The Trump administration is considering whether to plunge more resources and troops into the United States’ longest war — Afghanistan — as some of the president’s top generals are calling for. The issue pits President Trump’s commitment to end nation-building against his promise to stamp out terrorism in a conflict where a clear U.S. strategy is sorely lacking.
After more than 15 years of U.S. fighting, the war is at a crossroads. The Afghan national security forces are on their heels. The government is asking the United States and its NATO partners to help it go on offense against the Taliban, which has been taking territory with the help of Pakistan, Iran and Russia. The top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson, has publicly testified that he wants “a few thousand” more troops there. He also says there is a need for a more “holistic review” of the mission.
As Defense Secretary Jim Mattis prepares a formal recommendation to the White House, debate has renewed in Washington on whether the United States is throwing good money after bad in Afghanistan. But as far as the Afghan government is concerned, there’s really no safe alternative.
“The Taliban, while they may not be directly planning direct attacks on U.S. territory, they provide the environment for all kinds of terrorist groups to operate,” Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s ambassador to Washington, told me. “If we allow any terrorist group to succeed, it doesn’t matter what terrorist group, it emboldens all of them.”
There’s an immediate need for equipment and personnel, he said, before the start of the summer fighting season, which is sure to be bloody. If thousands more U.S. troops arrive, they would serve in an advise-and-training role, not direct combat. But the idea is to embed them in Afghan units, placing them closer to the fighting.
The Afghan government is also asking for helicopters, special forces gear and intelligence assistance to fill urgent shortfalls. For example, the Afghan military’s fleet of Russian helicopters is mostly grounded, in part because of a lack of spare parts as a result of U.S. sanctions against Russia.
Mohib is optimistic that Trump’s team is open to the idea of committing more resources to Afghanistan.
“The hesitation that existed in the previous administration is gone,” Mohib said. “The hesitation was that the U.S. didn’t have a good partner to work with in the Afghan government.”
Republican leaders in Congress are cautiously supportive of an Afghanistan troop increase they would be responsible to fund. But they want to make sure the Trump administration doesn’t repeat what they see as President Barack Obama’s mistakes, including setting timelines for withdrawal and failing to bring the American people along.
“Arbitrary political limits make it harder to accomplish the mission,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) told me. “It is equally important that the president make the public case for our continued presence in Afghanistan. . . . President Obama never made that case, and our mission suffered for it.”
Trump barely mentioned Afghanistan during the campaign, other than to say it was “not going well” or to compare it favorably to Chicago. The lack of campaign rhetoric gives Trump something of a free hand to choose any policy he wants.
The generals supporting the plan could strengthen their case by getting NATO allies to make human and financial commitments up front. That would address Trump’s criticism that NATO doesn’t do counterterrorism and doesn’t pay its fair share. The generals might also argue that Afghanistan is a natural long-term partner for the regional fight against terrorism, which is not going away soon.
Experts mostly agree, though, that surging resources to bolster the Afghan security forces is a stopgap measure at best. Without a comprehensive strategy that deals with Pakistan’s insistence on providing support and sanctuary for the Taliban, no gains are sustainable. A new strategy also must include a plausible path to return to negotiations to end the conflict. For now, the Taliban doesn’t feel enough pressure to compromise.
“An open-ended commitment with no strategy poses a very high risk of very expensive failure,” said Christopher Kolenda, a former senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the Pentagon.
Mattis, Nicholson, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. and new national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster all have deep experience in Afghanistan and understand that the military aspect of the plan is necessary but not sufficient.
Selling a new U.S. commitment to Trump and then to the American people will not be easy. But if the administration is able to tune out the politics, share the burden and follow a clear strategy, the benefits of the deal will outweigh the costs.
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