America’s war in Afghanistan has something of the feel of the movie “Groundhog Day.” Each policy debate about U.S. strategy there is pretty much like the ones that preceded it. Or, as the greatest of all American philosophers, baseball great Yogi Berra, said it’s “deja vu all over again.” This is the appropriate reaction to the announcement that President Trump has given Defense Secretary James Mattis the green light to deploy thousands of additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan. Instead of America First, the new administration seems—albeit so far cautiously—to be following a policy of American Military Power First in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria.
For now this is only a “mini-surge” involving a much smaller commitment of American forces than the George W. Bush administration’s 2007 Iraq surge, or the Afghan surge authored by Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal during the Obama administration. The history of the Forever War in Afghanistan tells us that the small increment of troops involved in this Trump surge will have no effect on the outcome in Afghanistan. After all, in August 2010 the United States had some 100,000 troops deployed in Afghanistan—a force that was insufficient to defeat the Taliban.
The Trump mini-surge raises important questions. What objectives is the Trump administration seeking to achieve in Afghanistan? How is success or victory being defined? Is there any viable strategy that can lead to “victory”? What are the implications of the Trump surge for civil-military relations? What should U.S. policy be in Afghanistan going forward?
As Secretary Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 12, the war in Afghanistan is not going well. “We are not winning,” he said, adding that the “Taliban had a good year last year, and they are trying to have a good one this year.” He indicated that, with the authority given to him by President Trump, he will send more troops to Afghanistan. And he promised to outline his “new” strategy by mid-July.
Scholars who study grand strategy must be puzzled by Secretary Mattis’s sequencing. His approach—troops now, strategy later—puts the cart before the horse. Before deciding to send more troops, policymakers should be asking what an increase in U.S. forces can accomplish, define what “victory” means, and if there is any plausible strategy to prevail. Instead, Secretary Mattis foresees a long term American military presence in Afghanistan to buy time for the Afghan military to become capable of maintaining stability in the country—backed by U.S. air power and advisors. This is a new definition of victory. But there is nothing new here at all. This has been the goal of U.S. policy for at least a decade. How will Secretary Mattis’s strategy be more successful than that of the George W. Bush or Barack Obama administrations?
The answer is simple: it won’t. And there cannot be a truly new strategy, because the United States has pretty much exhausted its strategic options in Afghanistan. Washington has already tried the insertion of large numbers of combat troops—the Obama surge. Under George W. Bush, Washington tried democratization, nation-building, and economic development. After the reversal of the Obama surge, the U.S. tried the Afghanistan version of the Richard Nixon administration’s “Vietnamization strategy”, using American advisors and air power to support the creation of local-military capabilities that would enable the U.S. to eventually hand-off combat operations to indigenous forces. Washington has tried counterinsurgency, or COIN, as its civilian and military advocates call it. And the U.S., at various times, has tried combinations of all of these policies. None of these efforts have succeeded, however. There is no “new” strategy to try.
Why should we believe that Secretary Mattis has the strategic magic bullet for the Afghan war? After nearly sixteen years, Washington has pretty much emptied its strategic playbook. Why should anyone believe that sending several thousand more American troops to Afghanistan will have any kind of effect on the war’s outcome? After all, under President Obama, the United States ramped up its troop presence in Afghanistan to 100,000—without discernible effect.
What will happen when the so-called new strategy proves just as unsuccessful as the failed ones Washington has already tried? Increasing American forces in Afghanistan risks becoming a slippery slope. When the first increment of additional military forces fails to stabilize the military situation in Afghanistan, the military and the war hawks (who tend to be Republican and/or neoconservative) will call for sending even more troops. Just one more surge, they will argue, will win the day. But it won’t. Washington has already surged unsuccessfully in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Although David Patraeus’s public relations team, and his COIN acolytes (both in the military, and in some Washington think tanks) lauded the general for implementing a brilliantly successful Iraq surge in 2007, the reality is different. As President George W. Bush stated, the purpose of the surge was to “buy time” (with American blood) for a political reconciliation between Iraq’s Sunni and Shiite communities. We’re still waiting for that. While it is true that the violence between the two groups did abate during the surge—especially in Baghdad—there was no political reconciliation between them. Indeed, the sectarian schism became worse as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki exploited the American suppression of Sunni insurgents to tighten the Shiite grip on political power. This produced a Sunni backlash—the surge’s unforeseen consequence—that led to the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS).
