Americans need to know what 'victory' in Afghanistan means
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President Trump’s speech on Afghanistan was a 180-degree turn from recent threats of “fire and fury” against North Korea. The strategy he laid out lacked specifics in key areas, including Pakistan and what exactly constitutes a “victory” in Afghanistan.

Pakistan is on notice

Trump’s speech was reminiscent of a scene from the fourth season of Homeland. After Saul Berenson had been kidnapped by the Taliban, CIA Director Andrew Lockhart threatens to cut off U.S. aid to Pakistan unless Berenson was returned. Trump similarly put Pakistan on notice. Noting Islamabad’s longstanding support for terrorist organizations active in Afghanistan, Trump threatened to change the approach to dealing with Pakistan. Trump doubled-down on his threat by invoking Pakistan’s worst nightmare: a pivot to India. Trump drew a dark, red line separating his administration from his predecessors who were implicitly painted as fearful of incurring Islamabad’s wrath.

Trump owns Afghanistan

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The hackneyed “Pottery Barn” rule now comes into play: Trump’s commitment means that he owns Afghanistan. There are two electoral considerations for the Trump administration. First, this is a flip-flop from campaign promises and demands to withdraw from Afghanistan. Second, if the Afghan government fails to meet the benchmarks the Trump administration sets out, or if the security situation fails to improve by 2020, it will provide his domestic opponents with a cudgel to attack his competence in the management of foreign affairs. Channeling elements President Nixon’s “secret plan” will not protect him electorally if Afghanistan is seen as a failure in 2020.

 

No clear vision of victory

Throughout the 2016 campaign, Trump talked about “winning” more than Charlie Sheen. However, in international politics, concepts like “winning” and “losing” can be elusive. We need answers to questions such as, what do we want to accomplish and how do we know we’ve accomplished it? How many more troops will be deployed? Despite stating that we will be using a conditions-based approach, it is unclear what, exactly, the Trump administration sees as victorious outcomes in measurable terms.

For example, is the United States attempting to destroy the Taliban? If that is the mission, how would we know when the Taliban had been defeated, or just melted back into Pashtun-majority areas or the caves of the Hindu-Kush? Without precise measurements, the U.S. will continue to face a choice between being trapped in this strategic Groundhog Day or unilaterally pulling out.

Withdrawal will be tricky

Trump acknowledged his frustrations with the lack of progress in Afghanistan, but signaled his opposition to a “hasty withdrawal.” Trump’s former advisor Stephen Bannon advocates withdrawing from Afghanistan, as does MIT professor Barry Posen, who predicts that one possible scenario is Russia and Iran, among other regional powers, being forced to step up and become responsible for Afghanistan. (Rumors have it they have been dealing with the Taliban for some time now.) Best case scenario: Both of our regional rivals could end up overextending themselves like the U.S. did in Vietnam, the British did in the Boer War, and the Soviets did in Afghanistan.

There are two potential downsides to a withdrawal. First, it would feed into a long-running Salafist-Jihadi narrative about the U.S. being casualty averse. (In fact, the American public isn’t so much casualty averse as it is defeat averse.) Some, such as Robert Pape, argue that occupations are what drive terrorism. End the occupation, end the terrorist threat. However, as I argue, unilateral withdrawals tend to fail. Look at Israel’s withdrawals from Southern Lebanon in 2000 or Gaza in 2006. America’s hasty withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 is credited with the revival of al Qaeda in Iraq, which later morphed into ISIS. Terrorists don’t fade away once an occupation ends. Instead, look for new issues to attach themselves to in order to keep their organizations going.

More unanswered questions

Several questions remain unaddressed after Trump’s speech. For example, how will the U.S. trade off between fighting the Taliban and ISIS? How will the U.S. work with Iran, Russia and China, parties that are already involved in Afghanistan? What, exactly, will happen if the Afghan government fails to meet one of the conditions set out by the Trump administration? What instruments, incentives and negative sanctions are on the table for pushing the Afghan government in a new direction?

Trump’s speech marked a change in tone toward Pakistan, as well as a clear desire to move closer to India. Furthermore, the president took ownership of Afghanistan. He didn’t break it, but he’s now bought it. Critics may contend withdrawal is the optimal option. However, after this speech it is still unclear what victory looks like when, and if, we see it.

Albert Wolf, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science at the American University of Afghanistan. He previously served as a legislative assistant in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he worked on foreign policy and national security.


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