The Skeptics

A New Afghanistan Strategy Must Avoid Perpetual War

The consequences of this corruption are clear, Clark says. When policemen “extort money from travelers and protection money from shopkeepers and landlords, the legitimacy of the state is poisoned.” Hamid Karzai made the situation worse by seeking to install a number of crooked police generals to head each of the thirty-four provinces. According to Human Rights Watch, a number of these men had been “implicated in murder, torture, intimidation, bribery, government corruption and interfering with police investigations.”

When the top leaders take such actions, it infects the resolve of the men who must face the Taliban in combat. A Reuters report from last year described how numerous policemen were abandoning their posts due to relentless Taliban attacks. The reasons, however, weren’t because the fight was too hard or the men insufficiently trained.

Reuters explained that “on the frontlines, army and police deserters complain of commanders having no answer for deadly ambushes, no broader strategy for prevailing in the war, corruption among their leaders and poor food and equipment.” The author wrote that barely a day passed without gunfire, ambushes and roadside bombs.

One of the policemen interviewed for the article said, “we were treated as if we had no value and our job was to get killed.” The United States could quadruple the number of troop trainers it is scheduled to deploy, but unless the systemic corruption is addressed, the fighting spirit of the front-line policemen will remain inadequate and the people remain insecure.

Similarly, Pakistan’s cross-border support of the insurgency has been known for well over a decade. I was first assigned duty in Kabul as an U.S. Army officer in 2005 and it was widely known even then that Pakistan was playing a double game. Eleven years later nothing had changed. In 2016 the House Foreign Affairs Committee held a hearing entitled “Pakistan: Friend or Foe in the Fight Against Terrorism?”

In his opening statement, Committee Chairman Rep. Ted Poe (R-TX) said that “Despite the mounting evidence of Pakistan’s collusion with global terrorism, Pakistan is among the leading recipients of U.S. foreign assistance, with Congress appropriating more than $33 billion to Islamabad since 2002. Despite this and other fiery rhetoric in Washington, no action has been taken to curtail support for Pakistan.

As long as Islamabad knows it will not suffer consequences for supporting the insurgency—and dishonest officials in Afghanistan know there will never be consequences for their corruption—the war will continue without pause. As long as Washington continues deploying U.S. service members to fight a war that can’t be won, American men and women will continue to give their lives and blood in vain.

If Congress really “supports the troops,” as routinely claimed, and if President Trump genuinely wants to win the Afghan war, immediate changes are necessary. Fortunately, alternative policies with achievable outcomes do exist.

The first order of business is defining an achievable end-state that secures America’s vital national interests. The United States may have a “national interest” in seeing Kabul effectively managed by a democratic government. However, America’s vital national interest is in ensuring that the government in Kabul does not, like the Taliban regime before 2001, support or protect terror organizations that could threaten the United States.

It therefore necessary for Kabul to promise to never support terrorists, and so long as it receives funds from the United States, reduce corruption to acceptably low levels.

It is a physical impossibility to “prevent” any terror entity from existing in Afghanistan—fortunately, U.S. security does not depend on depriving all terrorists from holding any ground everywhere in the world to keep America safe. Thus, this should not be the objective of U.S. policy; why expend billions of dollars and the lives of American service members in pursuit of an unattainable objective?

It is key to understand that it is not necessary to control ground to protect the U.S. homeland from terror attacks. Having a robust global system of intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR), effective cooperation with the intelligence services of allied and friendly nations, and active cooperation between U.S. local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies provides the best chance to defend the United States from terror strikes.

U.S. foreign policy should be converted to a diplomacy-first approach that works with the military to contain radicalism in all its forms abroad, limits its spread and cooperates with international partners to reduce the threat in those locations over time. To the extent it is feasible, Washington should assist local populations in implementing locally derived political solutions, but the United States can’t and shouldn’t impose solutions on them. When legitimate terrorist threats to American citizens or interests are discovered, they should be dealt with swiftly and authoritatively, wherever they may reside.

By now, even the most ardent supporter of the current Afghan policy must realize that it is impossible to kill one’s way out of an insurgency. It is even less possible to kill all the terrorists abroad in an effort to keep Americans safe at home.