7 Pillars for Success in Afghanistan

Security force member stands over a military car before leaving the site of a suicide attack followed by a clash between Afghan forces and insurgents after an attack on Iraq embassy in Kabul, Afghanistan, July 31, 2017. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani

The military alone is not enough.

Afghanistan has severely challenged every U.S. administration since the fall of 2001. The Trump administration is debating intensely what strategy, if any, might lead to more success than its predecessors achieved and turn around the “stalemate” on the ground in Afghanistan.

The media focus is largely on the troop numbers, tactics and costs being proposed to put the Taliban and its extremist bedfellows on the defensive and the positions of various U.S. policy makers including the president. A strategy for success, however, is much more complicated than just the issues surrounding security, vital as they are. There are at least seven pillars needed for a comprehensive strategy in Afghanistan: 1) military and security tactics and capacity-building; 2) Afghanistan’s domestic politics; 3) governance and economic performance; 4) Pakistan’s role; 5) options for a non-military solution; 6) international support; and 7) an effective U.S. policy and budgetary process. To only focus on the military pillar is a formula for misunderstanding. Neglecting any of the pillars can lead the enterprise to fail.

Supporters of a continued U.S. role in Afghanistan argue that it is in the national interest to prevent Afghanistan from again becoming a base for terrorists. They argue that success is possible with a sustained, vigorous, multi-year effort without deadlines to bolster Afghan government capacity and to generate sufficient pressures on the Taliban and others to open paths to a non-military solution. This approach, they argue, will prevent terrorists from being able to operate internationally from Afghanistan.

As the U.S. policy debate unfolds, it is important to understand that a pathway to success demands a multifaceted and integrated strategy which addresses security issues well, while deploying effective diplomacy and non-military assistance.

Providing Military Support and Building Afghan Capacity

The Taliban gained ground militarily over the last two years. The fighting revealed serious shortcomings in the Afghan military, security and intelligence forces. Nevertheless, many Afghan troops and commanders fought with success and suffered very heavy casualties resisting the Taliban. The Afghan military clearly needed more support from U.S. airpower, intelligence, and Special Forces to counter the Taliban attacks and with that, they have held territory recently. They will need that support and advice for some time to come. In the interim, there is a clear need to clean out poorly performing and corrupt senior officers (in the army, the Interior Ministry and the intelligence service), to add an effective U.S. advisory presence closer to the front lines, and to undertake a serious revamp of training and capacity building programs, including addressing the airpower needs of the Afghan forces. The cleaning out of the Afghan military leadership has already begun with the support of Afghan president Ghani, but it will take time and persistence, as will a revitalized capacity building effort once properly resourced. This cluster of issues was at the core of the U.S. military’s request for more troops earlier this year, and is central to the debate in the Trump administration, which reportedly has included consideration of using private military contractors.

Assuring Afghan Domestic Political Support