Despite not really saying anything new nor breaking new ground with his long-term plan for Afghanistan, President Donald Trump’s updated strategy for winning in the war-torn country was startling on a couple of counts.
First, during the 2016 Presidential campaign, Trump was opposed to staying, in the country and was an outspoken critic of the war. His tweet back in 2013 left little room for doubt. But times change and so does the situation and while he’s being roasted in the media for changing his mind, it brings us to the second count.
Trump admitted that he went against his own instincts and went with his advisers and Generals who wanted to stay. “My original instinct was to pull out, and historically I like following my instincts, but all of my life I heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” Trump said on Monday night.
He stated that he and his advisers studied the situation in great detail and came up with three conclusions on the entire Afghanistan war. “First, our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome worthy of the tremendous sacrifices that have been made; second, the consequences of a rapid exit are both predictable and unacceptable … third, and finally, I concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense.”
The problems in the country are many, corruption is rampant, ethnic and regional loyalties far outweigh the allegiance to a central government which is foreign to the people there. And the army isn’t winning the war. At best right now it is a stalemate with the Taliban controlling wide areas of the countryside.
Trump has agreed to a long-term US commitment to the country of Afghanistan but as he said, it isn’t going to be a blank check. The US isn’t going to try to ‘nation-build’ a country in our own image. We want them to succeed the President said. And they’re going to have to do it themselves, with our help.
He smartly didn’t tie himself to a number of troops that are going to be needed, and despite the silliness of Washington politics, there is no way for him or anyone else to give a definitive number of the troops that are going to be needed. Conditions on the ground, Trump said, not arbitrary time tables will guide our strategy.
While the number of additional troops being added is said to be about 4000, that may fluctuate. Right now, American troops need to help stabilize the security situation and help the Afghan army to seize the initiative. Then the remaining troops would provide training and support for the Afghans to do the fighting themselves. The Special Operations Forces inside the country will remain to target high-value members of the Islamic State, Al-Qaeda and Taliban leadership.
Trump is putting pressure on Pakistan which he correctly stated has been a haven for militants and guerillas. US intelligence puts the number of foreign terrorist organizations operating in Pakistan at 20. Trump delivered some of the harshest criticism of any President about the Pakistani situation. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond,” Trump said.
“Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor terrorists.” He called on India, the archenemy of the Pakistanis to do more to help the effort in Afghanistan. The Indians could help with economic assistance and development.
So the $64,000 question is, will it work?
The short answer is yes if everything works out the way the administration hopes it can. Because the situation is a political as well as a military one. Pakistan has close ties to the Taliban and they’ll want them involved in a power-sharing mode. Their feelings are they’re in danger of being sandwiched between two countries it has poor relationships with in Afghanistan and India. Iran is another enemy on their border. So the Pakistanis don’t wish to be isolated and having them denying safe havens to terrorist organizations will not happen unless the US agrees to some sort of power-sharing with the Taliban.
The US will need to help the weak central government of Afghanistan politically but they will need to do a lot of the heavy lifting themselves. With a military solution to winning the war outright a slim possibility right now, and with a weak, corrupt government, a political solution is at the moment unattainable. There is a lot of work to be done.
By not announcing a timetable for US troops to withdraw, Trump has denied the Taliban the signal, that they can wait us out. The additional troops will try to convince the Taliban that the war can’t be won militarily and the only way to end the war is thru a political settlement. With the gains they’ve earned militarily the past two years, that prospect seems slim right now. The additional troops will help with that. But the key to it all falling into place, the “trump card” if you will is Pakistan.
The Taliban especially the Haqqani Network enjoys a veritable super highway of safe havens and huge support structures inside of Pakistan. The Trump administration needs to convince the Pakistanis to cut off that safe haven, which will go a long way in paving the way for a political settlement. But the President can’t alienate the Pakistanis and this will require some delicate diplomatic work. If they’re pushed too far, and Trump cuts aid to them, they have a solid ally in China, that will gladly step in and pick up the support the US cut off. That would make the situation in Afghanistan, much, much worse.
So once again, the United States military is conducting Counterinsurgency Operations, something their record has been spotty on in the past 200 years. To win in the counterinsurgency realm requires political, diplomatic, economic, military and informational effort to defeat an insurgency such as the Taliban. But more than anything else, it requires patience because success will be measured in years, not days and weeks. Hopefully, the administration will look to successful COIN programs that were run from the local villages up in Colombia and El Salvador for the way to do it right. That is where the war will be won or lost.
The short term problem is uniting the larger cities of the country. The Taliban control the countryside in many areas and can block the roads and kill the civilians, disrupting the commerce of the government. And in Helmand Province, that they control the vast majority of, the opium fields flourish and provide the Taliban with a ready supply of cash.
The war in Afghanistan continues to grind on. The Afghan government and military are weak. But Trump and the US have agreed to help them fight on for the long-term. While the US will provide a lot of logistical and military support including air power and Special Operations Forces, the onus is on the Afghans themselves to decide on what their future holds. There are no easy fixes and the war will take a long time to win. And winning from a US perspective just may be a shared political power structure. It is ultimately up to them. All the US can do is to lend a hand. But if you’re a military member, especially in our Special Operations Forces, the deployments won’t slow down to Afghanistan.