Last week Donald Trump gave his first serious address to the nation as President. The subject was Afghanistan and he stuck to his script — none of the bombast, braggadocio and falsehoods that have characterized his political pronouncements.
The speech was important because it brought some clarity to U.S. strategy in what has become this country’s longest war — 16 years and counting. After stating that he was going against his own instinct to “pull out” of Afghanistan, the President effectively endorsed the recommendations of the U.S. commander in country, Gen. John Nicholson. Nicholson is a prototype modern Army general — a “thinking warrior,” West Point grad, four stars, chiseled features and deeply knowledgeable concerning the war he is fighting. That knowledge comes from being the longest-serving senior officer the United States has had in Afghanistan. He even met his wife there, a formidable expert on Afghanistan in her own right. Nicholson works on a daily basis with both the Afghan military and political leadership and has built a close bond of mutual respect with Afghanistan’s elected President, Ashraf Ghani. He also is relentlessly optimistic, a remarkable thing considering the circumstances he faces.
It is hard to imagine a country less likely than Afghanistan to have become the locale for America’s longest military involvement. Afghanistan is as remote from the United States, geographically and culturally, as any country on the planet. Prior to the 1980s there was only the most minimal relationship between the two countries. Few Americans could have located Afghanistan on a world map. The only real contact came through a small contingent of Peace Corps volunteers that served there in the 1960s and 1970s.
The sequence of events that has drawn the United States into Afghanistan began with the ill-fated Soviet invasion of that country in December 1979. The Reagan administration launched a major CIA effort to equip the local fighters resisting the Soviet occupation. These were the Muslim “Mujahidin,” who with U.S. weaponry ultimately forced the Soviet army to retreat in defeat after a decade of fighting. Not surprisingly, the George H.W. Bush administration declared the CIA effort a success and departed the region, leaving Afghanistan to its own devices. But new forces soon emerged to fill the resulting vacuum, including the Taliban and al-Qaida, led by Osama bin Laden. For Bin Laden, Afghanistan was a convenient safe haven from which to plan, organize and execute the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington.
The George W. Bush administration’s reaction was visceral — a retaliatory invasion of Afghanistan that forced the Taliban from power and drove Bin Laden into hiding. At that point it appeared that Washington had learned an important lesson: the United States must remain in Afghanistan to transform that country so that it could never again be a platform for attacking America. But then the Bush administration made a disastrous strategic mistake; it turned its attention away from Afghanistan and launched an invasion of Iraq. Not surprisingly, that invasion left Afghanistan as a relatively low-priority, poorly resourced effort. As a result, both the Taliban and al-Qaida reasserted themselves.
Faced with the Taliban’s resurgence, the Obama administration reluctantly committed to a “surge” of U.S. forces into the country that temporarily raised their number to over 100,000. That was sufficient to create a kind of stalemate — with the Kabul government controlling most urban centers and the Taliban much of the countryside. As U.S. force levels have been drawn down over the last two years, the Taliban have made marginal but significant gains. Meanwhile, the Afghan government and military have been crippled by endemic nepotism and corruption. Today the Taliban is stronger, not weaker, than it was four or five years ago. The casualty rate among Afghan army soldiers fighting the Taliban is horrific. Even with a promised increase, the size of the U.S. military presence is a fraction of what it was in the past. Taliban fighters have mounted attacks in the very heart of the capital. Neighboring Pakistan continues to work clandestinely with the Taliban as part of a strategy to give Pakistan influence in Afghanistan if and when the United States departs and the Taliban remain.
President Trump insisted in his address that the United States must “win” in Afghanistan. Few experts think such an objective is realistic. Afghanistan has never had a strong, effective (much less democratic) central government. It once had a degree of social stability, as multiple ethnic groups lived in relative harmony. But that has broken down under the impact of constant warfare. As the social fabric breaks down, warlords arise to provide local security. But they become barriers to building a central government with real authority. Meanwhile, Afghanistan is subjected to interventions from multiple outside actors: Russia, America, Pakistan, Iran, India, even China. The Americans bring power, capability and good intentions, but they are forever outsiders in an environment where suspicion of outsiders is part of the local DNA.
So how can Gen. Nicholson be even hopeful, much less optimistic? There are actually some grounds. The current government in Kabul, led by President Ghani, is a huge improvement over its predecessor under Hamid Karzai. Previous American military commanders were constantly undermined by Karzai. Nothing like that is happening now. The training of Afghan Special Forces is showing results that are showing up on the battlefield. The only way the outsider can be effective is if he is committed to enabling the local insider, something Nicholson understands.
But let’s have no illusions; America’s longest war has only just begun.