In the next week, the defense secretary, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of state, the director of national intelligence, and the acting national-security advisor will hand President Donald Trump a new military plan to defeat the Islamic State. For the sake of America’s military and political mission in Afghanistan, President Trump should direct the Defense Department, State Department, and intelligence community to conduct a similar assessment against the Taliban movement.
At the top of the list should be a fundamental question. Is the conventional concept of “winning” in Afghanistan—pulverizing the Taliban into the ground; defeating al-Qaeda into oblivion; establishing an Afghan army that is corruption-free, independent, and strong enough to control the entire country; and constructing an Afghan government that respects democratic principles—possible to meet?
U.S. troop numbers in the country may be at their lowest point since 2002, but the American aircraft and special-operations forces are still all too frequently asked to bail out the Afghan army when they find themselves surrounded.
The security situation is going in the wrong direction at an increasingly alarming rate. According to the latest report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and data from the UN mission, territory under Afghan government control continues to contract. U.S. Forces-Afghanistan reports that 57.2 percent of the country’s districts as of November 2016 are solidly under the thumb of the Afghan security forces—a 15 percent decrease from the same period the year prior. More than 83 percent of Uruzgan province and 57 percent of Helmand province are under insurgent control or influence.
Armed clashes between insurgent groups and the Afghan security forces have reached their highest intensity since the UN began tracking the data. Meanwhile, the Afghan security forces are taking so many casualties that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for Kabul to address the attrition rate—between November 2015 and November 2016, there were a total of 18,562 casualties (killed and injured).
Afghanistan was barely mentioned as a subject during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Now that he’s their commander-in-chief, President Trump has a duty and responsibility to the American service-members who are continuing to fight the Taliban—and the American taxpayers who backstopped 72.8 percent of the Afghan army’s budget in 2016—that U.S. policy is serving the security interests of the United States.
Trump should order the Pentagon to undertake a top-to-bottom review of the Afghanistan mission with these questions in mind:
- What is our national-security interest in Afghanistan? Every military campaign must have a purpose, a method to achieve that purpose, and a desired end-state that must be reached. We’ve lost sight of that entirely in Afghanistan.
- What U.S. force level on the ground and in the air is commensurate with Washington’s overall national-security objective in Afghanistan: defending the U.S. homeland from a terrorist attack emanating from Afghan territory?
- Is $4.2 billion per year in U.S. funding to the Afghan defense and interior ministries, coupled with approximately 8,400 U.S. trainers and advisors, necessary to prevent another 9/11-style terrorist attack? Can this counterterrorism objective be accomplished with fewer personnel and military resources at a lower expense?
- Is it time to accept that the Taliban, however brutal it has been to the Afghan population during its short 1996–2001 rule, is a permanent force in Afghan society? Is there any evidence in Afghanistan’s history that forces with significant tribal-based support can be shut out of the political process?
- Is the current strategy of whack-a-mole, where U.S. aircraft search and take out Taliban targets, leading the Afghan government to assume that U.S. support will always be there?
- Is it fiscally sustainable for the U.S. Congress to continue writing checks of $4 billion at a clip if the Afghan government can only contribute 9 percent of the funds for its own army’s budget ($336 million in FY2016 compared to the $3.65 billion that Washington allocated in that same year)?
- Is a political settlement with the Taliban even possible as long as the insurgency continues to receive safe-haven within Pakistan?
- Can Washington afford a business as usual mentality with the Pakistanis if the Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate refuses to distinguish its policy on Afghanistan from its rivalry with India?
- How can the United States respond in the likelihood that Islamabad continues to shelter senior members of the Quetta Shura or overlook the Haqqani network on its side of the Afghan-Pakistani border?
- Is a working relationship with Pakistan simply too important to the stability of South Asia and the nuclear non-proliferation regime? If the answer to this question is “yes,” then will picking a fight over Afghanistan make both of those elusive objectives unattainable?
None of these questions are easy. In fact, all of them are difficult to the point of being uncomfortable. After 15 years of blood, sweat, tears, and treasure, any question that forces U.S. policymakers to confront whether America’s investment in the war has been worthy of the cost will generate a fair amount of anxiety.
As Stephen Walt explains persuasively when assessing our foreign-policy outcomes, “There was never much doubt that the United States could topple relatively weak and/or unpopular governments—as it has in Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq and, most recently, Libya—but the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that unmatched power-projection capabilities were of little use in constructing effective political orders once the offending leadership was removed.”
This should be evidence enough that difficult but elementary questions need to be discussed within the inter-agency process. To kick off this uncomfortable but necessary step, President Trump should sign another executive order tasking his commanders to do just that.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.