Why does Afghanistan matter to the United States?
The moral concerns of the Afghan people aside, if America withdrew forces from Afghanistan, groups such as the Islamic State would quickly find a grand new territory for their global caliphate.
And that speaks to something: When it comes to Afghanistan's importance, it's the geography, stupid.
As the red dots representing nations
The Russians, Pakistanis, and Iranians would continue to fund the Taliban and other terrorists in order to destabilize the pro-American government in Kabul. Those nations view Afghanistan as a chance to weaken U.S. prestige and to maintain a weak government on or near their borders.
The Chinese would buy off terrorist groups such as ISIS and al Qaeda and turn Afghanistan into a corrupt patron state, exploited for its energy reserves.
Even America's ally, India, would become a problem. Witnessing Afghanistan's domination by Pakistan, India would take action to counter its role as a terrorist training camp for Pakistani extremists operating in Jammu and Kashmir.
Of course, those risks don't alone justify Trump's strategy. The last 15 years of U.S. action in Afghanistan have been less than impressive. Afghanistan's southern Helmand province offers a metaphor for U.S. failure.
Between 2001 and 2006, the U.S. largely ignored Helmand. Then, between 2006 and 2009 the British Army attempted to pacify the province with an inadequate number of troops and helicopters. Next, between 2009 and 2012, the U.S. Marines suffered significant casualty rates while securing the province, but were then withdrawn under Obama's drawdown. The Taliban now have control over most of Helmand's major population centers.
The failure raises a question: What should we do differently?
First off, when it comes to provinces like Helmand we should cut our losses. The tensions between various Pashtun tribes there, and the central role of opium in Helmand's economy means that centralized U.S. or Afghan policies won't succeed. Instead, the Afghan government should work to secure the arterial roads that flow into and out of Taliban held zones, and work to improve education, cooperating with the Taliban where necessary, in those areas.
We should also listen to those with innovative ideas. Two stand out: Ben Collins, a former Green Beret who served multiple tours in Afghanistan, and Jim Reese, a former senior officer with Delta Force.
Collins' premise for a successful Afghan strategy is three-fold: the U.S. should continue developing Afghan government capabilities and credibility, separate intransigent insurgents from those amenable to negotiation, and engage with Afghanistan's regional environment. On this latter point, Collins believes the U.S. must exert greater pressure on Pakistan to resist groups such as the Haqqani network and facilitate greater Indian investment in Afghanistan.
Collins knows the key to solving the Afghanistan crisis is a negotiated settlement, but he also knows that settlement must come from a position of U.S. strength and realism: We should not seek Jeffersonian democracy.
But to achieve lasting results in Afghanistan, the U.S. will also have to innovate our human approach to its challenges. Here, Jim Reese offers some ideas.
First, he says that the U.S. needs to empower young Americans, some from the private sector, to spend many years in Afghanistan applying local solutions. Reese suggests that without entrepreneurial voices challenging the State Department and military to innovate, U.S. efforts will stagnate. He notes that the government rotation structure means many Americans are in and out of Afghanistan in as little as one to two years: this is talent earned and then rapidly lost. Moreover, Reese asserts, U.S. government agencies do not look kindly on individuals who take risks and shake up the bureaucracy.
Thus, Reese argues, the critical element of any success in Afghanistan will be American innovation at local levels. We shouldn't try to do too much too quickly, but whatever we do, we should do it with a focus on durable outcomes.
To do this, Reese explains, we must be introspective.
For one, there's no point in old hands in Washington developing strategies that will disproportionately affect young Afghans. After all, these generation x-ers and millennials will be the ones that shape the future of their nation over the coming decades. They might receive most of the attention, but it will not be middle-aged Afghans who set the destiny of their country.
Ultimately, a sense of intellectual urgency must now guide U.S. policymakers in Afghanistan. It's not enough to say "this will work because we are committed now," we also have to do the right thing. That means getting the right people in the right places with the right authority to do the right thing. And that means shaking up the bureaucracy and being willing to upset folks at the State Department and Pentagon.
If Trump makes that bold decision, the U.S. can salvage a prosperous Afghanistan from the current chaos which currently defines it. If he doesn't, he'll be dancing in the graveyard of empires.