August 4, 2017
TSC IntelBrief: The White House’s Elusive Afghanistan Strategy
On August 3, 2017, the U.S. identified the two American soldiers who were killed when a suicide bomber attacked their convoy in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Specialist Christopher M. Harris, 25, of Jackson Springs, NC, and Sergeant Jonathon M. Hunter, 23, of Columbus, IN, were in the 82nd Airborne Division; when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001, the men were ages 9 and 7, respectively. Their deaths come as several deeply-set trend lines converge to undermine renewed U.S. efforts to craft a strategy toward ending the war.
The Taliban are increasing their attacks in Kandahar Province as well as in provinces far from their original stronghold, including in the country’s north and east. Since at least 2008, this trend has persisted through troop surges and drawdowns because the insurgency feeds off of the root causes of the country’s instability: systemically corrupt and weak central government, military and security forces devastated by terrible losses from combat and desertion, and a militant sanctuary in neighboring Pakistan. While the U.S. will likely add 5,000 troops to the 8,700 currently in the country to help ‘train and advise’ Afghan units, these troops—even in much larger numbers—are unlikely to be able to reverse or meaningfully impact those trend lines.
President Trump is reportedly frustrated with the current situation in Afghanistan, and with the options being considered by his national security team, a sentiment shared by both Presidents Obama and Bush during their terms in office. The current U.S. strategy in Afghanistan is to stay there at great cost and hope for a tipping point in the performance of the central government and its overall military capabilities that has yet to transpire. With a dismal outlook, the options being considered include privatizing the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan, which has reportedly been pitched by Erik Prince, the former owner of defense contracting firm Blackwater. President Trump reportedly held a highly-contentious meeting of his national security team and suggested firing General John Nicholson, the commander of the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, over the lack of progress in the country. General Nicholson had testified last month that the U.S. was ‘losing’ in Afghanistan, an accurate if uncomfortable assessment of the situation. The U.S. military has been tasked with an impossible mission in Afghanistan: buy enough time through improved security for systemic political change in the Afghan government and society to generate lasting peace.
The absence of a permanent U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan is compounding the deteriorating situation in the country. While the U.S. plays a critical role in the country’s battle for stability, the conflict in Afghanistan is fundamentally not a U.S. fight—the abysmal relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the competing influence of India, China, Iran, and Russia have far greater influence on the conflict than U.S. troop levels. Such a complicated situation requires the best diplomatic team that the U.S. can field, both in Afghanistan and in Washington D.C. The well-documented chaos in the U.S. State Department is knee-capping the larger international effort in Afghanistan. While U.S. troops continue to fight and die alongside their Afghan partners in an attempt to hold on until negotiations can bring about a viable resolution, the utter lack of U.S. diplomatic strategy in the country will continue to obviate the conditions in which such a resolution could be reached. Thus, any ramped-up U.S. military effort in Afghanistan must be matched by a surge in American diplomatic power in the region.
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