OPINION | Trump’s right — we are losing in Afghanistan
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President Trump is not wrong on Afghanistan. During a contentious July meeting with his top military and national security advisors, he repeatedly questioned the quality of advice he was given, asserted that we were losing in Afghanistan, and repeatedly berated the American commander in Afghanistan, General Nicholson, as a “loser.”

On the first two points Trump is absolutely right. We are losing in Afghanistan and it is past time to ask hard questions of those who seek to double-down on the failed strategy of the past 16 years. However, on the third point he is wrong to paint Nicholson as the loser of Afghanistan. Our failures cannot be laid at the feet of one commander. Our failures have been executed by bureaucratic committee, with enough different commanders rotated through Afghanistan that each can claim incremental success without anyone owning the overall failure.

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And while it is easy to dismiss Trump’s lambasting of the latest officer to have won this military game of musical chairs, his instinct of trying to find someone, anyone who can be held accountable for our military’s failure to make progress in Afghanistan is actually a step in the right direction.

Over the last 10 years there have been eight different commanders in Afghanistan, with the average tenure being just over a year each. And while it is true that these rotations of senior commanders have never been entirely within the military’s control, this is a problem that the military has compounded by rotating subordinate commands through even more often. In practice this has meant that the chain of command from senior leader to soldiers on the ground has never been stable for longer than three to six months — making it impossible for the military to focus beyond short-term tactical gains.

This rotation policy has led to many inside jokes, as everyone can claim, “We were winning the war when I left” while the sum total of our efforts has been a slow glidepath to failure. For senior commanders and the architects of our current strategy, it has always been easier to blame corruption, or the Afghans’ supposed lack of will to fight, than to ask the hard questions about the fundamentals of our approach. This is another way of saying that our strategy for Afghanistan would be working perfectly, if only Afghanistan was a different country.

For years the United States has been propping up Afghan security forces with American airpower and fire support. In doing so we have given a false impression of Afghan capabilities and ignored the fundamental weaknesses of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF).

Despite our efforts, the Afghans have been unable to hold their own against an enemy with zero air assets and dramatically less firepower. This is because that while, on paper, the ANSF looks like a western security force with a clear chain of command, in practice it is managed through informal and long-standing patronage networks. These networks are opaque to American advisors and often run counter to the stated mission and structure of the ANSF. It is because of this mismatch in structure and practice that the Taliban are able to win local battles for political legitimacy and continue to gain ground.

This failure of the ANSF to hold ground against the Taliban highlights the futility of trying to establish a western-style military within a state without the bureaucratic structure, rule of law, educational system, and supply chains necessary to support one. But for years we have stuck with this plan because it is the easiest template to follow as units rotate in and out of Afghanistan, and losing slowly has been easier than reconciling the differences between American ideals and Afghan capabilities.

Thus far into his presidency, Trump has failed, as the two presidents did before him, to make the hard choices about what is truly attainable in Afghanistan, leaving our default setting as trying to achieve everything, for everyone. At least in this the advocates for current troop increases are correct, building an Afghanistan that looks like the United States will take at least a generation, if it is even possible. And while Trump has made it clear that he’d prefer not to be there much longer, pulling out sooner will require deep understanding of the conflict and hard trade-offs between American values and our security interests.

These are the hard decisions that only he can make, and Trump cannot complain about not winning without first defining exactly what “winning” means.

Given his limited exposure to the intricacies of the Afghanistan and reported lack of interest in understanding the nuances of the conflict, it is clear that he will need someone he can trust at the helm — someone who can help him understand the conflict, articulate clear goals for our involvement, and to take our efforts to fruition. Through no fault of his own, this person will likely not be Nicholson, as it needs to be someone Trump trusts.

Luckily for Trump, and for us, the right man for the job is already in the administration. National security adviser H.R. McMaster has forcefully argued for an extended presence in Afghanistan, and spent a previous tour there in an anti-corruption task force, meaning that he likely has a better understanding of the realities of Afghan politics than most. So instead of just doubling down on the same policies that led to this failure, Trump should send McMasters to Afghanistan, give him the latitude to direct the fight, and keep him there until we win.

Jason Dempsey is an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, an organization that develops national security and defense policies.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.