Afghanistan Again: What’s Different This Time

On August 21, President Donald Trump outlined his strategy for U.S. engagement in Afghanistan. While fully admitting his reluctance to increase current levels of support for the Afghan government and army, the president identified America’s core interests there. The “honorable and enduring outcome” that he mentioned in the speech is open to multiple interpretations, but the risk of a rapid withdrawal is not. It would lead to the collapse of the country’s central authority, thereby expanding fallow soil for global terror networks’ operations. Politically, the stakes are high. Significant gains against the Taliban and cohorts in Afghanistan would give Trump’s record a boost. After this speech, the fruits of victory or the spoils of defeat in Afghanistan rest squarely on Trump’s shoulders.

Aware that he is among the majority of Americans weary of this war, Trump proceeded to cite what will be different from past administrations. The U.S. will not publicly release timetables or air plans for adversaries’ consumption. It will hold the Afghan government accountable through a “conditions-based approach.” The U.S. will integrate “all instruments of American power . . . toward a successful outcome.” The Pakistani government in Islamabad will find that sponsorship or even tacit support for the Taliban and related entities will come with ever-greater political and financial burden. Washington will also push the Indian government in New Delhi to increase their economic and development assistance.

It is clear that Trump and his advisers have learned from the Obama administration’s failures in Afghanistan. Actions such as publically committing to timetables and trumpeting battlefield intentions bore tragic consequences, as the Taliban leadership, foot soldiers, and their backers settled in to wait out Western political timetables. The past two administrations’ reluctance to exert greater pressure on the Pakistani establishment has shown how little carrots alone can earn east of the Durand Line. Despite concerns that greater Indian involvement may hinder more than help by potentially antagonizing Pakistan, Afghanistan needs a strong regional actor that can help balance its neighbors’ often competing interests.

But do these changes amount to a new strategy? After all, haven’t we been employing “all instruments of American power” for the past 16 years? Americans witnessed a massive surge of tens of thousands of their soldiers that didn’t bring the war’s end; what difference will a re-deployment of several thousand make? Talk of greater accountability in Kabul has led to few tangible results. To some, the president’s “strategy” may seem simply as a modified “approach” to “obliterating ISIS, crushing al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”

What’s Different This Time Around?

This administration is showing respect for lessons learned. To date, there is no planned surge of tens of thousands of soldiers, as the Afghans themselves will be waging war on the frontlines. President Trump did not mention a civilian strategy in his remarks, underlying his assertion that “nation building” is off the table. While Trump expressed hesitancy to order Americans to continue fighting in Afghanistan, he unequivocally campaigned on effectively fighting terrorism. With the counsel of a number of generals absent in the previous administration, he’s doing just that, regardless Congressional support or skepticism. And Pakistan, it appears, is a state relation to be managed, distinct from a partnership based on “mutual interests, [and] mutual respect” as envisioned by Obama.

Second, Hamid Karzai is no longer in charge of Afghanistan. The ex-president managed the most remarkable feat of cowling the international community into possibly incalculable investments of money and manpower while effectively denying them any genuine say in the country’s political management. Consequently, international calls to stem systemic cronyism and take a stand against corruption went unheeded by Karzai. Accountable to personal networks and political expediency over the Afghan people, he effectively fanned the flames of Taliban propaganda and anti-government sentiment. This happened in part due to the then-surplus of international goodwill towards the Afghan people and Karzai’s fundamental misconception that the U.S. saw Afghanistan as prime geopolitical real estate.

Not so today. The international community’s priorities have moved on. Meanwhile, the Taliban and terror groups either control or are present in vast swathes of Afghan territory, placing the elected government in Kabul in palpable jeopardy. Since 2001, Afghanistan has depended on foreign aid for 70% of its annual budget. The national unity government (cobbled together by Secretary of State John Kerry in 2014) is hardly united and dysfunctions accordingly. While insurgent control continues to grow, the current government is nowhere near completing the agreed-upon electoral reforms and schedules, much less the roadmap to a new constitution. Encouragingly, President Ashraf Ghani and Prime Minister Abdullah Abdullah together boast years of experience in Washington, which when combined could lead to clearer, effectively mutual relations compared to those mercurial years under Karzai. This renewed U.S. engagement in Afghanistan is an opportunity for genuine cooperation towards our common goal of denying terrorists sanctuary there.

Third, the Trump administration is set to push Pakistan harder than the previous administrations. It would be disingenuous to argue that the Taliban would pose the threat that they do (if even still exist) were it not for Pakistan’s willful harbor of and aid to various insurgent groups. Islamabad has yet to effectively change course on this policy. Continued decreases in aid—specifically of the military variety—together with a review of the country’s status as a non-NATO ally can help to realign the rudder towards more stable ports.

The fear of having an Indian-allied adversary to its west makes Pakistani interests in having a friendly and reliable government in Kabul respectable. Islamabad’s nearly dogmatic distrust of New Delhi and its desire to have a compliant government in Kabul complicate part of Trump’s plan. Current relations between Pakistan and India have led to skepticism about Trump’s solicitation of more pronounced involvement from India, which could be a potential leveraging point in U.S. relations with Pakistan’s leadership. Nonetheless, there is no regional solution without New Delhi any more than there is without Islamabad or other Eurasian actors. Indeed, as the U.S. footprint erodes, direct support for the Taliban has only increased from Tehran and Moscow, categorically demonstrating the extent of their own interests in who governs Afghanistan.

Last, herein lies one of the greater—and newer—threats to a sustainable resolution of the conflict. A decade ago, the road to peace primarily went eastward from Kabul. This is no longer the case. Today’s resurgent Russia and regionally emboldened Iran cannot be consigned as diplomatic afterthoughts vis-à-vis the Afghan war. These countries have provided cash and arms to elements of the Taliban, as well as significant funds to various political and religious actors to forward agendas often at odds with the elected government. Both share common goals of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a base for Islamic extremists in Central Asia and minimizing American presence in the region. Peace negotiations without due representation of their concerns would be short, as the likely response would be the disruptive mobilization of local spoilers.

With these issues in mind, we are left with one component of the president’s strategy that hasn’t changed: the full use of American military, diplomatic, and economic power. Trump asserted that “we are not nation-building again.” A few years ago, a senior Pentagon official told me that this was never U.S. policy (My follow-up review of official public statements confirmed this). Call it what you will; however, if the U.S. is to exercise all its powers towards a successful endgame in cooperation with a more accountable government in Afghanistan, shoring up its floundering governmental institutions is unavoidably necessary. And as daunting a task as this will be, it is not Panglossian to envision a better-fortified foundation for a democratic Afghan state. After the U.S. shores up these domestic weaknesses, we can then let the Afghans build their nation up from there. In my view, that would qualify as an honorable and enduring outcome.

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