Like most of you, I watched President Trump’s speech last night with great interest. Of far more interest to me than any possible deployments was that this was billed as the President’s strategy for Afghanistan and Southwest Asia. Potential deployments are important, of course – but understanding why those deployments are happening and what the objective is, is far more important.
First of all, I have to give the President kudo’s for not pretending we’re withdrawing, as his predecessor did on multiple occasions. Likewise, I have to give him props for understanding that no military campaign can be run on a clock. It’s over when the objectives have been met, whether that’s tomorrow or 10 years from now. And I respect that finally we have a Commander-in-Chief who understands that battlefield commanders should be the guys calling the shots, carrying out missions created by folks who understand military strategy (such as General Mattis). Politicians understand political strategy, but generally they’re lousy at real battle plans. The last guy who sat behind the Resolute Desk proved that, over and over again.
But as far as the actual strategy we’re pursuing, I don’t actually see anything different than what we have been doing for the past 8 years. Trying to train up the local armed forces to defend their country from insurgents and rebels? Check. Pressuring the Afghan government to step up operations in the troubled provinces? Check. Pressuring the Pakistani’s to stop Afghan insurgents from using their territory as safe havens and travel routes? Check. We’ve been doing those things and none have worked. We train the Afghan army, but they can’t even recruit properly – and our advisors get shot on their bases. We threaten to withhold funding for the civilian Afghan government, but in addition to being more corrupt than an eastern European smuggler, they know it’s only threats. We aren’t about to financially cut them off at this point, because doing so would mean leaving our soldiers behind as hostages. As for Pakistan, we’ve actually withheld both military and civilian funding, with no effect.
The only new wrinkle was trying to draw India into the conflict. The President must have started drinking if he thinks this is going to work. India has nothing to gain – and everything to lose by meddling in this conflict. India’s biggest rivals are China and Pakistan. As long as Pakistan has to keep forces along the Afghan border and internally has to deal with the Haqqani and Pashtun populations, it’s less force India needs to worry about on their shared border. Quite frankly, given the rise of Prime Minister Modi’s Hindu-nationalist coalition, India has no problem with Pakistan dissolving into chaos. They would welcome it.
As for Pakistan itself, the President is fooling himself if he thinks that nation truly has a strong central government. They have a strongman as Prime Minister, but as with his predecessors, he is far more concerned with India to his southeast than ethnic Pashtuns in the north. Everyone who has ruled the territory that comprises modern-day Pakistan has had to deal with the Pashtun, from Alexander the Great through Genghis Khan, various Indo-Turk rulers, the British Empire to the 21st Century. In those 24 centuries, most ruled by benign indifference, as the exertion required to bring the region to heel would cost more in blood and treasure than the effort is worth. The same holds true for today.
The President’s yardstick for success – “a lasting political solution among the Afghan people” – is little more than a pipedream. As mentioned above, the central Afghan government is incredibly corrupt, but that’s only part of the problem. Afghanistan is dominated by dozens of tribes, each with a stake in maintaining their individual fiefdoms. Not only are there the tribal considerations, but there are some serious ethnic divisions – it’s generally accepted that there are at least 14 different ethnicities within Afghanistan’s borders, and they don’t all play nice together.
Finally, there is a serious gap in the strategy the President laid out last night. He failed to mention the other nations that border Afghanistan, namely Iran, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. For instance, Turkmenistan has a large, ethnic Turkem population, as does Afghanistan. Tajikistan has an area controlled by ethnic Pashtuns. Iran still considers the territory centered on the city of Herat to be theirs, since it’s ethnically Persian. Nor did he mention how Russia and China, who are both major players in the region, would have their considerations addressed.
In short, what I heard was the President basically saying we’re in Afghanistan until the conditions that led to the region becoming a home for terrorists and insurgents are rectified. He may not want to call it nation building, but essentially that’s what he’s committed us to doing. It’s the overarching strategy we’ve tried for the last 16 years without success. With all of the loose ends that aren’t even acknowledged under his version, I can’t see how it will be successful now.