Trump gets counterterrorism strategy right on Afghanistan
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President Trump’s new Afghanistan strategy has attracted ample criticism, and a major complaint is its lack of new ideas. It’s true that in its focus on ramping up the fight against the Taliban, redoubling support for the Afghan government and getting Pakistan to eliminate Taliban sanctuaries on its soil, there’s a strong déjà vu “all over again” dimension to the strategy.

The lack of a novelty factor isn’t surprising, because there aren’t many workable new options in Afghanistan. The one case where the strategy breaks new ground lies in its emphasis on conditions-based approaches. The new policy will be guided by ground realities, not artificial deadlines. The idea is to keep the enemy guessing and to prevent the Taliban from simply waiting America out — an attempt, in effect, to strengthen American battlefield prospects.

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However, by dispensing with deadlines and acquiescing in an open-ended presence in Afghanistan, Trump is taking a big political risk. Trump’s political support base is largely uninterested in getting bogged down in costly and indefinite military engagements abroad — as are many Americans on the whole. On Monday night, Trump said Americans “are weary of war without victory.”

 

Wrong. Americans are weary of war, period. And yet, Trump has now formally pledged to extend America’s longest war. This is why the strategy’s strong emphasis on counterterrorism is nothing short of a masterstroke. Trump minced no words on Monday. “We are not nation building,” he declared, “We are killing terrorists.”

Trump is an “America first” president. His foreign policy is driven by a desire to protect American lives. He’d struggle to sell the war in Afghanistan — much less an open-ended role in this war — to his rank and file supporters by harping on the need to build up Afghan institutions, or even to tame the Taliban. At the end of the day, the Taliban is a local insurgency. It’s never staged an attack outside Afghanistan. The U.S. government hasn’t even formally designated it as a terrorist organization.

By contrast, al Qaeda, ISIS and a slew of other terror groups operating in Afghanistan — from the Pakistani Taliban and a range of sectarian extremist groups to anti-India outfits like Lashkar-e-Taiba — pose a far greater threat to Americans because of their will and capacity to inflict violence not just in Afghanistan, but also well beyond that country. In effect, Trump’s strategy telegraphs a clear and simple message: We’re staying in Afghanistan to target the terrorists that target Americans — and America.

Tellingly, in Trump’s speech, his definition of “victory” featured five components — and three of them explicitly focused on counterterrorism goals. For more than a decade, Washington has struggled to articulate its objectives in Afghanistan. Trump has now offered a crystal clear expression of Washington’s core goals, and they largely revolve around counterterrorism. If a strategy is to have any chance of working, it must contain clearly defined objectives. And on this count, Trump’s Afghanistan plan passes the test.

This isn’t to suggest a counterterrorism-focused strategy will be an unqualified success, or even a partial success. Eliminating Afghanistan’s terrorism problem entails solving the problem of Pakistan, which provides safe havens to multiple Afghanistan-focused terrorist groups. There’s no guarantee whatsoever that taking a harder line on Pakistan, as Trump is likely to do, will magically make Pakistan smash the terrorist sanctuaries on its soil.

More broadly, the many factors that enable terror groups to emerge and flourish in Afghanistan — lawless spaces, poverty, bad governance and above all, receptive environments for ideologies of hate — can’t be eliminated with arms and air strikes. And yet Trump’s speech, which referred specifically to diplomacy only once, made clear that his Afghanistan strategy will largely revolve around the use of force.

Yes, a ramped-up counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan may in due course succeed in snuffing out the modest yet resilient presence of ISIS and al Qaeda. But so long as the fundamental drivers of terror remain in place, these militant groups will simply reemerge. This doesn’t even get to the issue of humanitarian risks. A more muscular, counterterrorism-focused mission entails more violence and killing, and, in all likelihood, more civilian casualties. The war has already killed about 35,000 Afghan civilians.

And yet, all this said, orienting America’s Afghanistan strategy around counterterrorism is the least bad of a long list of very bad options. It enables Washington to benchmark success according to a concrete set of objectives, and to point to a track record of similar successes elsewhere (though Mosul in Iraq is a far different place than Nangarhar in Afghanistan).

Above all, it increases the likelihood that Trump will be able to sell, even if only modestly, an unpopular war to an American public that has seen far too many soldiers killed, and far too much money spent, to be sanguine about such a confusing and unending conflict.

Michael Kugelman is deputy director of the Asia Program and senior associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center. You can follow him on Twitter @MichaelKugelman.


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