The ongoing war in Afghanistan—America’s longest (and most expensive) conflict to date—is a mess and the military has no idea how to clean it up. What began as a simple punitive expedition targeting the terrorists responsible for 9/11 has become an indefinite nation-building exercise that is draining the United States military of vital resources and personnel.
In reality, the mission parameters in the Afghanistan War preclude anything resembling “victory.” In a sense, ousting the Taliban, splintering al Qaeda, and killing Osama bin Laden, means America “won” the war and should have come home years ago, perhaps leaving behind a small counterterrorism force to prevent Afghanistan from becoming an al Qaeda stronghold once again. But that isn’t what happened.
Right now, the Trump Administration is reviewing our ailing Afghan strategy. Recent reports suggest that the president had a contentious National Security Council meeting with his defense advisers because he disliked the Pentagon’s plan for Afghanistan. Essentially, his military advisors laid out a rehash of the plans they presented Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama—plans that cost hundreds of American lives and billions of dollars, without the hope of victory.
Trump rightly assessed that the new plan was a loser. But the status quo is a loser, too. The Pentagon is set to spend $48 billion in fiscal year 2017 on operations in Afghanistan alone, and wants another $50 billion for next year.
Nearly $100 billion over two years—for what?
Another surge into Afghanistan would not produce different results. Why not? Our current mission is impossible. We’re still stuck on making Afghans into modern liberal democrats, throwing aside thousands of years of history, tradition, and culture. Indeed, the country has spent its existence engaged in murderous civil strife—and when the Afghans aren’t busy fighting each other, they may be expected to unite temporarily to resist foreign invaders. There’s a reason historians have referred to Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires.”
Alexander the Great, Bābur, the famous Mughal Dynasty founder, the British Empire, the Soviet Union, and even the Arab al Qaeda terror network have all tried to control Afghanistan at one time and to one degree or another. No matter how many troops or how much money was thrown into the endeavor, Afghanistan has never been tamed and likely never will be.
More to the point, Americans never signed up for waging a war for democracy in Afghanistan. After 9/11, Americans rightly wanted to punish those responsible. Al Qaeda and, specifically, Bin Laden were directly responsible for the attacks on New York City and the Pentagon. The Taliban gave al Qaeda a safe haven. Within a year of invading Afghanistan, al Qaeda had been busted apart and resorted to hiding out in neighboring Pakistan while the ruling Taliban were toppled from power. Although we lost Bin Laden at the ill-fated Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001, the fact remained that the United States basically had accomplished what it set out to do by the spring of 2002.
America should have declared victory and come home. Instead, we declared Afghanistan would be a democracy. After 17 years, the American project in that godforsaken country has been less about fighting terrorism (though that is certainly a critical aspect of our mission there), and more about preserving the unpopular, disconnected (because there are no roads, much less unifying infrastructure of any kind in Afghanistan), and kleptocratic central government in Kabul. It’s a failure. It will keep failing, no matter how many troops we send or how much more money we throw away.
Not only has the central government foundered, the Taliban and al Qaeda have regrouped and grown stronger and our presence is seen less as a liberating force and more as an oppressor and an enabler of corruption. It doesn’t help that our drone strikes on terrorists have done widespread and seemingly indiscriminate collateral damage to civilians, which has driven neutrals into the arms of our enemies.
What Can Be Done Differently?
Recently, Erik Prince, the former CEO of the controversial private defense contractor Blackwater, has proposed an innovative if risky way of getting out of this mess. Prince, in effect, wants his new company—Frontier Services Group, a logistics company focused on Africa and South Asia—to take over the fighting. Under his plan, President Trump would appoint a presidential envoy to run the war effort, and that Prince’s company would provide the boots on the ground.
According to Prince, the real issue is ensuring that Afghanistan’s security forces are capable enough to resist the inevitable return both of al Qaeda and of Taliban forces when the Americans withdraw. Prince is likely correct when he says that if America pulled out of Afghanistan tomorrow, the black flag of the Taliban or al Qaeda would fly over the U.S. embassy compound in Kabul within six months.
Prince would use his company to train the Afghan security forces “from within, providing professional military leadership, reliable air support and business administration assistance.” He points out that the U.S. Special Forces essentially did the same for the Afghan special forces, turning 17,000 troops into a highly capable force. But those 17,000 special forces troops won’t be enough to stem the rising tide of al Qaeda and the Taliban without U.S. military aid.
Prince would replicate the special forces model for the all of Afghanistan’s security forces. He claims that his approach would cost “20 percent of the $48 billion being spent in Afghanistan this year.” Trump reportedly has expressed interest, while the Pentagon is aghast at the idea of letting private contractors take over for U.S. troops.
