Digging a deeper hole in Afghanistan
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Rather than proclaim a new strategy for Afghanistan, President Trump merely announced a collection of attitudes. While he rightly removed a time-directed strategy, advocated renewed pressure on Pakistan and strove to coordinate all the dimensions of U.S. operations in Afghanistan under a single authority — he offered little or nothing that will lead to the victory he seeks.

Worse yet, he committed at least two major mistakes that all but ensure that stalemate is the best possible outcome.

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First, he swallowed the myth that unleashing generals and giving them tactical freedom somehow engenders better results in a war with a fundamentally political objective. The goal is an effective Afghan state that can prevent Afghanistan from being a haven for Islamic terrorism. Second, he proclaimed objectives that cannot be reached by the means at hand.

 

In the first instance, he has forgotten the sage advice that war is too important to be left to the generals. In contemporary warfare, individual tactical events often possess disproportionate strategic impact, e.g. Abu Ghraib in Iraq or the looting of Baghdad immediately after Saddam Hussein fell.

While President Obama’s controls on the military probably were excessive, Trump apparently remains in awe of generals and unwilling to challenge them to ensure that their tactical plans actually foster desired strategic outcomes.

Moreover, sending a mere 4,000 men whose apparent purpose is to help kill terrorists and vitalize an Afghan army that has not yet materialized shows that Trump and his team learned little or nothing from Vietnam.

Sending more troops to distant wars where our vital interest pales before that of our enemy to compel him to negotiate is a recipe for failure, especially in an open-ended strategy that must continually be accepted by a democratic polity. If merely killing terrorists is the operational goal we are back to Vietnam’s body counts and we know where that led.

Simultaneously, Trump has ignored this war’s political context and starved the arms of the U.S. government that can help turn tactical proficiency into lasting strategic advantage, namely the State Department and foreign policy.

While we should increase pressure on Pakistan; pushing India to engage even more deeply in Afghanistan because it trades so much with us will probably not move India, which is historically reluctant to project its power beyond its borders very much. Neither will it galvanize Pakistan to stop supporting terrorism against its neighbors as a principle of high policy. Quite the opposite, heightened Indian presence in Afghanistan will stimulate Pakistan’s paranoia about India and reliance on terrorism as an instrument of policy to destabilize India and secure its Afghan “strategic hinterland” to resist U.S. pressure. Yet at the same time most of our logistics to Afghanistan go through Pakistan giving it means of leverage upon us.

Neither will Pakistan be alone in its resistance, thereby highlighting Trump’s second failure. Trump’s strategy entirely ignored the fact that China, Russia and Iran fully support Pakistan and its support for the Taliban. Indeed, Russia and Iran are promoting the Taliban as a factor for a postwar Afghan government, sending them weapons, and sharing intelligence with them. Why, given this strategy, should they stop doing any of these things? And being able to rely on the support of these states, why should Pakistan reverse its past policies?

Incredibly Trump’s strategy also completely ignored Central Asia at least some of whose governments, e.g. Uzbekistan, would welcome an opportunity to partner with the U.S. against the Taliban and Moscow. These states have as vital an interest as anyone in the outcome of this war — yet U.S. policy unaccountably continues to overlook them and the added value they could bring to our policy.

Again we see the failure to grasp that we are at war to achieve a political outcome, that the commander-in-chief must strategically coordinate political and military operations — not the generals in the field. Political leaders must repudiate the mythology that they should remain aloof from directing the conduct of military operations.

Having been a professor at U.S. military colleges for 27 years and hearing so much about educating officers in Prussian General Carl Philipp Gottfried von Clausewitz’s dictum that war is the continuation of politics and policy; I find it dismaying to see that Trump and apparently key members of his policymaking team embraced an approach that is guaranteed to fail.

Stalemate might be the best outcome available if the public will support the open-ended strategy crafted here that merely builds on existing precedents that were themselves unsuccessful.

Ultimately it seems that Trump decided to announce a strategy for stalemate camouflaged behind his usual empty patriotic rhetoric because nobody knows how to bring about victory and he, like his predecessors, is determined not to be a loser. However, wrapping oneself in the flag neither guarantees victory nor escapes the inevitable consequences of strategic failure. Admittedly making strategy, particularly in our system and in regard to Afghanistan, is a particularly difficult and frustrating process but neither the public nor history will forgive Trump for failing to get it right here or anywhere else for that matter.

Stephen Blank is a senior fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College.


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