It is the American foreign policy promise that has gone unfulfilled, the conflict we jumped into head-first but have yet to resolve nearly 16 years later. In retrospect, attempting to build a democratic nation in Afghanistan was a foolhardy undertaking. Geography, tribal differences, persistent radicalization, and a prevailing culture fundamentally different from that of Western nations remain some of the primary obstacles to Afghanistan’s long-term stability.
Looking forward, what is to be done about America’s non-NATO ally?
Much has been written about America’s invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001. Engagement in the conflict has been widely considered one of America’s greatest military blunders, as it became rapidly clear that peace in the region, and America’s professed goals of enacting stability in the nation, were elusive at best, impossible at worst. Further, the goal of building a democracy amidst ceaseless terror attacks aimed at thwarting that goal became a hollow one.
But the fact remains that once the United States was engaged, departure from Afghanistan could not be conducted hastily. Too many Afghan citizens had extended a certain measure of loyalty to American troops, and opposition groups hell-bent on eradicating those American forces and their Afghan allies had not forgotten such betrayal. Withdrawing from what has become America’s longest war would have to be a progressive process that ensured, first and foremost, that American troops did not impose a wholesale abandonment on those whose trust it had gradually earned.
However, somewhere post-2008, then-President Barack Obama made it his mission to add to his résumé “Ended the War in Afghanistan,” a meaningless ‘goal’ in and of itself. Yet, it was the manner in which Obama continued to use selective force in the nation, leaving our former allies on the ground to fend for themselves, that rubbed so many Americans the wrong way.
This excerpt from Paul D. Miller’s commentary in The American Interest adequately characterizes Obama’s confused approach to the war in Afghanistan:
“He deployed more troops than needed for a narrow counterterrorism operation, but not enough for a broader counterinsurgency campaign. He initially increased reconstruction funding because he believed, rightly, that effective Afghan governance was an essential condition for victory, but quickly second-guessed himself and subsequently reduced civilian aid every year thereafter.”
What has been done in Afghanistan is done, though the effects continue to rear their head. Reforming the mistakes of past presidents in Afghanistan was one of the many items on the Trump agenda. While little has yet to be done, many see wholesale changes in America’s approach to the lingering conflict in Afghanistan looming on the horizon.
They shouldn’t be so certain, as the answer on how to proceed remains unclear.
Effectively implementing changes would necessarily mean learning from past mistakes. That includes the essentially forced implementation of President Hamid Karzai, who lacked the protection and bureaucratic systems to maintain long-term power. This was part of America’s unrealistic goal of nation building. When it became clear that al-Qaeda and the former Taliban government had no intention of allowing a Democracy to arise, the choice between defending Afghans and prioritizing a supposedly budding democracy, and meeting the enemy in the hills where they had retreated, was a zero-sum decision.
So, democracy was essentially thrown out the window in favor of defending Afghans from the constantly looming threat of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, with ISIS now added to the roster of insurgents. But, in order to create an out for American forces, preparing the Afghan army- rife with enemy spies indiscernible from true allies– would be necessary. The blending of al-Qaeda spies and patriotic Afghans within the army’s ranks meant that the Afghan army alone would not be sufficient to protect Afghan citizens upon American departure from the region.
American officials attempted to appeal to Pakistan for assistance, hoping to rely on their army to help maintain some semblance of order. However, Pakistan had a stake in the Taliban government remaining in power in Afghanistan and was far from eager to help the American forces which had led the overthrow of that government. Significant pro-Taliban factions in Pakistan meant that state-sanctioned support of an army opposing the Taliban in Afghanistan risked igniting a civil conflict.
These opposing forces have contributed to America’s uncertain stance in Afghanistan. So, where does the Trump administration and his generals specifically plan to steer the conflict? What is their plan of attack?
According to foreign policy expert George Friedman, the answer is far from obvious. Proposed plans put forth by Trump and the U.S. military yesterday seek to increase the number of American troops on active duty in Afghanistan, but still leave questions about just how many troops that will entail. Even a return to levels which reflect the peak of the USA’s involvement in the region would not be sufficient to quell the nation’s many problems. This has been proven by history.
The question remains, however, if not by means of increased American troops in Afghanistan, how can we reasonably expect to make progress with respect to this conflict?
Friedman considers, and dismisses, the possibility that Pakistan will be persuaded to increase their intervention, contrary to Trump’s statements yesterday. While Pakistan has shown a willingness to fight Taliban and al-Qaeda, they have done so only when groups have caused significant upheaval in Pakistan. Assuming they would risk a potential civil war on behalf of the United States is likely unrealistic.
The only conclusion is that even America’s most experienced and knowledgeable foreign policy advisors still have little clue how to approach and eventually end this war. America could always leave, totally withdrawing its troops and ceasing operations in the country. Afghanistan is already a hotbed for terrorists, so we are risking little in withdrawing, such logic contends.
However, such an approach could prove a grave mistake. The stakes for an Afghanistan left up-for-grabs are high. Russia already has influence in the region, and leaving Afghanistan would make it easier for them to seek out even more of a presence. Iran, to the west of Afghanistan, would also like to extend their sphere of influence. Meanwhile, Pakistan and our ally India are mortal enemies, and America’s presence in the region has helped to alleviate the tensions of the constantly-simmering conflict.
So, while the exit plan is not apparent, the costs of exiting are. It is apparent why the war in Afghanistan will continue to outpace other conflicts as the longest in American history. With no apparent solution in sight and little hope in store for the future of the war-torn nation, even the brightest military minds are left bewildered by this devil’s knot.