WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump is the third US commander in chief in 16 years to consider a surge of American forces into Afghanistan. He has delegated authority to Secretary of Defense James Mattis to decide whether – and if so, how many – more US troops should join the approximately 8,400 already in Afghanistan. As Mattis contemplates this decision, he must recall the observation of baseball legend Yogi Berra – “It’s déja vu all over again.”
In deciding whether to deploy additional troops, Mattis will take as his starting point recommendations of US commanders in the field and surely consider the following questions:
- 1) What is the US mission in Afghanistan? Is the United States primarily there to fight al Qaeda and ISIS, the latter recently gaining a foothold in the north along with the country’s east, a development which chillingly recalls Bin Laden's use of Afghan territory to plan the 9/11 attacks? To get more aggressive in supporting the Afghan army and police in their fight with the Taliban? To support Afghanistan's "Transformation Decade," a vision agreed to by the international community in Bonn in 2011, that Afghanistan should be self-reliant by 2024? Or all of the above?
- 2) Will more US troops encourage US allies and friends to send more soldiers? Can the addition of several thousand more US forces make enough of a difference to be worth the inevitable cost in American lives? And will US allies and friends decide to augment the roughly 5,000 troops they have currently deployed? Too many people in the United States forget the contributions by NATO nations and other allies and partners like Australia. At the peak of the combat mission in Afghanistan in 2011, NATO allies and partners had more than 40,000 troops on the ground: 1,136 died, including 453 from the UK, 158 from Canada, 44 from Poland, 43 from Denmark and 41 from Australia. Thousands more were wounded. These and other nations also contributed billions of dollars in military and civilian assistance to Afghanistan. Mattis must ponder whether countries like Germany and Australia will increase their commitment or tell the Trump administration it is on its own.
- 3) Is the Kabul government up to the task of leading its beleaguered but courageous armed forces against a committed insurgency? The Afghan government is beset by a paralyzing power-sharing agreement between President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Abdullah Abdullah. Mattis will consider if Afghanistan’s leaders are capable of making the hard decisions necessary to defend the gains secured by the sacrifices of Afghans, Americans and others. If not, it may not be worth sending more US forces.
- 4) Will the nations of the larger region play a constructive role to contribute to a secure Afghanistan and a stable, prosperous region? A good start was made in Istanbul at the “Heart of Asia” meeting in 2011, but six years later, few concrete results can be reported. By all accounts, Pakistan continues to tolerate and at times actively support the Taliban’s safe havens in their territory. The Russians, after their own military debacle in Afghanistan in the 1980s, were once at least a benign player in the international effort to support the Afghans. But General John Nicholson called Russia out in April for arming the Taliban under the pretense that only the Taliban can fight ISIS. Can the Taliban be convinced to help and not undermine US efforts?
- 5) Can an increase in US troops and more intense engagement in the fighting create conditions for a peace settlement among Afghans? There is no solely military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. By continuing merciless acts of violence, the Taliban shows no serious interest in talks today. Mattis must determine if further US deployment, and a hoped-for shift in the battlefield situation in favor of Afghan security forces, could make the Taliban more likely to come to the table.
The authors believe Secretary Mattis should commit up to 5,000 additional US troops, without setting a timeline for ending their deployment, to do two jobs: First, keep Afghanistan and the region from again becoming the platform for an attack on the US homeland, or US interests abroad including its friends and allies. And second, train, equip and support the Afghan security forces in their struggle with the Taliban. The fight against the Taliban should remain the Afghans’ fight, but the United States should have the patience and courage to support them.
Much could go wrong, and quickly. For example, sustained attacks on US forces by Taliban infiltrators – the so-called “green on blue killings” – could undermine American public support for an increased US presence.
If Mattis decides to deploy additional troops, he should make clear to his cabinet colleagues that an increase in military effort requires a national, “whole of government strategy.” Diplomats, US Agency in International Development specialists and others in the government must keep doing their part to support those in Afghanistan committed to maintaining gains and making more progress while keeping the region focused on its responsibilities toward Afghanistan.
For example, the US agencies involved must structure policies, including specific disincentives if required, to end Pakistan’s toleration of Taliban safe havens on Pakistani territory and to keep the Kabul government from devolving into an endless and unproductive struggle for power and patronage, especially leading up to the 2019 presidential election.
Finally, to return to a theme highlighted by Marc Grossman in YaleGlobal, the United States can work with China on Belt and Road Initiative projects that support a sustainable Afghan economy. The Trump administration was right to send a delegation to the Belt and Road Initiative Summit in Beijing in May. A good next step would be for the United States to join the Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank.
The authors have both worked to support US goals in Afghanistan and the region, but this is a close call even for us. We are not slaves to the “credibility” argument, especially when so many lives are put at risk. There are consequences for action or inaction. It is not in America’s interests to leave Afghanistan to its current trajectory, with the Taliban controlling ever larger swaths of the country, seeking to topple the Kabul government and allowing growing safe havens for both ISIS and al Qaeda.
On a visit to Pakistan and Afghanistan in early July, US senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham expressed support for additional troops, but added that “throwing more bombs” is not enough. The United States must engage and influence regional leaders, rallying them to provide more support to the struggling government in Kabul.
The senators are right. Sending more US troops is a risk worth taking in the US national interest, so long as it is as part of an integrated strategy for Central and South Asia – Yogi Berra’s warning notwithstanding.