A Blank Check for Afghanistan

By | 2017-06-02T18:30:05+00:00 August 24, 2017|
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The trouble with the new (or, rather, not-so-new) Trump Administration war plan for Afghanistan is that it’s a loser. Sure, the president gets high marks for finally talking about “victory” in Afghanistan—after 17 years of seemingly endless warfare, it’s nice to hear the word mentioned. Yet, for all of the talk of victory, the president offered nothing new, at least strategically, that would achieve that goal.

Angelo Codevilla has also argued that we got nothing new from Trump on Afghanistan. At a tactical level, the president made much sense: we would no longer have the onerous rules of engagement that have prevented our gallant troops from fully bringing the hurt to our enemies. Battlefield commanders, not politicians in Washington, would have near-complete autonomy over the day-to-day course of the war. This is a refreshing change from the previous administration, which squandered Americans’ time, money, and lives in Afghanistan fighting simply to hold on, rather than win or withdraw. The restraining tactics of the Obama years were perfectly suited to a strategy of stalemate.

But do improved and sensible tactics automatically suggest a more sensible strategy? What is our strategy?

The best President Trump gave us was that “conditions on the ground,” rather than arbitrary time tables, would dictate the course of the war. Although sound policy, that remains a tactical rather than strategic consideration. And, really, this rhetoric sounds eerily reminiscent of George W. Bush and his “low energy” brother, Jeb!

To be clear, I am not an outright opponent of the plan, but I am a skeptic. For instance, supporters of the president’s plan argue that this rehash of the old plan is exactly what the president promised during the campaign. “Right now,” F. H. Buckley argues, “the principal breeding ground of Islamic jihadism is Afghanistan, not Syria, and Trump correctly concluded that the very best way to prevent another 9/11 is to continue the fight in that country. It’s just what he promised on the campaign trail.”

Respectfully, no, it is not.

First, people like myself supported what was once referred to as the “Counterterrorism-Plus” strategy advanced by that broken clock and former Vice President Joe Biden. This plan called for focusing on the counterterrorism, rather than on the counterinsurgency aspects of the war. Right now, President Trump’s plan sounds dreadfully similar to our current counterinsurgency effort—sending more forces (around 4,000 troops) to win the fickle hearts and minds of the Afghan people, thereby denying insurgents, such as the Taliban or al-Qaeda, recruits. This plan has never worked in Afghanistan. So, whether it’s 4,000 or 40,000 more troops, it’s still a bad plan. Some hearts can’t be won.

Second, although it’s true Afghanistan is a front in the “Global War on Terror,” the geography, political system, and historical realities of the country make a massive invasion with conventional forces primed for “bolstering” the unpopular local government a waste of time. As Peter Tomsen has shown, the true path to political stability in Afghanistan lies not in Kabul, but with the local tribes—and they generally want foreigners to leave them alone. The larger our presence is, the more the locals will turn against us. It’s just that simple.

The military keeps arguing that larger troop numbers will “win the hearts and minds” of the Afghans. Yet, when America had nearly 100,000 troops in Afghanistan, it did little to persuade the bulk of the population to support our cause. What makes the president think that 15,000 troops total would make a difference now?

Fact is, the real fight is not Afghanistan, which remains only partially controlled by the Islamist Taliban (and where both the foreign al-Qaeda and ISIS elements are not as popular as their propaganda would have you believe), but in the Levant. What’s more, the war is actually shifting away from the Mideast, and toward Asian countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines. What are we doing to counter the rise of jihadists in Asia? We’re sending special forces, which is the proper way to fight terrorism.

Third, there is no upper limit to the troop surge. This is potentially Vietnam redux. In Vietnam, America’s leaders didn’t fight to win. They fought merely to preserve the government of South Vietnam. That was not a sound strategy. The United States spent a decade, and deployed hundreds of thousands of its brave young men—while dropping more ordnance on Vietnam than we dropped on Europe during World War II—to no effect. The Communists still enjoyed a political victory. Under current plans for Afghanistan, we’ll likely keep sending more troops, and the insurgents will keep resisting. Just like Vietnam. Get the picture?

