The US is Out of Ideas in Afghanistan

Afghanistan has been a policy dilemma for 16 years now and it seems that US strategy is unable to reach the level of creativity or nuance necessary to inflict lasting damage on the Taliban and ISIL in the country. Last night, President Trump announced an increase in the troop-presence in Afghanistan without referencing a specific number, though several generals have gone on record calling for an addition 5,000 troops this year and potentially 5,000 more next. But, simply increasing our presence is not enough to conclude a war we’ve been fighting for nearly two decades. More must be done.

It is worth noting that Mr Trump called on Pakistan to do more internally to stabilise the region. This is actually an important point- one not missed by either Presidents Bush or Obama, the latter ordering a covert operation in country which resulted in the killing of Osama bin-Laden. The porous border between Pakistan and Afghanistan allows thousands of Taliban and ISIL fighters to retreat into a country where US troops are not authorised to operate and launch attacks and coordinate from within. Pakistan, a country with recent political turmoil following the assassinations of two Prime Ministers, is a beneficiary of US military aid to the tune of more than $2bn annually. What Mr Obama attempted to do-and what Mr Trump is attempting to do now- is tie military aid dollars directly to Pakistan’s handling of securing their border and joining the US in counter-insurgency operations therein.

Messrs Obama and Trump both view Pakistan with a natural suspicion, as it has been revealed in recent years that Pakistan’s internal security service (ISI) has been found to have both direct and indirect links to Taliban command and have been accused of both materially and financially supporting Taliban insurgents in Pakistan, who then fight US troops in its neighbouring country. Senators Rand Paul (R-KY) and Tim Kaine (D-VA) have called on military aid to be suspended until Pakistan is able to sever all ties to the Taliban through it’s ISI.

However vague President Trump’s strategy may have been, the Pentagon would have offered him few good choices. In fact, it can be argued that there are really are none. Mr Obama deployed 23,000 additional US troops to Afghanistan 2009 and scaled down to current levels in 2013, but it could be argued that short of killing bin-Laden in Pakistan in 2011, little lasting measurable impact was made. A re-think is necessary but what are the options?

The US is committed to working with the Afghan government in Kabul to build up, train and equip their security services and military, as well as creating a climate of political stability by strengthening the legitimacy of the Kabul government internally and in the region. Could the US do more in this area? Sure, but one major issue facing both the US and Afghanistan is that the Kabul government doesn’t have the resources on its own to pay for a large military needed to partner with US forces on the ground.

President Trump called on other nations to do more in Afghanistan. There are currently under 500 British troops remaining in Afghanistan- a number no serious military strategist would suggest could measurably impact the security situation. However, the NATO-led ISAF mission ended in December 2014 and since, the US has borne the burden. Could a new coalition make a difference? It’s possible, if countries like Britain, France, Canada, Australia and others committed sizeable troop levels and coordinated operations with US and Afghan forces, but this was the situation from 2001-2014, and even though the US and UK were by far the largest contributors of personnel, the presence of our allies alone was not simply enough.

So, what can be done? I like to point to the troop surge in Iraq in 2007 as an example of successful strategy. President George W. Bush saw the situation in Iraq deteriorating and sent an additional 25,000 troops, mostly into Baghdad and Fallujah. However, this flood of reinforcements was not simply about numbers, but strategy as well. The US went from a purely occupational force on the defensive to a counter-insurgency force and peacekeepers on the offensive. The new strategy called for greater community engagement, setting up councils for US generals to meet with local community leaders to address their needs and earn their trust so that they could in turn help us identify those involved in terror networks and prevent attacks. Saving more detail, the surge worked and insurgency in Iraq fell to near pre-invasion levels for almost 3 years, before the drawdown began and the rise of ISIL followed.

It’s a bitter pill to swallow for any President, especially one in his first year of his first term and without military of governing experience. Simply listening to his generals may not be enough. President Trump needs a creative idea to save US operations in Afghanistan, or risk a foreign policy failure that could stain his credibility as Commander-in Chief, a title he so proudly flaunts. America is running out of ideas.


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