At hearings on Capitol Hill earlier this month, Secretary of Defense James Mattis admitted that the administration currently doesn’t have a strategy for the war in Afghanistan, but promised one by the end of July. Given the number of troops his plan will reportedly include, however, the new strategy will at best ensure the war continues without resolution into perpetuity. Rather than anchoring the United States to a state of permanent failure, President Donald Trump should demand disruptive alternative policies that makes strategic success possible. Fortunately, viable options do exist.
Numerous Senate and House committees have held hearings of late discussing Afghan war strategy, and there has been considerable debate among pundits regarding the number of troops that Mattis should deploy. Lost in these discussions is an examination whether the oft-stated objective (preventing terrorists from using Afghanistan to plan future terror attacks against the United States) is even achievable.
Before troop levels can be set, an agreed-upon strategy has to be selected; before a strategy can be chosen, an achievable end-state must be identified. For well over a decade, no achievable end-state has been discussed, debated or assigned in Afghanistan—and that is the primary cause of the stalemate that currently afflicts U.S. policy there.
In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks, President George W. Bush stated clear and limited U.S. policy was to initiate “carefully targeted actions” that were “designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime . . . By destroying camps and disrupting communications, we will make it more difficult for the terror network to train new recruits and coordinate their evil plans.”
By the summer of 2002, those valid objectives had been fully accomplished. America’s military performed brilliantly and achieved its primary goals.
The Taliban was outright destroyed as a coherent entity and Osama bin Laden, with all but a handful of his Al Qaeda fighters, had been driven from the country. An effective course of action at that point would have been to begin transition by that autumn to a State Department-led mission focused on assisting the Afghan people in rebuilding their government, security forces and economy.
Should any Afghan government have harbored or supported terrorists in the future, the military option would always be available—but a trillion dollar, multi-decade occupation spanning three U.S. administrations (so far) was not necessary.
Since at least 2005, U.S. policy has languished under two leach-like policy failures that have consistently ensured nothing beyond a stalemate can be achieved: a persistent unwillingness to demand an end to Afghan government corruption and cross-border support for the insurgency by Pakistan. Until those two cancers are eradicated, no amount of U.S. military power will end the war.
To an American audience, it is sometimes difficult to grasp how Afghan government corruption prevents U.S.-allied forces from defeating the insurgency. A few key examples will serve to illuminate the gravity of the situation.
The most visible face of the Kabul government to the people are the police forces, more so than the army. As has been painstakingly detailed by the Afghan Analysts Network (AAN), the various divisions of Afghan police have been and continue to be deeply infiltrated by corruption. In too many cases, positions of leadership are purchased, not earned through merit.
An AAN study by Kate Clark released earlier this month revealed that those who purchase their positions have to recoup the investment, and “almost inevitably, [that] means police involvement in crime, including racketeering and drug smuggling, and/or making money from the ministry itself. This ranges from crooked contracts and pocketing the salaries of policemen who do not exist, to so-called ‘ghost policemen.’”
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.