Earlier this month, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer told reporters the Trump administration was reviewing U.S. policy in Afghanistan to determine whether America could do anything more to increase pressure on the Islamic State. Predictably, one of the options at the top of the list is the deployment of several thousand additional U.S. troops to accelerate the training and mentoring of the Afghan national security forces[EK1] —a mission critics of the previous administration claimed was undermanned, under-resourced, and undermined since U.S. forces began withdrawing in the latter half of 2011.
Writing in the Washington Post this month, U.S. Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) state that “[i]nstead of trying to win, we have settled for just trying not to lose.” Retired Gen. John Allen—the former commander of all U.S. forces in Afghanistan—and defense analyst Michael O’Hanlon make a similar point, arguing that a few thousand additional American troops will go a long way toward completing the training and equipping mission cut short by what they view as a premature withdrawal.
These arguments will certainly influence the president who is highly prone to giving deference to his military commanders to an extent. Yet before President Trump makes his final decision and issues new orders, he should read between the lines of these proposals. Once he does, he’ll quickly realize that at no point do McCain, Graham, Allen, or O’Hanlon define what “victory” or “success” in Afghanistan looks like. This is the fatal flaw in their push to supplement roughly 9,000 U.S. troops already stationed in Afghanistan with another two or three thousand—without a sense of how success is defined, the United States will extend its operations in Afghanistan, already our country’s longest war, indefinitely.
American soldiers have been fighting, advising, and training in Afghanistan for so long that policymakers in the government and analysts throughout the Beltway have often overlooked the kinds of strategic questions that should outline the war strategy.
Instead, U.S. officials managing the war are inundated and almost obsessed with tactical queries that miss the forest for the trees: how many U.S. troops should be devoted to the training mission; should U.S. pilots operate under loosened rules of engagement; should the target set for the U.S. Air Force be expanded to include groups other than Al-Qaeda, ISIS, and the Taliban; and should U.S. advisers be operating at a lower level in the command structure with their Afghan colleagues?
All these policy questions should be debated, but they miss the bigger strategic picture.
We are talking about resourcing a war without exploring what exactly we are seeking to accomplish in the long run—or whether the goal of pressuring the Taliban insurgency to the point where they will eventually negotiate with the Afghan government is even possible.[EK2]
What we are currently missing is a general discussion in of what the overall U.S. war aims are and if they could even be met. As of today, U.S. officials simply assume we can “win” with the right amount of American firepower.
What good is 10,000; 15,000; or 100,000 U.S. troops if it simply means buying temporary stability at a high cost in both American and Afghan civilian lives and hundreds of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars—while achieving absolutely no sustainable strategic victory?
We need some common sense in our foreign policy, including an acknowledgement that American military power won’t always produce the politics that we hope to create in countries (like Afghanistan) that have far different histories, traditions, and ways of governing than the United States and western democracies do.
We should confront Al-Qaeda and ISIS when U.S. intelligence officials have information these organizations may be in the planning stages of launching a terrorist attack against Americans at home or abroad. We should continue diplomatic assistance to for an Afghan-led negotiating process that seeks to split the Taliban and perhaps bring some of their members into the consensual political order.
What we shouldn’t do is adopt the recommendations put forth by Sens. McCain and Graham—doing more of the same with more U.S. resources, and treat U.S. policy in Afghanistan as if the assumptions are already chiseled in stone and unworthy of further debate or warranting a second-look.
We went down this exact same road 10 years ago. The U.S. couldn’t accomplish a utopian democracy and a terrorist-free Afghanistan when there were more than 120,000 western troops in the country, why should we expect an extra few thousand to do the job?
We should instead realize that only Afghans can fight and win their future—American soldiers and taxpayers can’t win it for them.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.