Fourth, the president has laughably demanded that NATO forces “step up to the plate” in Afghanistan. Sure, after 17 years of not stepping up to the plate (in some cases, not even taking the field), presidential shaming will draw the hapless Germans and the recalcitrant French into the fight. During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump rightly pointed out the systemic flaws of NATO. Now, he seems to have thrown those views out with his erstwhile strategic adviser, Steve Bannon.

One of the many reasons many of us supported Trump over his more conventional political opponents was precisely because he spent the entire campaign attacking ignorant bromides (such as “the ultimate weapon in war is no weapon”) perpetuated by a self-indulgent political elite. Trump supporters, like myself, refused to support a political elite that seeks to convert our military into little more than armed humanitarians any longer. We wanted a turnaround.

I thought the president, being an astute businessman, would not write blank checks. Yet, like it or not, that’s what he just did in Afghanistan. Trump supporters wanted the president to call in America’s chips, cash us out, and move on from that notorious “graveyard of empires.” Although, it’s fair to say that President Trump has an uncanny ability to shock his detractors with success by going big, this is Afghanistan, not Atlantic City. To the Afghans, America looks more like that foolish gambling addict so desperate to win against a stacked deck that he’s willing to bet his kid’s college funds to “get lucky” on the next hand. In Afghanistan, as in any casino, we should remember that the odds are always with the house. Nation-building and counterinsurgency do not work over there.

Is it really possible that Trump (or any modern Western leader) could succeed where Alexander the Great failed? Records may be meant to be broken, but there is such a thing as the “sunk cost fallacy.” Let’s break this cycle and not make the mistakes of previous great powers in Afghanistan. Let’s come home.

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About the Author:

Brandon J. Weichert
Brandon J. Weichert is a contributing editor to American Greatness. A former Republican Congressional staffer and national security expert, he also runs The Weichert Report, www.theweichertreport.com, an online journal of geopolitics. He holds Master's degree in Statecraft & National Security from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. He is also an Associate Member of New College at Oxford University and holds a B.A. in Political Science from DePaul University. He is currently completing a book on national security space policy due out next year.
  • Dear Mr. Weichert:

    Yes your arguments make sense and your position seems well taken – your conclusions, like some of your stated or implied beliefs, however, are wrong.

    First, you misinterpret the Obama era rules of engagement and withdrawals. These were not intended to help the U.S. win anything: at best they were intended to minimize the political impact of the war; at worst simply to hurt as many Americans, and American interests, as he could get away with.

    Second, we won the war in Vietnam – after Da Nang the communists were done on the battlefield. They won in the U.S. on left wing politics, lies, propaganda, and the short term political advantage collapse gave the media, the democrats in general, the Nixon haters – but I repeat myself.

    With respect to your conclusions: you should know that past failure only presages future failure if neither the conditions on the ground nor the methods employed change. In this case, the focus on Pakistani involvement makes everything different.

    The thing that people who point at tribal politics and the viciousness of the Taliban forget is that, like Iran, Afghanistan was on its way to becoming a modern nation when the Islamic fundamentalists rebelled. That battle has not been finally lost – support for the right side exists and gets stronger as time passes. Give the locals a chance, and they’ll take care of the problem – and that’s Trump’s real strategy for both countries.

  • Wayne Lusvardi

    The world is much more messy and convoluted than portrayed by the author. My guess is that Trump knows there is no victory in Afghanistan but realpolitik prevails. That realpolitik means recognizing that sometimes our allies bog us down in fighting wars for them. It used to be said that the “enemy of my enemy is my friend” but what if my ally is also, sometimes, my enemy and my friend? Was not Saudi and others complicit in 9/11? Didn’t even VP Biden come out and say this? Is not global terrorism sponsored by our allies to keep the attention of the pubic on the inter-regional war in the Mideast between Iran-Syria-Russia and Saudi-Israel-US? Our allies don’t want us to withdraw from the Mideast and abandon them. It is like the wimp school boy who gets the strongest football player in school to protect him by beating up the school yard bully. Afghanistan is a huge buffer land that puts Iran in a pincers between Iraq and Pakistan and Afghan, just as North Korea is a buffer between Russia, China and South Korea. This is why NK will remain a hermit kingdom bufferland. Afghanistan also serves as a war to keep the US involved in the region and its inter-regional wars. So our Mideast allies will likely keep funding the Taliban in Afghan just as they do terrorism in Europe (with most European attacks coming right after Leftist-staged domestic riots and insurrections in the US). Why should American soldiers die fighting someone else’s war? Because that war will be brought to our doorstep if we don’t isolate it to that theater of war (e.g., 9/11). Trump didn’t write any blank check for the military in Afghan. What he did was rent and occupy some buffer land so that the local mafia doesn’t intrude into his friend’s casino business in which Trump also owns a stake (using Trumpian metaphors; or ruin the world price of oil). Read Machiavelli’s Discourses where he discusses how to conduct a war with a powerful neighbor by invading their other neighbor.

