s neither President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 war, nor President Barack Obama’s post-surge of American troops to fight in Afghanistan,” per coauthor Tanter, on Sep. 12.
Recall the conflict between the president’s preference to win wars but his unwillingness to authorize sufficient forces to achieve that objective. Even with a larger American footprint in Afghanistan, however, it might not be adequate to stabilize the situation. To his credit, Trump selected a strategy that had flexibility to permit him to calibrate components according to the situation on the ground. Trump’s approach is situation- and results-based rather than time-based.
Also consider the pipedream of Moscow making a positive contribution to peace in Afghanistan. Putin would like to keep Trump and NATO bogged down there, so ISF deployed troops would be unavailable in the European theater in support of countries like Poland and the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. Riga expressed its interest in having a strong NATO presence to fend off Russian aggression, not a NATO army.
Moreover, Iran recruits Afghans to fight on behalf of the Assad regime in Syria, contrary to U.S. interests in supporting moderates at war with Assad. So, there is a definite but little-known link between Tehran and Damascus relevant to Afghanistan, the main focus of this post.
Trump’s decision to continue military operations in Afghanistan, with a modest increase in U.S. troops pursuing a counterterrorism mission, is an incremental shift in strategy from the Obama era. Incrementalism may assist holding the line against a resurgent Taliban, but isn’t likely to change the course of the longest war in U.S. history and may be a recipe for endless war without immediate victory.
Although the president’s Afghanistan strategy has downsides, on balance it is a good first step. But unless there is a revision of the strategy with a larger deployment of U.S. forces, “A war that started sixteen years ago will continue indefinitely with no victory in sight, because from Washington’s perspective there is simply no viable alternative,” per Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations on Aug. 22.
The Way Forward
First, just as President Trump tasked his National Security Council conduct a review of Iran policy, it should also have an Afghanistan policy review.
Second, as Ahmad Shah Katawazai, defense liaison for the Embassy of Afghanistan in Washington states, “America shouldn’t allow its partnership with Afghanistan to fray.” To avoid this unravelling, allow military considerations to set the table for diplomacy to be effective. But the president’s approach in his Afghanistan address of Aug. 21 is too heavily weighted in favor of military factors, instead of diplomatic tools as ballast.
Third, President Trump has to reconcile the conflict between his preference to win wars but unwillingness to authorize sufficient forces to achieve that objective. Although this still may not be adequate, there has to reconciliation of competing objectives. One of these goals has to go; President Trump cannot have both.
Prof. Raymond Tanter (@AmericanCHR) served as a senior member on the Middle East Desk of the National Security Council staff in the Reagan-Bush administration, Personal Representative of the Secretary of Defense to international security and arms control talks in Europe, and is now Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan. Tanter is on the comprehensive list of conservative writers and columnists who appear in The Wall Street Journal, Townhall.com, National Review, The Weekly Standard, Human Events, The American Spectator, and now in Newsmax. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
Edward Stafford is a retired foreign-service officer; he served in Political-Military Affairs at the State Department, as a diplomat with the U.S. Embassy in Turkey and taught at the Inter-American Defense College. You can follow him @egstafford.
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