Aaron B. O’Connell is associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the editor of “Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan.”
President Trump has reportedly been asking two questions about Afghanistan: Why has the United States been there for so long? And why haven’t we won the war? Afghanistan is complex and confusing but the answers to these two questions are not. Unfortunately, answering them won’t get the president much closer to an effective Afghanistan policy.
The United States is still in Afghanistan because the Kabul government can’t defeat or delegitimize the Taliban on its own, and because both previous presidents believed that a complete withdrawal might destabilize Pakistan — the only state in the world with nuclear weapons and a large and increasingly radicalized Muslim population.
The United States isn’t winning now – and hasn’t been winning for more than a decade — because the insurgency has home field advantages that U.S. and coalition partners have been unable to counter, even after we spent over $100 billion per year to flood the country with 140,000 troops.
The Taliban have everything they need to fight indefinitely: money from opium, weapons from previous wars, local networks for intimidating detractors, sanctuaries in Pakistan, and an almost unlimited supply of new recruits from rural Pashtun areas whose life narratives start and end with defending Islam and rejecting foreign rule. They also have a degree of strategic patience that the United States will never match. There’s an old Pashtun saying: “I took my revenge after one hundred years and I only regret that I acted in haste.” Neither 4,000 nor 40,000 more troops will change these basic facts.
Crafting good Afghanistan policy starts with asking good questions. “Why aren’t we winning?” isn’t one. For starters, the war isn’t ours to win; it is part of an intra-Pashtun tribal conflict that precedes Afghanistan’s founding in 1747.
Furthermore, the U.S. military can’t “win” in Afghanistan because its goals are not exclusively military. Outside military forces will not win the Afghans’ hearts and minds, make the government legitimate, or change ordinary Afghans’ stories about their leaders, communities, histories, or the law. In fact, America’s militarized approach has actually diminished Kabul’s legitimacy because the mere presence of foreign troops fuels narratives of crusaders and colonialists.
This over-reliance on military power has only increased since Trump took office. Thus far, the president’s only actions on the war have been to delegate Afghanistan policy to the secretary of defense and to trumpet the dropping of the “mother of all bombs” — the largest non-nuclear bomb in the U.S. arsenal.
All experts agree that the Afghan war will end in a negotiated settlement rather than a military victory, yet the president is seeking massive cuts to the State Department that would presumably do the negotiating. More than six months into the Trump presidency, there still is no U.S. ambassador in Kabul or assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia. Diplomacy isn’t just undervalued in Afghanistan; it’s absent.
Instead of seeking a final military victory over the Taliban, the president should pursue a strategy that manages the region’s transnational terrorism threats while protecting broader interests in a neighborhood that includes Pakistan, Iran, India and China. Doing so would take into account what has worked well in Afghanistan (selective counterterrorism strikes, health and education spending) and what has not (anti-corruption programs, counter-narcotics and contractor-led training of the army and police.) The strategy could involve surging or withdrawing troops, but it would recognize that the only core interests in Afghanistan are to cripple al-Qaeda and the Islamic State and prevent a Taliban return to Kabul.
Taking a regional approach would also prompt a reevaluation of the U.S. relationship with Pakistan, a country that barely shares our values, harbored Osama bin Laden and continues to support terrorist networks that kill Americans. We should also explore a stronger partnership with India — the world’s largest democracy and a far better security partner for countering a rising China. And the White House must recognize that NATO, the U.N. and human rights-centered diplomacy are assets – not obstacles – for maintaining the United States’ position in the world.
Before any diplomatic solution can take effect, however, the White House needs to stop muddying the waters with nonsense. The proposal to replace U.S. troops with mercenary contractors is an amateurish suggestion by novices who would sacrifice America’s reputation for a few dollars and fuel animosity among even the most pro-American members of the Afghan government. The president’s statements about monopolizing Afghanistan’s mineral wealth are equally unhelpful.
There are still some adults in the Trump administration, and they need to move the president away from the false choice of either bombing his way to victory or undertaking a precipitous withdrawal. Those aren’t the only choices and troops aren’t the only tool.