    • JamesDrouin

      “Didn’t even VP Biden come out and say this?”

      As soon as you implied Joe Biden was an authoritative figure, I stopped reading.

      For the record, and it is an indisputable record, Joe Biden is one of the stupidest humans in all of human history.

      How stupid you might ask …

      Well, the funniest example of his stupidity was when he publicly offered his personal condolences to the Prime Minister of Ireland on the death of his mother, while his mother was standing right next to him.

      Just so there’s no confusion, Joe Biden was referring to the Irish PMs mother, and it was the Irish PMs mother that was standing next to the Irish PM when Joe Biden informed him that his mother was dead.

      • Wayne Lusvardi

        James
        Are you trying to find a fly in the ointment? I agree that Biden is a dummy. But his speeches are written by preparers and there are other corroborating credible sources of the Saudis complicity in 9/11.

        I would be interested in your thoughts on the other portions of my comments. Can Trump pull troops without consequences from our allies?

        • JamesDrouin

          “Are you trying to find a fly in the ointment?”

          No, what I pointed out was that:

          “As soon as you implied Joe Biden was an authoritative figure, I stopped reading … [because] Joe Biden is one of the stupidest humans in all of human history.”

          And, anyone who quotes a certifiable idiot as anything but a certified idiot simply doesn’t have anything worth a further waste of time.

          As to Saudi ‘complicity’, that’s about as intellectually bereft as the term “it was a dark and stormy night”.

          Of course the Saudi government was ‘complicit’, fifteen of the terrorists were Saudi citizens and had Saudi passports, and likely even Saudi government financing for the student studies they had visas for.

          However, there is LESS THAN ZERO “evidence” that the “Saudi Government” was involved in a plot to commit mass murder of American citizens … and, anyone who willingly treads that path IS a certified idiot on Joe Biden’s scope and scale.

          • Wayne Lusvardi
          • JamesDrouin

            You ‘misread’ part of my post, so try it again.

            Also, it’s a well publicized fact that people of your ‘mental acuity’ are frequently able to improve their reading comprehension if they move their lips while reading, so you should try that as well. If you’re unsure of the proper amount of lip movement, ask your boyfriend(s) for ‘input’.

            ==========

            However, there is LESS THAN ZERO “evidence” that the “Saudi Government” was involved in a plot to commit mass murder of American citizens … and, anyone who willingly treads that path IS a certified idiot on Joe Biden’s scope and scale!

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            I’m trying to get you to critique the first comment. You did. Thanks.

          • JamesDrouin

            MORE LIP MOVEMENT!!!

            You ‘misread’ part of my post, so try it again.

            Also, it’s a well publicized fact that people of your ‘mental acuity’ are frequently able to improve their reading comprehension if they move their lips while reading, so you should try that as well. If you’re unsure of the proper amount of lip movement, ask your boyfriend(s) for ‘input’.

            ==========

            However, there is LESS THAN ZERO “evidence” that the “Saudi Government” was involved in a plot to commit mass murder of American citizens … and, anyone who willingly treads that path IS a certified idiot on Joe Biden’s scope and scale!

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            Just substitute Qatar for Saudi and my point still stands.

          • JamesDrouin

            MORE LIP MOVEMENT!!!

            You ‘misread’ part of my post, so try it again.

