After a five-month-long inter-agency investigation, senior officials in Washington worked to provide the new Trump administration with a solution concerning America’s future in Afghanistan. They ultimately recommended sending in more troops. President Trump announced on August 21 that he intended to deploy 4,000 more soldiers to join the 8,500 already there.
The US war in Afghanistan is the longest war in American history. After over 2,400 American casualties and almost $2 trillion dollars spent in the region, the American people still struggle to answer some major questions: what is our objective, and how will we achieve those objectives?
The invasion was a result of the September 11th attacks in 2001. The attacks were the response—as stated by the architect of the attack, Osama Bin Laden in a Fatwa in 1998—of American presence in the Muslim holy cities of Mecca and Medina, American support for Israel, and American support for secular authoritarian figures in the region. Afghanistan was key because it was a country in civil war between the Northern Alliance and the Taliban. The Taliban were gaining power and allowed Al Qaeda to maintain a presence on the Afghan-Pakistani border. When the United States demanded that the Taliban turn in Osama Bin Laden, they refused. The US opted to get him themselves.
In October 2001, the US invaded, and by December, much of Al Qaeda’s leadership and training infrastructure had collapsed. However, the United States entered a much wider scale war than the American people had initially expected. Osama Bin Laden wished to engage the United States on purpose, in order to engage the West in a globalized war that would materialize all over the world. He created the concept of “the enemy abroad,” that is the West, over the traditional “the enemy near,” meaning the authoritarian figures of the Middle East (ie. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak). He even created a sixth pillar of Islam which obligates, according to him, all Muslims to perform violent jihad as opposed to the traditional jihad (struggle through personal betterment).
Al Qaeda planned for the collapse of their ranks, not underestimating the most powerful military in history. Officer positions were quickly filled and bases and training facilities were rebuilt and supported by ones built in Pakistan. The United States could not and cannot pin down both groups because they have no center of gravity. The war slowed from taking territory, to state-building, to creating an Afghan government that can prevent the Taliban or Al Qaeda from emerging again as a regional power.
A Change in Strategy
Guerrilla warfare dictates that an attack-retreat-counter-attack strategy will draw the enemy in to the attacker’s chosen battlefield. The goal of non-state actor combat is to inflict painful or isolating military defeats on the regular forces to make them look weak. They can deliberate the targeting and hurt civilians to shake belief in the authority. This specific tactic is what strains occupations so heavily.
The destruction of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan, a far-flung landlocked country will likely not be worth the blood and treasure necessary to eradicate a people favored by much of rural Afghan society. However, a total withdrawal as promised by candidate Trump will end with long-term brutal consequences that may lead to future involvement of American troops with an enemy that would be allowed to entrench itself. 2011 saw the presence of the most American troops in the region, numbering over 100,000. The war did not end. If troop increase alone will not solve the issue, a change in strategy might. However, the change must address several long-standing issues that have impeded success in the past.
Four broad problems keep Afghanistan reliant on US troop presence: First, Afghanistan suffers from an inability to protect itself and protect its government. Corruption and mismanagement make the task of building Afghanistan into a functional government more difficult for the United States. Second, Taliban and Al Qaeda seem to be gaining momentum and territory making a US negotiation from a position of strength less likely. Third is the growing threat of Islamic State (IS) which now entrenched itself on the Afghan-Pakistani border. Fourth, Pakistan’s lack of cooperation and untrustworthiness has prolonged the survival of the enemy by provide a place of sanctuary.
The government itself is mired with corruption due to tribal politics and ethnic priorities. Parliamentary elections last year were neither held nor rescheduled. Concerning defense, the Afghan military has more generals than the United States, and its security sector employees are inexperienced. What’s more is that the Afghan government feels no need to quickly improve the situation as the knowledge of an American bail-out tends to keep the security forces from naturally improving. All this adds up to Afghan soldiers who knows his government’s inefficiencies and feels no desire to sacrifice for that government, a vital component for the effectiveness of a soldier.
The corruption and inefficiency of the government and its institutions have continued to embolden Afghan insurgents. Last year saw major gains by the Taliban, such as in the capital of the Kunduz Province in the north and an increase of activity in Faryab, Jawzjan, and Baghaln provinces. Helmand province, a largely contested region throughout the war, was also the setting for some large-scale battles.
IS has found a niche on the Pakistani-Afghan border. If IS was able to dominate Iraq while Iraq did have strong institutions and military culture, imagine what it could do if the US pulls out of Afghanistan, a country with a security force still in its infancy. A withdrawal of American forces would let the IS problem dominate Afghanistan and lead to the atrocities seen in Iraq all over again. One thing that the Trump administration may use as an advantage is the Taliban’s perspective, which puts IS in the competitive rival category. IS has carried out several deadly attacks in the Shia city of Herat during Ramadan this year.
The United States is dependent on Pakistan not just for the intelligence the Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI) offers, but also for the line of communication it serves as between American US bases and outside Afghanistan. Therefore, it is absolutely necessary that we gain Pakistani cooperation and share the same goals for Afghanistan. That being said, Pakistan wishes to see the Taliban thrive in order to counter-balance the threatening strengths of India. Pakistan and India have been at conflict since 1947, and while both have nuclear weapons, India has six times the population of Pakistan and stronger military technology. Pakistan uses the Taliban as an irregular force to combat India. This keeps the United States from being able to effectively finish the war in Afghanistan as Osama Bin Laden and other members of Al Qaeda and now the Haqqani Network have taken advantage of Pakistan’s willingness to be a sanctuary state for terrorists.
Afghanistan has resisted empires in the past, but with clear strategy and regional consensus, there may be an end in sight. Proposals do exist to wrap up the conflict, but they vary in investment, diplomatic political drawbacks. What is primary is that the United States creates a status quo that prevents events in Afghanistan from hurting more Americans and her allies. Richard Armitage, deputy secretary of state under President George W. Bush, states that a withdrawal of the bulk of troops is possible as long as a counter-terrorism force remains. President Trump, however, states that he will completely defeat the enemy, a task proven impossible in the past 16 years. With Pakistan and India vying for primacy in the region, ISIS consolidating its power in the Afghan mountains, and the Afghan forces unable to defend its institutions alone, a withdrawal would only ensure a stronger enemy that could recreate or improve upon the September 11th attacks.