Rethinking America’s commitment to Afghanistan

Rethinking America’s commitment to Afghanistan
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Last week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpFlorida GOP lawmaker says he's 'thinking' about impeachment Democrats introduce 'THUG Act' to block funding for G-7 at Trump resort Kurdish group PKK pens open letter rebuking Trump's comparison to ISIS MORE erroneously claimed that the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 to neutralize a terrorist threat to Russia. “They were right to be there,” he said. In fact, there had been no such threat and Moscow’s actual concerns at the time had more to do with Washington’s growing involvement in Afghanistan.

The logic of the president’s misappraisal would be apt, however, if he had applied it to the American military presence in Afghanistan today: A relatively small number of troops — 14,000 — now play a vital role in safeguarding a wobbly Afghan government from being overrun by the Taliban, ISIS, or both. In doing so, they also exercise a check on these and other jihadist forces that would oppress the population and wreak havoc around the world.

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In fact, most of the fighting and dying on behalf of the Afghan government is done not by American forces, but by the vastly larger number of Afghan troops and police whom they train and equip.  

Thus a tiny sliver of America’s titanous fighting capacity has achieved an impressive multiplier effect by virtue of its local alliances. The same is true of the small American presence in Syria. In both cases, American soldiers are indeed “right to be there” — for the sake of the national security of the United States and its allies, as well as the interests of the local population.

Yet, President Trump believes otherwise: In a recent decision that sent shock waves around the world, he announced that the U.S. would withdraw all its troops from Syria and half its troops from Afghanistan.

Americans on both sides of the aisle, together with some of Washington’s most trusted allies overseas, have urged him to reconsider — and he appears to have agreed at least to slow the withdrawal. But who will fill the vacuum the Americans eventually leave behind? And what strategy can be adopted to achieve an eventual outcome where Afghanistan can do without a foreign troop presence to begin with?

With respect to the vacuum, Democratic Rep. Ro KhannaRohit (Ro) KhannaCongress set for showdown with Trump over Kurds Is Congress too afraid to fight Big Pharma? Democrats probing whether groups booked Trump hotel rooms to earn president's favor: report MORE (D-Calif.), writing in The Hill, has called for direct talks with the Taliban; airstrikes to evict jihadist groups from elsewhere that use Afghanistan as a base; and the enlistment of nearby Pakistan, Iran, Russia, China and India to support the process.

But these suggestions represent a triumph of hope over reason: Amid Washington’s ongoing struggle against Iran and strained relations with China, neither of those powers truly wants to be helpful to the United States in Afghanistan. Iran, to the contrary, is a destabilizing force in the country. Nor does Russia view Afghanistan with the same intense concern it did in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when the Soviet empire bordered it. Nor can the extremist, terror-supporting ideology of the Taliban be simply negotiated away.

But the U.S. does have allies with a proven record of fighting hard in the country alongside American troops — notably, the United Arab Emirates, which has played a quiet but outsize role in the struggle against jihadism in Afghanistan. Saudi Arabia has also shown a willingness to fight a terror-supporting ideology on foreign soil and help others do the same. Times have changed: Consider that during the U.S.-backed war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and its Pakistani ally designated the jihadists their chief ally.

The Saudi leadership today regards the same elements as its mortal enemies. It has announced the creation of a “Muslim Coalition Against Terrorism” to fight them, as well as counter-extremist soft power tools to argue against their ideas. Saudi Arabia can help orient its Pakistani ally around a similar mission in Afghanistan.

Its “Muslim coalition” is already well placed to do so in that a decorated Pakistan general, Raheel Sharif, was appointed in 2017 to command it.) Furthermore, in light of warming ties between Israel and the Gulf states, there may be a new role for Israeli expertise, coordination and other forms of assistance in Afghanistan.

Morocco, though as distant from Afghanistan as one can be in the Muslim world, has been a bridge among a range of Gulf states and Israel and may itself play a supportive role. Four decades after the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, the nature of warfare has changed in such a way that geographic proximity is not the only determinant of relevance.

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As to the question of how to gradually wean Afghanistan off any foreign troop dependency, at the heart of the problem lies the difficulty of fostering a government of equity and transparency in Afghanistan and growing public support to defend the state. The U.S. and its allies face a challenge of collaborative institution building, integrity training and cultural engagement.

The operative term, coined by Council on Foreign Relations member Nadia Schadlow and integrated into President Trump’s December 2017 National Security Strategy, is “Competitive Engagement.” It denotes the application of American soft power competitively vis a vis rival powers, actors and ideologies. The United States has been considerably less active in this realm. But it will need to re-engage quickly to ensure that the tragedies that first brought the U.S. to Afghanistan do not repeat themselves.

Ahmed Charai is on the board directors at the Atlantic Council and an international counselor at the Center for the National Interest, which is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy think tank. Center for the National Interest, was established by former U.S. President Richard Nixon.