On Afghanistan, generals know the lessons from Charlie Wilson's war

On Afghanistan, generals know the lessons from Charlie Wilson's war
© Getty Images

The Twin Towers fell 16 years ago, and our country has been engaged in Afghanistan practically every day since. So, like many Americans, I listened with great interest as President Trump outlined our country’s new strategy for tackling our nation’s longest war. I heard the expected plans to deploy additional military support to the Afghan government. But my ears perked up when the president declared that “another fundamental pillar of our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic and military — toward a successful outcome.”

But this shouldn’t be such a surprise. With President Trump’s trust and reliance on former senior military officers, like Secretary of Defense James MattisJames Norman MattisProgressive House Democrats urge Biden against Defense chief with contractor ties Trump fires Defense chief Mark Esper Talk grows of Trump firings at Pentagon, CIA MORE and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, the leading lights in his inner circle have long held fast to the importance of the nonmilitary assets in our national security toolkit.

In fact, strengthening diplomacy and development, alongside defense, is straight out of Secretary Mattis’s playbook. The lifelong Marine said as much in his confirmation hearing, telling policymakers that “America’s got two fundamental powers, the power of intimidation and the power of inspiration. Soft power is largely found in the power of inspiration and it’s part and parcel of how we defeat this enemy.”

This isn’t unique to the retired general. It reflects the post-9/11 consensus from the Pentagon to Capitol Hill that the military alone cannot keep us safe. And Secretary Mattis is not alone. Many of the military leaders at the top echelons of the Trump administration have championed a foreign policy that elevates development and diplomacy as foundational pillars.

To give one prominent example, last year, a former commander of U.S. Southern Command told the Senate Homeland Security Committee that Colombia’s transformation from narco-terrorist state into key ally and trading partner was “nothing less than miraculous,” adding that “addressing the root causes of insecurity and instability is not just in the region’s interests, but ours as well.” This same general reminded lawmakers that assistance to Central America “should be viewed as an investment, not foreign aid.”

That senior military official was Gen. John KellyJohn Francis KellyMORE, now White House chief of staff. And as we look to the growing number of conflicts and fragile states throughout the world, the lessons from Plan Colombia of integrating our full arsenal of military and nonmilitary tools are especially relevant today. The question is, will that happen? Will our full complement of development and diplomatic efforts, alongside defense, be effectively utilized in Afghanistan as well as in other trouble spots abroad?

Even as these past generals, current combatant commanders and the ranks of more than 180 retired three-star and four-stars embrace the importance of foreign assistance, the administration’s budget proposal and other recent statements send worrisome signals. For instance, the White House budget director called for a “hard power” budget, rather than “soft power” budget for next year.

The administration proposed to cut one-third of America’s diplomacy and development programs – a move vehemently opposed by a bipartisan chorus of critics in Congress from the Freedom Caucus to the Progressive Caucus. The administration has also been slow to fill leadership roles within the State Department, not to mention name full-time ambassadors to critical countries like South Korea, Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

Secretary Tillerson delivered mixed messages just after the Afghanistan speech when he told reporters “we may be taking different approaches and not putting so much of the U.S. taxpayer dollars on the ground building schools.” All this despite the fact that one of the top foreign policy voices in the Senate, Republican Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamMedia and Hollywood should stop their marching-to-Georgia talk Hackers love a bad transition The Hill's Campaign Report: Trump campaign files for Wis. recount l Secretaries of state fume at Trump allegations l Biden angered over transition delay MORE, never misses an opportunity to remind Americans that “building a small schoolhouse for a young girl in Afghanistan” will do more to combat terrorism “than any bomb you could drop.”

There’s no doubt that hard choices must be made in a time of tight fiscal constraints, and no one would argue that our military or nonmilitary aid to Afghanistan has been perfect. There is always room to improve our efforts; however, there is no room to debate that our civilian forces have a role to play. In the best of circumstances, it is important to get the strategic mix of diplomacy, development and defense right, but it is even tougher without the resources.

Our world is only getting more complex. A decade ago most of our humanitarian assistance went to natural disasters, but today more than 80 percent provides lifesaving support in conflict zones. The global community is currently fighting famine in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria where ISIS, Al Qaeda, Al Shabaab and Boko Haram are ever-present, alongside an unprecedented refugee crisis and an emboldened North Korea, among other threats. We can’t leave any vital tool on the table.

As we mark another year since the horrific attacks on our homeland, I’m often reminded of the film “Charlie Wilson’s War” in which Tom Hanks plays the colorful congressional icon who works behind the scenes to help the Afghan rebels defeat the Soviets in the 1980s. The final sequence of the movie finds Congressman Wilson attempting to persuade his colleagues to spend a mere $1 million for schools and roads to secure the peace after a multibillion dollar military campaign. His request is rejected, as his colleagues laugh, calling him the “congressman from Kabul.” Afghanistan is already old news.

We know the rest of the story. It is time to learn the lessons of history and never be left to ask, “What if?” We should deploy all our nation’s strengths, abilities and resources to build that better, safer world. That includes our “power of inspiration.”

Liz Schrayer is president and CEO of the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition, an alliance of more than 500 businesses and organizations that advocates for American diplomatic and developmental efforts around the world.