By Max Boot
August 22, 2017
After a torturous and protracted White House review, President Trump unveiled what was billed as a new Afghanistan policy on Monday night. But what exactly was new?
There were two significant departures from the Obama administration’s policy. First, Mr. Trump rejected a timeline for withdrawal: “Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on.” Second, the president gave up any hope, admittedly slim, of successful peace talks with the Taliban: “Someday, after an effective military effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But nobody knows if or when that will ever happen.”
This is an overdue recognition that an unseemly rush to the exits and an over eagerness for peace talks defeat the United States’ objectives in Afghanistan by convincing the Taliban that we lack the will to prevail and will soon be gone. But on a deeper level, there was far more continuity than change — not least in Mr. Trump’s denial that he is engaged in nation-building when he is doing precisely that.
Here is President Barack Obama, on June 22, 2011, announcing the withdrawal of 33,000 troops from Afghanistan: “America, it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” And here is President Trump on Monday, announcing the dispatch of more troops to Afghanistan: “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
But when I visited Afghanistan a few days ago, travelling with Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the chief of the United States Central Command, all the briefings I received from American officials were about nation-building. Admittedly, no one used that term — the preferred euphemisms are “capacity building,” “enabling” and “working by, through and with.” But the intent is the same: to create Afghan government institutions that can overcome the threats from the Taliban, the Haqqani network, the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups active in that country.
The United States really has no alternatives. It is willing neither to abandon Afghanistan, that way allowing it once again to become a safe haven for transnational terrorists, nor to put the entire combat mission on the backs of United States forces, an effort that would call for the deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops.
Some, like former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., have argued for a narrowly focused counterterrorist mission with a small number of Special Operations forces. But that model was discredited by recent history in Yemen, where the collapse of the central government forced the withdrawal of American Special Operations forces. No counterterrorist operation can be effective in a chaotic and lawless environment where insurgents control a significant proportion of the country.
The only conceivable path to success lies in fostering stable and effective institutions of government that can police their own territory with diminishing amounts of outside assistance. In other words, nation-building.
And that is what United States forces are trying to do in Afghanistan, albeit with insufficient resources and support from Washington, where successive presidents have insisted on defining the mission in narrowly counterterrorist terms. The easiest — though far from easy — nation-building efforts are focused on building up the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces.
The regular police and army have been disappointing. The police are corrupt and ineffective, while the army is intent on staying in fixed positions rather than taking the fight to the enemy. The biggest success has been the Afghan Special Operations forces: Despite making up only 7 percent of the military, they have taken the lead in nearly three-quarters of offensive operations.
The international coalition is planning to increase the size of the Afghan Special Operations forces to 30,000 personnel (from about 21,000) — and on Aug. 20, I attended a ceremony at Camp Morehead, southeast of Kabul, to mark the creation of a new corps. The hope is that this larger force, assisted by American advisers and airpower, will be able to take ground from the insurgents that currently control or contest territory where 40 percent of the country’s population lives.
The regular army will be the “hold” force, while the police move from paramilitary duties to regular civilian policing. The coalition is also pouring significant resources into the Afghan Air Force. By 2021, the Afghan Air Force should be able to take over most of the air-support role now played by the United States and allied air forces.
But security forces do not exist in a vacuum; it will be necessary also to reduce corruption in the Afghan government and increase its capacity for effective action. This has proved to be a far more difficult task, with an administration often seemingly paralyzed by infighting between President Ashraf Ghani and the chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah. Northern warlords, meanwhile, have engaged in open fighting.
Officials in Kabul do, however, report a modest thaw in the Ghani-Abdullah feud, which has allowed them to agree on reformers to lead the defence and interior ministries. More important, Mr. Ghani has made headway against the corruption that has served as a potent recruiting tool for the Taliban, thanks to several successful prosecutions of senior officials by the country’s crusading attorney general, Farid Hamidi.
The United States will never achieve any lasting success in Afghanistan unless it can prevail in the inglorious and frustrating business of making Afghanistan’s government work better. These efforts have never received the same level of backing from Washington that combat operations have. The American military has had to take the lead in expanding the Afghan government’s capacity because our civilian agencies have been ineffectual.
Mr. Trump must direct the United States government to do this job better. That is nation-building, but as long as he does it, the president can just call it a “win.”
Max Boot is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of the forthcoming book “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American Tragedy in Vietnam.”