Trump's New Afghanistan Strategy Isn't Really a Strategy

 An Afghan policeman stands guard in front of a burning pile of seized narcotics and alcoholic drinks, in the outskirts of Jalalabad, Afghanistan September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Parwiz​

Principles guiding a strategy are no substitute for an actual strategy whether developed by Washington or by field commanders.

To much anticipation, on August 21 President Donald Trump announced “our new strategy” for Afghanistan. Unfortunately, it revealed neither a succinct strategy nor even anything new. It was instead a list of a dozen pronouncements defining various U.S. policies tied to Afghanistan. Leaving aside their wisdom, they describe almost perfectly the policy of President George W. Bush and the initial policy of President Barack Obama.

More importantly, the announcements form not even the semblance of a strategy. A strategy is a plan for the deployment of (limited) resources in support of a set of objectives and in the face of obstacles (like adversaries), as President Trump said himself, it is “a plan for victory.” President Trump elucidated none of the elements.

So there is no plan nor even realistic objectives. For instance, what is the larger scheme into which the additional four thousand troops President Trump has authorized will fit? To be fair, there has been little real strategy over the past sixteen years by any administration with the possible exception of the questionable plan in 2009 by then-International Security Assistance Force and its commander at the time, Gen. David Petraeus, to redeploy coalition forces from relatively more secure areas of the north, for example in Badakhshan and Balch, to the heartland of the Taliban in the south and east, particularly Helmand and Kandahar. I told USAID in a political-economy analysis of Afghanistan before the redeployment that since the war in Afghanistan was not between two set, uniformed armies but an irregular “asymmetric” war, one in which the insurgents enjoy maximum fluidity, its participants would simply redeploy their own forces and in the process render the “secure” areas insecure, which is exactly what they did. But wise or not, at least Petraeus had a plan based on an analysis of the conflict.

At best, Trump removed Obama’s troop limitations and timetable noting that “conditions on the ground—not arbitrary and counterproductive timetables will guide our strategy from now on” and the United States will “no longer announce in advance the dates we intend to begin, or end, military options . . . or talk about numbers of troops or our plans for further military activities.” Moreover, unlike Bush and Obama, Washington will no longer “micromanage” military decisions but rather expand the authority of field commanders to “target the terrorist and criminal networks.” (Now targeting criminal networks too? Plenty of those outside and inside the government itself.) Principles guiding a strategy may be better than nothing, but they are no substitute for an actual strategy whether developed by Washington or by field commanders.

As for objectives, they are either unclear or, based on the last sixteen years, utterly over-ambitious and unrealistic: “win a victory . . . , bring about the defeat of our enemies and the arrival of peace,” and (even more expansive) “from now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing Al Qaeda, preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.” Tall order for a war that has so far produced none of them and not for lack of trying. Indeed, a bit quizzically given the braggadocio about obliterating, crushing and preventing, “it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban” in the governance of Afghanistan but, unlike President Obama, President Trump said nothing about the prerequisites for that possibility.