By John Ubaldi
Contributor, In Homeland Security
Three presidents have had to deal with Afghanistan and often made ambitious claims that the U.S. was making progress toward victory. However, none of the three chief executives defined that victory, articulated a clear path for ending the conflict or even described what peace would look like.
US Fails to Address Afghan Governance
The Trump administration follows the legacies of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, focusing exclusively on defeating the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and other terror networks. Each of these chief executives promoted a tactical and operational strategy without ever addressing the civil dimensions or creating a semblance of governance and development that could bring peace to the region.
That strategy didn’t mean replicating “nation building,” which failed miserably because the U.S. tried to introduce a Western-style government into a nation that had no history of democracy. By ignoring Afghan history and relying only on a tactical strategy, the U.S. is fighting half a war. There is no regional strategy.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani leads a weak and divided central government. Ghani has made some progress at curbing corruption, but he hasn’t been able to extend the rule of his government beyond the capital of Kabul. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for October, so only time will tell if the country can ever have a united, honest and effective government.
Ghani’s power is limited to mostly Kabul. He lacks the ability to extend his control into the provinces where the Taliban are the strongest. Local Afghans may not like the brutal nature of Taliban governance, but at least they might not be corrupt and out to benefit only themselves.
A Precipitous Withdrawal from Afghanistan
The deficiencies of President Obama’s partial withdrawal of troops in 2014 cost the U.S. vital contacts within Afghanistan. These contacts could have provided necessary intelligence about the country that can’t be duplicated by satellite or by reconnaissance aircraft.
Obama reversed his decision the following year. But, without having built direct contacts on the ground, the U.S. forfeited some understanding of how the Afghan people think and act, as well as a better comprehension of the complexities of the most remote regions in Afghanistan.
However, the U.S. has made some progress in Afghanistan in the past few years, as Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently reported. The U.S. has helped create more effective Afghan forces by providing adequate training and assistance to the Afghan army, including air support.
According to Cordesman, combat air support increased from a low of 411 sorties a year that actually fired munitions in 2014 to more than 10,000 sorties in the following two years.
However, the increase in tactical military operations has not made the country more secure. It has also not stemmed the growth and control of the Taliban in many areas of the country.
US Must Also Deal With Pakistan
The one facet of the conflict that continues to hamper U.S. efforts in Afghanistan is how the United States deals with Pakistan. Currently, the Taliban and other terror networks use Pakistan as a safe haven with the support of the government in Islamabad.
In an August 2017 statement, President Trump outlined his strategy for Pakistan. “The next pillar of our new strategy is to change the approach and how to deal with Pakistan,” he said. “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. Pakistan has much to gain from partnering with our effort in Afghanistan. It has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”
Trump echoed what past presidents have routinely complained about. The U.S. gives billions of dollars each year to Pakistan, while Islamabad continues to provide a safe haven for terror organizations that kill Americans and sow chaos inside Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s new Prime Minister, Imran Khan, advocates better relations with the United States. But at the same time, Khan has long blamed the terror problem on America. If the U.S. seeks better relations with Pakistan and its new leader, Washington must understand the power dynamics of that country.
One wonders how much power Khan actually has. He was elected president because the Pakistani people craved someone who wasn’t tied to the corruption of their past leaders.
Unfortunately, Khan has a dubious record. There is a great deal about his own financial wealth that remains hidden. Khan is very popular from his days as a cricket player, but the public does not know how he got rich.
Pakistan’s Two Real Power Brokers
The real power brokers in Pakistan are the military and the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate, better known as ISI. Both organizations avidly backed Khan’s bid to become president, but Khan will be kept on a short leash by the military and ISI.
Perhaps the only positive aspect of the US-Pakistan situation is the unpredictability of Donald Trump. His rhetoric often is not followed by any tangible policy, so foreign leaders, including Khan, are unsure how to respond to him. This inability to know what is really on Trump’s mind may be beneficial to the United States.
War of Attrition with Taliban Continues
After 17 years, the U.S. is still fighting a war of attrition with the Taliban, hoping that the enemy will become exhausted first. Unfortunately, this strategy ignores Afghan history.
The Soviet Union learned its lesson in 1988. After more than eight years trying prop up a weak communist regime, the Red Army pulled out of Afghanistan. The British learned the same lesson much earlier, in 1842, when an entire British army was massacred while retreating to India. The British wanted to conquer Afghanistan to prevent a Russian invasion into British-ruled India.
We don’t know if the United States will successfully end the war in Afghanistan or what peace would look like, if it ever comes. History has a way of repeating itself, but no one knows how many times.