The Trump administration has no Afghanistan strategy. Testifying Tuesday on Capitol Hill, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis was apologetic. "We are not winning in Afghanistan right now, and we will correct this as soon as possible," he said.
Pushed by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., for more details, Mattis added, "We're putting [the strategy] together now... We recognize the need for urgency and your criticism is fair, sir."
Mattis suggested a strategy would be presented to Congress by mid-July.
Regardless, it's too slow. As a candidate, President Trump rightly criticized President Barack Obama for his politicized strategy in Afghanistan. But Trump's inaction isn't much better. The U.S. has lost just fewer than 2,400 service personnel in Afghanistan since 2001. Thousands more have been wounded. Five months into a new administration, those affected by the war in Afghanistan deserve a strategy.
Still, we must also demand a strategy that is realistic. From October 2001 until today, the U.S. approach to Afghanistan has been a confused mess. We entered Afghanistan with the aim of destroying al-Qaeda, overthrowing the Taliban, and introducing a democratic government. And on paper, all those objectives were accomplished quite quickly.Unfortunately, we didn't recognize the enemy's determination. That failure of foresight has posed major complications in the Pashtun tribal areas of southern and eastern Afghanistan. The results prove as much. In Helmand province, for example, the Taliban now rule openly.
Correspondingly, whatever strategy Trump employs, it must accept reality. Thousands of American soldiers and Marines could, for example, retake control of the Taliban's Helmand capital, Musa Qala. But how much casualties would that incur? And what happens when the next president decides to withdraw those forces?
We've seen this story before. We must not repeat it.
What would a more serious strategy look like?
First, it should seek short-term improvements to Afghanistan's governance situation. Priorities would include boosting the airlift, logistics, and professional capabilities of the Afghan security forces. In return for renewed U.S. support, the Afghan government would be required to purge the most corrupt and incompetent officers.
Second, the U.S. would focus on escalating pressure on the Taliban, the Islamic State, and the Haqqani network while also offering an immediate resumption of negotiations. The purpose here would be to dangle the carrot alongside the swinging hammer.
Third, the U.S. would deprioritize secular education and women's rights outside of the major cities. As a nation, we are unwilling to deploy forces to serve those agendas. The Afghan government must be consolidated first.
In these actions, we would seek three broader objectives. First, reducing the threat of violence against Afghan civilians and their government. Second, increasing the confidence of the Afghan people in their government. Third, accepting the de facto coexistence of the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Of course, there are other considerations. Speaking to the Washington Examiner on condition of anonimity, a former Special Forces officer with many years experience in Afghanistan, offered the following thoughts.
He noted that "a regional strategy is required. We have to get buy-in from India, Pakistan, Iran, and the Russians." The officer argues that absent regional "buy-in" for the Kabul government, the government may well collapse. "If the Taliban is the cancer against the stability of Afghanistan, the political instability of the central government is the sucking chest wound. That's what's going to kill us quickest."
He also referenced the fragmentation of Afghanistan's insurgency. "There is no 'one Taliban' anymore", he said. "There are separate insurgencies. There is never going to be a 'Good Friday agreement' of the kind that brought peace to Northern Ireland. It's not going to be one peace, one time, with one group. We're going to have to deal with grievances and ambitions at a more local level. But if we don't confront this challenge, Afghanistan will again become a safe haven for transnational terrorist groups."
Ultimately, whatever Trump decides, time is of the essence.The enemy is not sitting idle. In the years since the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, we have seen our enemies' adaptive versatility. If Trump fails to employ a coherent strategy against them, Afghanistan's future (and American security) will grow bleaker. Don't believe me?Consider Vince Tumminello's "red team" breakdown on how the Taliban might seize advantage from our strategic gap.