            Also, it’s a well publicized fact that people of your ‘mental acuity’ are frequently able to improve their reading comprehension if they move their lips while reading, so you should try that as well. If you’re unsure of the proper amount of lip movement, ask your boyfriend(s) for ‘input’.

            ==========

            However, there is LESS THAN ZERO “evidence” that the “Saudi Government” was involved in a plot to commit mass murder of American citizens … and, anyone who willingly treads that path IS a certified idiot on Joe Biden’s scope and scale!

          • JamesDrouin

            MORE LIP MOVEMENT!!

            You ‘misread’ part of my post, so try it again.

            Also, it’s a well publicized fact that people of your ‘mental acuity’ are frequently able to improve their reading comprehension if they move their lips while reading, so you should try that as well. If you’re unsure of the proper amount of lip movement, ask your boyfriend(s) for ‘input’.

            ==========

            However, there is LESS THAN ZERO “evidence” that the “Saudi Government” was involved in a plot to commit mass murder of American citizens … and, anyone who willingly treads that path IS a certified idiot on Joe Biden’s scope and scale!

          • Wayne Lusvardi

            My friend. I granted you your point about the Saudis. I was looking for discussion not insults. For the record I am a conservative. So find someone else to insult.

          • JamesDrouin

            MORE LIP MOVEMENT!

            You ‘misread’ part of my post, so try it again.

            Also, it’s a well publicized fact that people of your ‘mental acuity’ are frequently able to improve their reading comprehension if they move their lips while reading, so you should try that as well. If you’re unsure of the proper amount of lip movement, ask your boyfriend(s) for ‘input’.

            ==========

            However, there is LESS THAN ZERO “evidence” that the “Saudi Government” was involved in a plot to commit mass murder of American citizens … and, anyone who willingly treads that path IS a certified idiot on Joe Biden’s scope and scale!

          • Wayne Lusvardi
          • JamesDrouin

            You ‘misread’ part of my post, so try it again.

            Also, it’s a well publicized fact that people of your ‘mental acuity’ are frequently able to improve their reading comprehension if they move their lips while reading, so you should try that as well. If you’re unsure of the proper amount of lip movement, ask your boyfriend(s) for ‘input’.

            ==========

            However, there is LESS THAN ZERO “evidence” that the “Saudi Government” was involved in a plot to commit mass murder of American citizens … and, anyone who willingly treads that path IS a certified idiot on Joe Biden’s scope and scale.

  • wildbillcuster

    “Is it really possible that Trump (or any modern Western leader) could succeed where Alexander the Great failed?” How did Alexander the Great fail? He left a largely pacified country behind him and after the break up of his empire the Hellenic kingdom of Bactria ruled the area for centuries. If the author is ignorant of this then it is hard to take his arguments seriously.

    • Brandon Weichert

      Yes, and it fell. Besides, the Greeks infused not only their culture and economy with the local population but they basically colonized the population as well it also took a protracted period of time and, again, the Bactrian Kingdom fell. How many American policymakers are in favor of colonizing Afghanistan? How many Americans are willing to move home and hearth to Kandahar, co-habitate with the locals, and build an entirely new subculture in Afghanistan? The author is not ignorant of this, but did not choose to get into details about a failed kingdom (by the way, how Hellenestic is modern day Afghanistan?) Fact is, the history of Afghanistan is mostly one of internecine fighting and rivalry; localism and tribalism usurping centralization whose history is punctuated by anomalous periods of advancement that ultimately do not last. Thanks.

      • D4x

        Did you read this?: On Aug. 10, 2017 Government Accountability Office Afghanistan Security: U.S.-Funded Equipment for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. http://www.gao.gov/assets/690/686477.pdf

        Afghanistan National Defense and Security Forces, ANDSF, includes:

        > Afghan National Army (ANA) includes the Afghan Air Force and ANA Special Operations Command. The Special Mission Wing provides expeditionary support for counterterrorism and counternarcotics missions.

        >Afghan National Police (ANP). The Afghan Local Police, Afghan Border Police are subcomponents of the ANP. ANP forces are sometimes on the front lines working to hold areas cleared by the ANA.
        ANP also includes the Afghan National Civil Order Police—the ANDSF police unit that requested the most rocket-propelled weapons—as a counterinsurgency force that helps the ANA secure seized terrain.