Mercenaries have a bad reputation, which makes Prince’s plan less likely to gain the traction it needs to win approval, let alone succeed long term. But that doesn’t make it a bad idea. Fact is, there are already 25,000 private contractors operating in Afghanistan today. For all the past missteps, the inexpensive and efficient nature of this plan gives it a degree of attractiveness it might otherwise be lacking.
Of course, the real question is: what happens when the United States military must bail the private contractors out of a serious bind? After all, no matter how capable and powerful a private army is, it is still much more limited than its nation-state counterparts. Remember, the East India Trading Company, which ran Britain’s private military force in colonial India, ultimately needed the British army to intervene directly on its behalf during the infamous Indian Mutiny in the 19th century. This resulted in the nationalization of the British position in India, and allowed for the Crown to take direct control. It also weakened the British Empire, as London was now directly on the hook for whatever befell their distant colony of India—no matter the price.
If Not Democracy or Mercs, Then What?
Unlike Britain, the United States has never been much for proper empire-building. It doesn’t suit our character. And nation-building hasn’t succeeded, either. That leaves counterterrorism.
Counterterrorism without nation-building would be more efficient and less expensive. During the Obama Administration, the CIA presented plans to station scores of their paramilitary forces in Afghanistan alongside Army Special Forces units that would permanently conduct counterterrorism operations, in order to prevent Afghanistan from being used once again as a safe haven for jihadists.
Easier said than done? Perhaps. That’s why we need a multilateral, regional solution. The United States won’t succeed alone. Pakistan, India, Russia, China, and even Iran will need to play a part. These five powers will make-or-break America’s ability to leave Afghanistan with a modicum of grace and honor. In each case, these powers have a greater interest in seeing us leave than they do in seeing us remain in Afghanistan.
Pakistan holds most of the cards when it comes to dealing with the Taliban (and to a lesser extent, al Qaeda). Yet, for geopolitical reasons concerning their ongoing conflict with India, the Pakistanis will not abandon their nominal support of these two groups—not without significant pushback. Even still, the Pakistanis rely heavily on their relationship with the United States. If the Trump Administration were to begin making serious overtures toward India about a greater Indo-American relationship, the Pakistanis would feel threatened, and would likely be compelled to alter their behavior (especially if they understood that America was truly seeking to leave Afghanistan for good).
Meanwhile, the Russians have gotten increasingly involved in Afghanistan over the past several years, out of fear that instability in Afghanistan could leech into their barely stable southern periphery (which is overwhelmingly Muslim). Russia has intensified close contacts with the Taliban, and has worried about the increasing presence of ISIS in the country. Russia is tired of America’s ongoing military presence in Afghanistan, as they view it as destabilizing the country and also they worry about America having permanent military bases so close to their southern periphery. If the Trump Administration were to signal a real interest in leaving Afghanistan (but with dignity), the Russians would likely feel compelled to assist President Trump in this endeavor.
For China, they have become heavily invested in Afghanistan’s abundant mineral resources (notably the copper mines at Mes Aynak). Plus, they too fear instability along their border, as western China (which borders Afghanistan) is home to the growing, restive Muslim population of China. Getting America to extricate itself from Afghanistan in a timely manner would not only free up China to develop those resources in Afghanistan for themselves, but it would also make them feel better, as a large American force would no longer be operating so close to their borders. If America threatened China’s business interests in Afghanistan, it might get the Chinese to be more willing in using their connections with both the Taliban and Pakistan, to force the Taliban to come to the table and negotiate with America for a peaceable settlement in Afghanistan.
Lastly, the Iranians have spent the last several years currying favor with the Shiite tribes in Afghanistan. They worry about being boxed in by American forces operating in Iraq as well as Afghanistan. The Iranians, like the Russians and Chinese, are also concerned about the rise of ISIS in Afghanistan. By aligning closely with Moscow to create a stable Afghanistan that would allow for the bulk of America’s forces to leave, the Russians could put pressure on their long-time Iranian allies to work alongside the United States in accomplishing the Trump Administration’s goal of liberating itself from Afghanistan.
Here’s the bottom line: The Taliban is an indigenous movement of Pashtun tribes. It isn’t going anywhere. We’re not going to kill them all or get an unconditional surrender. From time to time, Taliban leaders have suggested a willingness to enter into a negotiated settlement with the West. With a president in office who knows something about dealmaking, it might be time to follow up on that option.
The fact is, American policy in Afghanistan to this point has been a costly debacle. It’s time to put America first and look for a regional, diplomatic solution to ending the War in Afghanistan. We’ve enabled our military’s dreams of turning Afghanistan into Arizona long enough. The $48 billion that will be spent this year making Afghanistan worse could have been spent Making America Great Again.
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