President Obama’s critics pin the blame for the emergence of ISIS on his decision to unwind the American commitment to Iraq. Unlike his critics, Obama had the good sense to realize that Washington had no political solution to Iraq’s sectarian war. The United States simply could not impose good governance—much less democracy—in a state as riven by conflict as Iraq. Nor did the U.S. have an answer for the rampant corruption that has pervaded the Iraqi government and military. The answer for Iraq given by Obama’s critics was to maintain an open-ended American military presence in Iraq: a strategy of more troops forever. What this would have accomplished is hard to see. The U.S. made a determined military effort in Iraq and failed both in rebuilding the country politically, and in suppressing Sunni militants. Once ISIS burst on the scene, Obama was wise to resist the pressure put on him to reverse his military drawdown by sending large numbers of U.S. troops back to Iraq.
In U.S. surge in Afghanistan—orchestrated by Patraeus and McChrystal—the American goal was to break the Taliban insurgency, and follow up with a “civilian” surge that would root out corruption, establish good governance, and reconstruct Afghanistan economically. But this surge predictably failed. An Anglo-American military effort to clear the Taliban from Helmand province was supposed to be a dramatic demonstration of how the McChrystal Afghan surge could succeed, and thus serve as a template for U.S. victory in Afghanistan. The centerpiece of the Helmand operations was an assault by U.S. Marines on the provincial capital, Marjah, which, in the words of a senior British commander, would “mark the start of the end of the insurgency.” (Still waiting for that.) After the Taliban was driven from Marjah, the civilian surge would take over. As McChrystal said on the operation’s eve, “We’ve got a government in a box, ready to roll in.” Well, things did not turn out this way. The Taliban were not defeated either militarily or politically, and Afghanistan is still waiting for a government free from widespread corruption.
When the Trump/Mattis surge fails to deliver “victory,” it’s a good bet that the U.S. military, and much of the civilian foreign policy establishment, will call for applying even more military force in a war that—like Vietnam—is fundamentally unwinnable. The doctrine of sunk costs would drive American policy. As former Secretary of State Dean Rusk commented when the Johnson administration debated dramatically increasing the number of American ground troops in Vietnam, “In for a dime, in for a dollar.” Back then, the mantra of U.S. hawks was that America could not “cut and run.” Today, it is that the United States must prosecute the war in Afghanistan—and those elsewhere in the wider Middle East—more vigorously, lest “American leadership” be undermined.
It is true that historical parallels are never exact. It is equally true that if American policymakers had a historical memory of what went wrong in Vietnam—and why—the U.S. would be thinking about how to disengage from Afghanistan, and how to avoid being sucked in more deeply in Iraq, Syria, and the wider Middle East.
Bad Policy, Made Badly
The Mattis surge will prove to be a bad policy. But equally important, it is bad policy made badly. President Trump has delegated responsibility for Afghanistan, and the wider Middle East (including the revived “war on terror”) to his Secretary of Defense. This has troubling implications for civil-military relations. And it is a big break with precedent—think President Harry S. Truman overriding General Douglas MacArthur’s plan to escalate the Korean War, and his decision to fire MacArthur. In the American system of government, the president is the commander-in-chief, and has the ultimate authority in matters of war and peace. One can hardly imagine presidents like Truman, FDR, Eisenhower, JFK, or Nixon outsourcing this responsibility to the military. (Then again, maybe a hands-on President Trump would be even worse than the hands-off version). The issue of whether the president and civilian policymakers, or the military should set policy has been a big issue in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
In fall 2009, General McChrystal, then commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, gave a speech in London that clearly was intended to pressure the Obama administration into agreeing to a “surge” of U.S. troops to Afghanistan. It was the same argument we have heard on so many occasions: With more time and troops, victory is just around the corner. At the time, McChrystal was widely criticized for breaching the settled understanding that it is the province of the civilian authorities, not the military, to make decisions about national strategy.
