TSC IntelBrief: Afghanistan 16.0
Bottom Line Up Front:
• On August 21, President Trump outlined what was billed as a new strategy for the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
• Even the most optimistic recent military assessments—from the general in charge of the effort in the country, to the Secretary of Defense—is that the Afghan and U.S. effort to defeat the Taliban is a losing stalemate.
• Corruption and a lack of good governance in Afghanistan continue to erode civilian and military efforts to rebuild the country’s social and physical infrastructure.
• The endless repetition of trying to build peace through security has not worked in any sustainable and replicable fashion in Afghanistan because the root causes make sustained security militarily impossible.
Among the many shifts in U.S. foreign and domestic polices since the start of the Trump administration stands the unchanging reality of the U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Even the most optimistic recent military assessments—from the general in charge of the effort in the country, to the Secretary of Defense—is that the Afghan and U.S. effort to defeat the Taliban is a losing stalemate. The situation in Afghanistan has been deteriorating since 2005, when the first suicide bombings in Kandahar signaled the Taliban’s resurgence from their initial losses and ushered in a new bloody phase in the war. Security across much of the country has deteriorated through U.S. troop surges and drawdowns, at the cost of over 2,400 U.S. troops killed and more than 20,000 wounded, with far greater losses suffered by the Afghan security forces and the civilian population.
The rationale for continued sizable U.S. military operations is to prevent the country from ever again becoming a sanctuary from which terrorist groups like al-Qaeda (which never left Afghanistan), and now the so-called Islamic State, could attack the U.S. and its allies. The presence of U.S. troops conducting combat training missions in large numbers willl likely do little to help disrupt clandestine terrorist plots, as such troops were, and will continue to be, focused mainly on the Taliban, by far the largest threat to the Afghan government. Special Operations Forces (SOF) and U.S. intelligence agencies partnered with Afghan special forces and counterterrorism units remain the most effective way to deal with groups like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda but are not suited or intended for counterinsurgency.
The problems facing the U.S., along with NATO and the Afghan people, in 2017 are the same ones they faced in 2001 and every year since. Corruption continues to eat at the foundation of every endeavor—civilian or military—to build up the country’s infrastructure, education systems, military, and government services at every level. It is difficult to overstate the damage that corruption and lack of good governance are doing to Afghanistan’s population. The notion of a strong central government, as devised in the December 2001 Bonn Agreement, in which the provinces were to function similar to the states in the U.S., was always an endeavor that made less sense the further one traveled from Kabul. The inclusion of warlords at the onset of the transitional period made sense in terms of immediate security after the collapse of the Taliban, but it doomed the future prospects for good governance in the country.
A central element of the president’s outlined approach is a renewed effort to encourage Pakistan—as well as India—to take a more proactive stance toward the conflict, much as previous administrations have attempted. But Pakistan’s continued inability or unwillingness to deny the Taliban sanctuary is one of the larger—but far from the only—impediments to a sustained diminishment of the insurgency. Pakistan’s support for the Haqqani network has become a source of great tension between Washington and Islamabad, and the U.S. can apply pressure through its military and financial support, but such moves have downsides and have been tried before repeatedly without lasting positive change. It remains to be seen how the new attempts to pressure Pakistan will play out in the coming years.
The endless repetition of trying to build peace through security has not worked in any sustainable and replicable fashion in Afghanistan because the root causes make sustained security militarily impossible. The U.S. finds itself in a situation from which it cannot walk away, but which it cannot ‘win’. The lack of a diplomatic effort that is greater than the military holding strategy is a self-inflicted wound by the U.S. The Trump administration has yet to fill several critical diplomatic roles, such as the Ambassador to Afghanistan, Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs, and Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The turmoil and marginalization in the U.S. State Department come at a time when sustained, high-level diplomacy is needed to break the stalemate. Even in the best of times, such a task is herculean in scale and scope, but without it there will be no end to the conflict.
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