        “In January 2015, the ANDSF formally assumed security responsibilities for all of Afghanistan. Through the NATO-led mission Resolute Support,
        the United States continues to train and equip the ANDSF in order to develop them into more effective and sustainable forces that can protect the Afghan people and contribute to regional and international security. However, as reported by the Departments of Defense (DOD) and State (State), Afghanistan’s stability and security continue to face threats from the Taliban-led insurgency, criminal networks, and terrorist organizations, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria–Khorasan….”

        The Afghan Army IS fighting the Taliban on the ground in country, cross ‘border’ from Pakistan.
        They are the “boots on the ground”

        The Afghan Air Force is being re-equipped. Medivac & air assault support have been a key reason US troops have had to stay so long.

        Also, Obama’s restrictive Rules of Engagement were very difficult for USA troops who had to call for permission for USA Blackhawks and Apaches for close-in air assault support for Afghan troops in the firefights.

        USA troops have trained the Afghan pilots. And are getting Blackhawks in 2017.

        I assume that is still the plan, but with more intensity, from the additional troops from the 82nd Airborne:

        “…Most of the new forces will train and advise Afghan forces to improve their combat abilities, or provide security for American adviser teams in the field, Votel said. U.S. counterterror forces will make up a smaller portion, as will other support forces and medical personnel.

        About 460 of the total troops will help the U.S. to train more Afghan special commandos in more locations, said U.S. Maj. Gen. James Linder, commander of U.S. and NATO special operations forces in Afghanistan. …” http://www.foxnews.com/world/2017/08/22/thousands-us-paratroopers-expected-to-arrive-in-afghanistan-soon.html

        Good idea to train the Afghans how to deploy from the new Blackhawks, and train more medics for the Medevac. I expect “Blackhawk Down” will re-appear on cable before Labor Day.

        And, yes, I have studied Afghan history, more than American history. Catching up on that this year.

        The Mehsuds of Waziristan are more difficult than reconciliation with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, even if he is Ghilzai. Pakistan is pushing the refugees back home.

        Give the plan a few weeks…

      • wildbillcuster

        All nations and kingdoms fall in the end. If America falls in the next hundred years, as seems increasingly likely, does that mean the Founders “failed”? Of course they didn’t, and neither did Alexander. Their successors may and did, respectively. The author is just using a lazy trope to make himself seem more educated than he really is.

        • Brandon Weichert

          Faulty logic displayed here. Whether America falls or not is irrelevant to the discussion (in fact, I’d argue the nearly $1 trillion we’ve blown on Afghanistan–and counting–is contributing to our downfall). We, as Americans, make choices today that impact our future. The amount of money spent in Afghanistan to prop up a society that has no inclination toward becoming a responsible member of the international community implies that, should the government collapse (which I worry will do far quicker than the Bactrians did) then this was a wasted effort. Please, tell me how the unpopular government in Kabul will hold that country together when we eventually leave. At least when Alexander no longer worried about A-Stan, his descendants held on for a while. They were ultimately subsumed by Islam. Which is precisely what will occur in A-Stan when we go. I hope, for our sake, you are right and I am as uneducated as you claim. But if I’m right, what a sad day for us all. Including the Afghans.

          • wildbillcuster

            We’ve definitely gotten way off target here. My original criticism had nothing to do with what we should do in Afghanistan. It was the narrow point of whether Alexander the Great “failed” in Bactria (Afghanistan doesn’t appear on the scene for another 1,000+ years). I think I’ve shown that he didn’t. Also, Hellenistic Bactria was not subsumed by Islam. They were long gone (700 years or so) by the time Islamic armies reached the area. The honor of destroying Bactria goes to the Sakas.

  • Gary Williams

    The problem, as I see it, it this. No matter where we go, there will always be those who fight us. In this day and age, borders mean nothing, specially to our enemy’s. Afghanistan, Iraq are examples of “when jihad is called for, they will come”. Matters NOT one lick, where you are in the world, or where they are. They will come. Obama “ended” the war, or tried, they came here, they went into Europe. They will go anywhere. We fight them in their homeland? They scatter like roaches into surrounding countries. Do we pull back, like Obama, and let them in? Do we reject that, and hit them at home? Where is HOME to them? Where the fight is, that’s where.