In August 2010 interviews with the New York Times and “Meet the Press,” Petraeus—who replaced McChrystal as commander in Afghanistan—began a public relations blitz to convince the American public and Congress that the U.S. should stay the course in Afghanistan rather than holding to President Obama’s pledge to start withdrawing troops in July 2011. Serving senior officers are supposed to advise the president behind closed doors, not intervene publicly in policy debates in an attempt to shape debates about U.S. policy. Both McChrystal and Patraeus challenged the President’s declared policy, and thus the very doctrine of the primacy of civilian authority. In his first years in office, Obama got steamrollered by the military into surging in Afghanistan. But as he gained experience in office, he acted to reassert the primacy of civilian authority, and became more confident in imposing his own views about U.S. global strategy.
Some will argue that these precedents are inapplicable because Secretary Mattis is not a serving officer. But the circumstances here are unique. The United States has a president with no grasp of, or interest in, American grand strategy. Instead, we have a president who is abdicating his own responsibility to guide, and ultimately determine, U.S. policy in Afghanistan and the wider Middle East. And he is delegating this responsibility to a retired four-star general—one, moreover, whose military reputation is deeply invested in the outcome of events in the Middle East. This is not a criticism of Secretary Mattis, but of the process by which he was nominated, which required a special Congressional waiver to allow a retired general to serve as defense secretary.
This president leans too much on the military without having in his administration the kind of policy experts who offer different advice. In the Trump administration, there is no one who can advance persuasive counterarguments to the military’s case. Mattis is making the same case that was made by Westmoreland, Petraeus, and McChrystal: With just a small (or big) infusion of resources and more time, victory can be won in wars that are fundamentally unwinnable.
Some will also argue that criticism of the Trump/Mattis surge is over wrought because it will be limited in scope and time. But there is a circle of people in the national security establishment—civilian and military—who see Afghanistan, and the wider Middle East, as just one piece of a bigger picture: the “generational” war on radical Islam (be it in its ISIS, Al Qaeda, or the Taliban). For those who hold to this line of thinking, the U.S. has been devoting far too few resources to the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, etc. In 2007 John Nagl, a military theorist, told a meeting of Texas-based U.S. national security experts that it will take “at least a generation” for the U.S. to prevail in the fight against radical Islamic terrorism. The battle against radical Islam, he said, may last as long as the Cold War, and will require a greater mobilization of national resources than has occurred to date. Nagl suggested that to prevail, the U.S. will need to devote at least an additional 2 percent of GDP to this “long war.”
It is stunning how the lessons of Vietnam have slipped from memory of today’s policymakers. But those lessons need to be relearned. Wars like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq are fundamentally political in nature. Movements like ISIS or Al Qaeda cannot be bombed to hell or obliterated militarily (as President Trump has said). Nationalism, religion, and a backlash against the West are deep historical forces that drive wars like Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq—and there are no easy solutions. Nation-building does not work any better than American military power in these wars. Indeed, there may not be any solutions to the vortex of violence emanating from the Middle East. We can be sure, however, that as long as this administration is in office (and perhaps, even after it is out of office), that we will hear the same stock phrases from the mouths of policymakers: Give us more troops, give us more time, and we can win. Well, we could not win in Vietnam. And we have not—and cannot win—in Afghanistan and Iraq, wars which began in 2001 and 2003, respectively.
Ironically, as many security studies scholars have figured out, far from stamping out terrorism spreading outward from the Islamic world, the heavy-handed U.S. presence in the region stimulates it. Perhaps it’s time for a new tack. Instead of spending lives and money trying to put out the fire, it might be wiser to pull back, insulate ourselves as much as possible, and let the fire burn itself out.
Christopher Layne is University Distinguished Professor of International Affairs and Robert M. Gates Chair in National Security at Texas A&M University.