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Toward an Afghan End State
As President Trump inherits the war in Afghanistan, the best piece of advice anyone can give him is that this is about as good as it is going to get. The government controls the major population areas and the Taliban controls some largely Pashtun dominated swaths of territory along the Pakistani border. Warlords of various ethnic origins control large areas in the north and the west. None of this is an immediate threat to the vital security interests of the United States. The Taliban will not overrun the major cities, nor will the government be able to exert true control over the more remote areas of the country due to its lack of usable roads and communications.
We got into the war in Afghanistan because we wanted transnational radical Islamists out. Al Qaeda is largely gone, and although ISIS would like in, there are no indications they are welcomed by any of the major Afghan players. This does not mean that we should leave Afghanistan entirely, but it does mean that the nation building phase of that war is over.
Our continuing military presence in the nation is about right-sized for a continuing counterterrorism campaign to ensure that radical transnational terror groups cannot use it as a base for another 9-11 type attack on the American homeland. We would make a mistake if we totally left Afghanistan at this point as we would lose any control over countering some kind of ISIS-like revival in the country. The Taliban themselves may be repugnant to many Americans, but they are not a transnational threat.
The continuing NATO/American presence in Afghanistan should be viewed as an insurance policy. First, it is a relatively inexpensive hedge against a resurgence of foreign fighters who might use Afghanistan as a base for plotting attacks against the United States or its closest allies. The Russians have too much baggage regarding the Afghans for them ever be able to accomplish such a mission. Americans may not be universally loved by Afghans, but our presence is tolerated in a way the Russians could never achieve.
Afghanistan’s real problem in developing itself more is something the US cannot help it with. It is a country that has a centralized system of strong government on paper, but the infrastructure of the nation does not allow for that government to deliver goods and services in anything like an efficient manner. The nation needs to decentralize and give provincial governors the power and resources to actually improve conditions while holding them accountable for real progress. A direct transfer of funds from Kabul to the provinces would cut out layers of Kabul bureaucracy, each of which takes its cut. Corruption is a given in that part of the world, but the layers of corruption between Kabul and the provincial governors is debilitating.
If the governors are given resources to create progress and held accountable, they will be more proactive in fighting corruption as it will make them look bad. The point here is that the kind of changes decentralization would require are an Afghan matter. Until they solve that internal problem, American efforts at nation building and counterinsurgency are money flushed down the toilet. We can advise the Afghan government diplomatically on what it should do to make things better for its population, but until the Afghans make real changes, our development money should be spent elsewhere while the United States focuses it aid to Afghanistan on counterterrorism issues.
If our investment in resources in Afghanistan is focused on counterterrorism rather than nation-building, we are probably right-sized for the mission at this time. Perhaps the mix of forces could be tinkered with, but our presence gives the Afghan government a bargaining chip with the Taliban. The Taliban want foreign fighters out of the country; we want foreign jihadists out of the country. Getting the Taliban to agree to keep al Qaeda and ISIS out of the areas they control as a precondition for US/NATO withdrawal would be a major step in the war on terror.
The Trump doctrine, as it is developing, does not appear to be to withdraw totally from the world, but it seems to be aimed at ensuring that the investments we make overseas in time and troop presence reflect American interests rather than blind altruism. We should diplomatically encourage the Afghans to decentralize their government, continue to build up their logistical capability to combat terrorism, and encourage a peaceful settlement with the Taliban that brings them into the government as political party. If we can accomplish those three goals, we may actually be able to say that the war was worth the effort.