by Dennis Ross*
President Trump has decided on his strategy for Afghanistan. Following a review, which the president admitted led him to go against his instincts to withdraw American forces, Trump made the decision to send additional troops to Afghanistan. The president said we would win in Afghanistan—surely a tall order, assuming there is not even an agreement on what winning in Afghanistan means.
In outlining his approach, President Trump made clear that we were out of the nation-building business. And, he went to some length in making clear his policy was different than Obama’s. In some ways that is surely true. Unlike Obama, President Trump was careful not to talk about the numbers of forces he was adding—even though administration and Pentagon officials let it be known that we would probably add around 4,000 forces. Obama, by contrast, was clear about the numbers he was talking about, especially with the surge at the end of 2009. But that also led to one of the biggest complaints that the military and others had about President Obama’s decision to announce that he was adding thirty thousand troops because he also stipulated at the time that those forces would begin to be drawn down in one year, regardless of the conditions on the ground. Obama felt that if the troops were going to make a difference—as our military argued they would—that within a year we would see the results and there would be no need to maintain the additional forces. By the same token, if in a year they had not made a difference, we should be prepared to withdraw them because the surge was obviously not having the affect the Pentagon had predicted.
While Obama’s argument was logical, it overlooked that by signaling when we would begin to withdraw these additional forces, we gave the Taliban a reason to wait us out. In addition, we signaled to both the Afghans and the Pakistanis that the duration of our commitment was limited—and they might need to adjust their policies accordingly. Trump, of course, offered no timetables and avoided this possible pitfall.
But the remainder of the strategy, in reality, looks more like continuity than change when it comes to Afghanistan. To be fair, our forces may embed more with Afghan forces and be in a better position to call in air strikes than previously, but basically the US military will continue to train and advise the Afghan military and counter terror units, not take their place in combat. That makes perfect sense, but it is not a change from the Obama administration. Similarly, the president’s call to deal with corruption in Afghanistan is certainly important—particularly as recent firings of Afghan commanders in Helmand and Kandahar provinces for pocketing money for the “ghost soldiers” on their books offers an indication of the corruption in the military itself. But trying to get the Afghan government to root out corruption is not a new concern or mission. Both the Bush and the Obama administrations made countering the corruption a major objective. During the Obama administration, when Richard Holbrooke assumed his position as the Special Representative of the US for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009, he identified this as one of the main challenges to be overcome if the strategy was to succeed. Similarly, H. R. McMaster, President Trump’s national security advisor, led at one point the Joint Anti-Corruption Task Force in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a country that ranks 169 out of 176 on Transparency International’s 2016 Corruption Perceptions Index.
It is not clear how this administration can or will succeed in fighting corruption where it’s predecessors failed to make much progress. Perhaps, more progress was made than meets the eye and Afghan President Ghani does seem committed to making more of an effort than his predecessor, Hamid Karzai. But there should be no illusions: corruption is deeply embedded in the central Afghan government and in the provincial districts. It is now part of the fabric of the Afghan reality and will not be eradicated any time soon.
Another area where one sees more continuity than change is on Pakistan. Yes, Pakistan permits the Afghan Taliban, including specifically the Haqqani network, to have sanctuaries in Pakistan and to operate from them—going into Afghanistan to carry out attacks and returning to the safety of these sanctuaries. The Haqqani network, in particular, has much American and Afghan blood on their hands and is ensconced in Pakistan. Much like corruption, there has been a long-standing demand of the Pakistanis that they deny Taliban and the Haqqani networks these sanctuaries. Both the Bush and Obama administrations tried various ways (including rewards and punishments) to get Pakistan to respond—and it has not. For the Pakistanis, especially the Pakistan military and intelligence service, India has always been and remains its main preoccupation. And, the Pakistanis see India’s presence in Afghanistan and its growing role in developing Afghan infrastructure as a potential threat. For the Pakistani security services, the Taliban remains a hedge against India in Afghanistan.
None of this suggests that the Pakistanis are not fighting terror or have not been the frequent victims of it. They surely have. But they have also long supported terror groups against India and when it comes to the Taliban, they have played a double game. President Trump may have been tougher in his public rhetoric on Pakistan, threatening to cut off our aid, and looking favorably on our relationship with India and its role in Afghanistan. No doubt, the administration believes this will convey to Pakistan that we mean business and it is playing with fire. The problem, unfortunately, is that we depend on Pakistan for much of our logistical effort in Afghanistan—and if they deny us access, it will complicate our military support mission. Worse, with the backing of China, including major new investments in Pakistan’s infrastructure, and the way the Pakistanis see their stakes against India, they are not likely to give into us on the sanctuary issue.
This is not a criticism of the Trump approach. What the president decided reflected the decision that if we left Afghanistan, the Afghan government would probably not survive, the Taliban would return and al Qaeda and ISIS might once again have a base in Afghanistan from which to plan and carry out terror attacks against the United States and its allies. He was right to make the decision given this likely alternative. But, unfortunately, success in Afghanistan is not just around the corner—and even success probably needs to be defined not as the military defeat of the Taliban as much as it is a denial of its ability to win and a recognition on its part that it is time to seek a genuine political settlement for the future of the country. In other words, no one should expect that the United States will be out of Afghanistan any time soon.
*American Middle East envoy Dennis Ross has served in the Administrations of Presidents Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Barack Obama, and is counselor and Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in Washington.