As the Trump Administration considers options to break the stalemate in the 15-year war in Afghanistan, it is important to look beyond military approaches.
The roots of Afghanistan's problems require a political surge in support of President Ashraf Ghani’s government.
For too long American policy has fixated on the security situation and the military means required to address it. The military effort has been a shiny object that has captured our attention while the political roots of the war and potential political approaches to resolving it have been discounted, under-resourced, or even ignored. Military tools alone can sustain the current stalemate, but not reverse it. Adding a few thousand or even many more troops will not substantially change the situation. Ending the war primarily through military means is a mirage.
The security stalemate is a symptom of three inter-related political stalemates: in Kabul within the Afghan government, regionally with Afghanistan's neighbors, and ultimately between the Afghan government and the Afghan Taliban. First, weak Afghan governance, zero-sum politics and endemic corruption fuel the Taliban insurgency. The compromise that formed the National Unity Government in the wake of the disputed 2014 presidential election resolved the immediate political crisis, but the parties have been unable to move beyond narrow partisan interests.
Now key political milestones are on the horizon: parliamentary elections in 2018; presidential elections in 2019; and in 2020 the next installment of international funding for Afghan security forces, the civilian government and development support. Success at these milestones depends mainly on the Afghan government’s moving beyond stalemate, not on how many U.S. troops are on the ground.
Second, Afghanistan's relations with key neighbors are also stalemated, especially with Pakistan where Taliban leaders enjoy a safe haven, but also with Russia and Iran. For its part, U.S. attempts at regional approaches to stabilizing Afghanistan have not been effective due to competing, higher priority interests. In Pakistan, U.S. core interests include suppressing terrorist groups with trans-national reach including the remnants of core al Qaeda, internal stability in a country with the world's fastest growing nuclear arsenal, and the stability of the often tense Pakistan-India relations.
U.S. interests with Russia focus on Ukraine, challenges to NATO, the crisis in Syria, and interference in democratic processes in the U.S. and other democracies. Our priority interests with Iran are her destabilizing activities across the Middle East including support for the Assad government in Syria, the implementation of the nuclear agreement, and the potential for military miscalculation in the Gulf. With China, too, though our interests in Afghanistan largely converge, we have interests more important than stabilizing Afghanistan. The net effect is that we have tended to discount regional approaches and focused on stabilizing Afghanistan from within, which cannot possibly work.
Finally, despite years of trying we have yet to gain traction on an Afghan-led political approach to the Taliban. The Taliban are not going away and will not be defeated by military means alone. The war in Afghanistan will end with a political settlement, not a military victory. Some argue that recent Taliban battlefield gains diminish their interest in pursuing talks with the Afghan government and before talks we must dominate militarily. The security situation is actually stalemated with both sides suffering heavy attrition. We should consider anew with our Afghan partner what it would take to move towards a political settlement, using both military means and political compromise to improve chances of success.
In Afghanistan, the Trump Administration — like its two predecessors — encounters a case where political approaches will prove decisive in the long run. As in all conflicts, military tools are only a means to a political end. We should focus on what matters most: breaking the three political stalemates. What we need is a political surge.
Douglas Lute is a former NSC official in the Bush and Obama Administrations responsible for coordinating US policy in Afghanistan and former U.S. Ambassador to NATO (2013-17). He is also a Senior Fellow with Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
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