The good news: First, President Trump 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 the Afghanistan war.
The Afghanistan war belongs to President Trump, and the American people can hold him accountable for its failure or praise him for its success. He cannot hide behind his generals, although he delegates to them responsibility for implementing the overall strategy. Rather than focusing only on Afghanistan, President Trump adopted a strategy for the region as a whole in his speech on Aug. 21, 2017, at Fort Myer, Arlington, Virginia. At issue is which countries should be included in the region.
Second, he chose an approach that included military, diplomatic, and economic dimensions, instead of only troop levels. Trump pursued a “Whole of Government” approach. Unless he chose to involve the full panoply of hard and soft power, Trump would be unable to have any chance of success in Afghanistan.
Third, President Trump selected a strategy that had flexibility to allow him to calibrate the components according to the situation on the ground. Trump’s approach is situation- and results-based rather than time-based, in contrast to President Obama’s time-based strategy.
The positive aspect about this strategy is that it's measurable and allows him to decide whether to increase or decrease American troop levels, adopt a new strategy, or even withdraw, as he was inclined to do. Trump’s generals convinced him a pullout of U.S. forces would create a humongous vacuum that would allow the Taliban to grant sanctuary to Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, and permit Iran to recruit Afghans for fighting in Syria. There is considerable evidence that gives credence to his view. See "How Iran Fuels Syria War — Details of the IRGC Command Headquarters and Key Officers in Syria."
The bad news: First, the region emphasizes Afghanistan and Pakistan at the expense of other stakeholders, such as Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the Arab Gulf States; so, the region has to be defined in a wider manner. Eventual peace will not be an outcome of Trump’s Afghanistan (only) war. Why? Trump’s war is really one in Afghanistan against Pakistan and Iran.
Successive American presidents have conducted counterterrorist strikes against the Haqqani network, a Pakistan-based terrorist group that Washington correctly blames for most of the deadly attacks inside Afghanistan and have incurred the wrath of Islamabad in doing so.
“By inviting India to be more active in Afghanistan, Trump has confirmed the worst fears of Pakistan’s generals: that America is in cahoots with India against Pakistan,” said Mosharraf Zaidi, a foreign policy analyst in Islamabad.
Trump hopes America’s allies will pony-up with the approximately 4,000 troops equal to that which Washington plans to deploy in Afghanistan, per The Washington Examiner of Aug. 21. The allies came through big-time after the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, the only time Article 5 of the NATO charter has been invoked was in the post-9/11 period. It is a collective defense article that pledges the North Atlantic allies to come to the aid of each other, if one is attacked.
Hard to imagine how to get the allies to increase their troop levels in Afghanistan with cuts in the U.S. diplomatic positions where American diplomats would be seeking to negotiate with the allies. Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, on December 20, 2001, the UN adopted a resolution to establish the International Security Force for Afghanistan (ISAF).
The “Whole of Government” approach for Afghanistan is difficult to implement; again, the State Department is understaffed, and the post to coordinate American policy toward Afghanistan and Pakistan is vacant.
Second, the president’s tendency to delegate responsibility and authority to the generals may result in degradation of diplomatic and economic dimensions. Media accounts invariably focus on troop levels, fighting, and casualties, which are measurable and easy to understand, rather than on how non-military factors might achieve the overall objectives of the strategy; hence, the president has to delegate less to the Pentagon and empower Secretary Tillerson’s diplomats more. But President Trump has to avoid micromanaging either Secretary Tillerson or Secretary of Defense Mattis from the White House, ala President Obama.
Third, the strategy fails to take into account multicrises taking place in the wider region and those on the horizon; here is where the National Security Council should conduct 90-day reviews of overall success of the strategy, not just on the ground. Just as the Iran policy review is broader than the nuclear deal with Iran, so too should Afghanistan policy reviews be more encompassing than whether we are winning or losing territory in Afghanistan or influence in Pakistan via India.
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.
The Way Forward
First, as stated above, President Trump should task the National Security Council to conduct 90-day reviews of progress in achieving the objectives for Afghanistan and the region he set out in his results-based rather than time-based strategy.
Second, Trump should set up a contact group for Afghanistan like the one used to coordinate the parties in the Six-Party negotiations about North Korea. In his speech at Fort Myer, Trump did not mention stakeholders, including Iran, Russia, Turkey, or a representative of the Gulf Cooperation Council like Saudi Arabia. Because Tehran plays a negative role in Syria, Iran needs to be coerced rather than coddled. American coercive diplomacy is in order for the Ayatollahs of the Islamic Republic of Iran and even more so for its Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which needs to be sanctioned as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.
Third, as Secretary Tillerson stated, “we are making clear to the Taliban that they will not win on the battlefield. The Taliban has a path to peace and political legitimacy through a negotiated political settlement to end the war. We stand ready to support peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban without preconditions. We look to the international community, particularly Afghanistan’s neighbors, to join us in supporting an Afghan peace process.”
In this respect, Trump should use coercive diplomacy to induce the Taliban back to the negotiating table, where this group was via the good offices in Doha, Qatar, during the Obama administration. Because President Obama had a time-based strategy, the Taliban broke off the talks and simply waited until there was a drawdown of U.S. troops from surge troop levels.
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.
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