Trump's Afghanistan Strategy Is Simply Old Wine in a New Bottle

Alaskan National Guard Pvt. Lathaniel Ulofoshio provides security for fellow members of Kandahar Provincial Reconstruction Team while conducting a site survey of the Sanjaray health clinic May 24, 2012 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. Flickr / The U.S. Army

If America goes all-in on Afghanistan and fails, it'll be easier to walk away.

Undeterred, on June 25, Noor threatened mass protests and “dangerous civil movements” if the government fails to undertake security reforms. Sure enough, several days later, three major political parties—including JI, led by Noor and Rabbani—announced the formation of a new movement called the Coalition to Rescue Afghanistan. They insist it is meant to demand urgent reforms, not to plot the government’s ouster.

Amid this turmoil, the government has struggled to provide basic services to its impoverished population—no small matter in a nation in economic free fall. Annual GDP growth plummeted from more than 14 percent in 2012 to just 1.5 percent in 2015—a dramatic fall attributable to the drawdown of foreign combat troops in 2014, which deprived Afghanistan of its flourishing war economy. In 2016, one estimate concluded that the contraction of the war economy led to two hundred thousand lost jobs.

Meanwhile, Afghanistan still ranks as one of the most corrupt countries in the world, according to Transparency International. Tellingly, in some cases, those charged with combating corruption—including a top general in Helmand—have instead been accused of committing it. Despite Ghani’s genuine desire to curb corruption, and despite some success stories, including the establishment of a new anti-corruption court, the scourge continues to pervade the government.

This misgovernance is a glorious gift to the insurgency. The government’s ineffectiveness strengthens the hand of the Taliban, which, with its promises of swift justice and regular paychecks, casts itself as a better alternative to a corrupt and feckless government (one that street protestors, like the Taliban, are labeling as “illegitimate”). A weak government can help Taliban recruitment, strengthen the insurgency, and accelerate Afghanistan’s destabilization.

These governance-related drivers of instability simply can’t be ignored.

To their credit, U.S. officials have suggested the troop increase will be tied to a broader strategic objective: compelling the Taliban to join a peace process with the Afghan government. But this is folly. A hundred thousand troops couldn’t bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. Why should less than fifteen thousand?

U.S. military forces would have a better chance of driving the Taliban to the negotiating table if insurgents were hit where it hurts the most—their leaders’ sanctuaries in Pakistan. U.S. policy could well go in this direction. In his Congressional testimony, Mattis said the administration will take a regional approach and address “where this enemy is fighting from . . . which is not just Afghanistan.”

A senior administration official told Bloomberg that one component of the Afghanistan strategy could involve attempting to convince Pakistan that its interests are better served by partnering with, rather than working against, America in Afghanistan—meaning that Pakistan should crack down on the Taliban and Haqqani Network presence on its soil.

Washington, however, has tried and failed to elicit this outcome for years. There’s no reason to think it’ll be any more successful this time around; Pakistan won’t want to turn on assets that keep India—which Pakistan considers an existential threat—at bay in Afghanistan. For Pakistan, maintaining ties to the Taliban and Haqqani Network is, arguably, an immutable national interest.