  • markterribile

    Before we can discuss strategy and tactics, before we can discuss winning and losing or success and failure, we must answer ‘success at WHAT?’ ‘failure at WHAT?’ We must know what our goals are, and we should know how those goals relate to our national interests, if indeed they do.

    It seems to me that our goals there are (or should be) to prevent enemies (various species of Islamic terrorists) from using that land as a base and using its resources (including recruits) to hurt us. This has a clear link to our national interests–in particular the security of our people and institutions, the latter including government and military.

    If we agree on this goal, we can then ask in what way or degree we can achieve success or failure? Can we secure the goal for good, or will we need to maintain a presence, of varying force?

    I think the answer is obvious. To deny the enemies this resource, we will have to commit to long-term effort. This need not be uniform effort; it may be low-level garrisonning punctuated by surges.

    If we focus on false goals like nation-building, we may decide we have succeeded or failed, and be moved to abandon our efforts–and abandon the real national security interest: denying the enemy the use of this wild land and its people.

  • Peter63

    The problem with regard to Afghanistan, the Near East, Muslim terrorism, is that all along the real issue has never been faced.

    Anyone who actually reads the Koran, studies Sharia and looks hard at the suffocatingly sterile and oppressive way of life in any actual Muslim country (all of which no ‘statesman’ nowadays ever seems to have done), will see at once that there is no compatibility whatsoever between Islamic culture – in any degree – and any of the cultures in the rest of the world.

    Islam in its sacred scriptures, its central tenets, insists on monopolising the Earth ON ITS TERMS and no other. The jihadi bombers, shooters, truck-driving slaughterers, all have Divine warrant on sacred terms – as they see it – for what they do.

    What ought to have happened after 9/11 was any one of the western countries (ideally all of them) stating that humankind should inhabit a binary world: in which the 56 Muslim lands currently in existence take all Muslims – regardless of their place of birth, colour, race, passport – and the other 140 countries be exclusively inhabited by non-Muslims; that the navies, armies and airforces of those other countries patrol the boundaries so acknowledged, making them a cordon sanitaire; that the Muslim world live unto itself henceforth; and that both sets of culture keep one another at arm’s length for the rest of time. No immigration/emigration from one sphere to the other: except for those in the non-Muslim world who wish to convert to Islam. They can take a one-way ticket. (No return option available. This would minimise sleeper agency.)

    Any other ‘solution’ less radical, less drastic, cannot work; especially that – as in the 7th century, the Middle Ages, the 17th
    century – since the Fall of the Shah of Persia in 1979 Islam is once again on the warpath; and this time worldwide.

    Till then, every other expedient simply multiplies the Hydra’s Head of proliferating difficulties, will offer no solution; and meanwhile Islamic terrorism across the whole globe will simply increase – it seems (from the latest developments) exponentially.

  • JamesDrouin

    “To be clear, I am not an outright opponent of the plan, but I am a skeptic.”

    And therein is the fundamental issue … observation of failure after failure after failure interspersed with promise of success after promise of success after promise of success.

    “I” believe that there is NO success on the horizon, regardless of the definition of success or the distance to the horizon, no matter what strategy or tactics are employed (short of just nuking the entire region), so the US should just get the flvck out.

    And, should the Taliban or other terrorist group de jour establish bases there to threaten the US, troops can always be sent back.

  • ek ErilaR

    I hate Trump’s Afghanistan decision. I console myself by telling myself it’s a dead chicken Trump has throw to the neo-con/neo-lib alligators in the Swamp to keep them quite in order to deal with more pressing needs.

    But just look at the map; Afghanistan is bordered by Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, China and Pakistan. If the US simply left Afghanistan, ISIS and the Taliban become the problems of Russia, Iran, China and Pakistan. For all their faults, they are not known exporters of terrorism to the West and they could certainly do a better job than mob of ticket punchers and ideologues the Departments of State and Defense.

  • Stoic1944

    Alexander didn’t have nukes.