The options are bad in Afghanistan. We could cut our losses (2,400 American dead, $1 trillion spent) and depart — but that would eventually lead to another Vietnam moment, with helicopters lifting off the roof of the U.S. Embassy. Another approach would be to return to a robust NATO-led operation with 150,000 troops doing the actual fighting, which was the size of the force when I ran the Afghan war as Supreme Allied Commander in 2009-2013. But there is no appetite for that level of commitment on either side of the Atlantic and, frankly, the entire world wrestles with profound Afghan fatigue.
So we are left with the option that excites no one: a very modest increase of troop strength (probably 4,000 U.S. forces and an equal number of allied); a “conditions-based approach” without a specific withdrawal timeline; and a revitalized regional strategy that puts more pressure on Pakistan. Sounds a lot like what was proposed in 2013 as we drew down our military forces by 90 percent and significantly cut foreign aid to Afghanistan. And yet the president calls this a “new approach.” Will it work? What should we really be doing?
Let’s begin by clarifying our objectives, which are actually fairly simple. First, we want to avoid a return to the essentially ungoverned state in Afghanistan constructed by the Taliban, which permitted the rise of al-Qaida and led to the 9/11 attacks. Given the new presence of the so-called Islamic State, and the return of warlords in northern Afghanistan, the centrifugal pressures are rising. We need to maintain a sort of minimalist governance structure to prevent a void and the creation of a base from which to strike the United States and our allies.
Second, we desire a modestly successful democratic government that can partner with Washington in dealing with geopolitical challenges in South Asia and Iran. The government of President Ashraf Ghani, while far from perfect, gives us such a partner. And third, over time, the mineral wealth (estimated at $1 trillion, including lithium and rare earths) may give Afghanistan a chance to become an important trading partner in the region and with the United States.
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The key elements of President Donald Trump’s strategy are broadly correct. A narrow focus on the “art of the possible” is critical, given the significant fatigue of both the United States and the international security/donor community over the problem of corruption in Afghanistan. There is a slightly better-than-even chance that, with the program outlined in the president’s speech, we will achieve the basics: a weak but functional central government; reasonable border control (with frequent tactical failures); an economy that continues to grow at 3-5 percent annually; control of the Taliban insurgency; basic security in 70 percent of the country (in terms of population); and with the fighting - and dying — being done by Afghan soldiers, not coalition troops. (It’s worth noting that more U.S. Navy Sailors have died in collisions at sea this year than have U.S. Army Soldiers in Afghanistan. Point is: it’s the Afghans, not us, who are the ones currently fighting the Taliban, al-Qaida, and the Islamic State.)
Here’s how to get there, building on the ideas in the president’s speech:
▪ Push NATO back into the game. Every U.S. soldier or marine that heads to Afghanistan must be matched with a non-U.S. coalition soldier. The Europeans and our other coalition partners (Australia, New Zealand, Georgia) have the capacity to do this. It will require Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to put serious pressure on the rest of the coalition to support doing so.
▪ Increase the strategic messaging. Our public stance, going back to the Obama administration, has been “we can’t wait to get out of here.” Trump’s campaign rhetoric significantly increased the volume and intensity of that message. That has led directly to the resurgence of the Taliban. But building on Trump’s speech, we need to seize on the “conditions-based, not timeline-based” message and hammer it home — both in Afghanistan and in other capitals. The Taliban keep repeating that old saw, “the Americans have all the watches, but we have all the time.” Letting them know definitively that we are the ones with all the time will be deeply demoralizing to them and their followers.
▪ Get Russia back on side. After years of being mildly helpful in Afghanistan (because they hate the narcotics flow affecting their 1,000,000+ addicts), the Russians seem to now be playing both sides. There are increasing reports of their providing weapons and support to the Taliban, probably to hedge their bets. Afghanistan is one of the few places that U.S.-Russian interests roughly align. We should make the point to Moscow that here is an opportunity, at relatively low cost, for the two nations to cooperate and that it is in their interest to do so - they don’t want an ungoverned space churning out drugs on their immediate southern flank.
▪ Use the India card to pressure Pakistan. While the initial reaction in Pakistan will be highly negative to the president’s speech, a key element is bringing India more into the equation. The carrots for Pakistan relate directly to India: their military wants top-end technology, training, and engagement - particularly because of their ongoing tension with India. The sticks are similar: Washington needs to tell Islamabad if they won’t help us solve the cross border haven issues, we will begin even closer cooperation with New Dehli. This will be a delicate dance, to say the least, but it’s worth trying.
▪ Increase the Afghan Special Forces. The 25,000-man force already does the vast majority of the actual fighting in Afghanistan. And with an additional 8,000 U.S. and allied troops, we can put more emphasis on their training, organization, planning, and deployment. The Taliban - in terms of actual fighters - are not a vast army; the Special Forces, if increased in size, can handle them. This will be a crucial military element if we are to be successful.
The new strategy is hardly new, and sometimes the best Plan B is to work harder and smarter at Plan A. Kudos to the president’s generals for landing him on a glide path that makes strategic and tactical sense, albeit an option that is merely the least-worst next move in the long-running great game of Afghanistan.
James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.