Small Wars Journal

Trump’s Imaginary “Strategy” for Afghanistan

Fri, 05/26/2017 - 8:20pm

Trump’s Imaginary “Strategy” for Afghanistan

Ehsan M. Ahrari

Everyone was waiting for President Donald Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan.  But the announcement of that strategy came as a repeat of President Barack Obama’s original version of that strategy.  It stated that Trump is likely to send as many as 5000 additional US troops to Afghanistan. 

Like almost all policies in the realm of domestic and foreign policy, Trump liked nothing about his predecessor’s way of conducting the Afghan war.  So, the expectation was that he would announce a different approach to that war.  But Afghanistan has a forbidding way of surprising everyone.

After sending his Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, and his National Security Advisor, Lt. General H.R. McMaster, to Afghanistan on “fact finding missions,” Trump found out that the Afghan war is not a winnable one; and the United States has no choice but to stay put and find some sort of a negotiated solution.  In the interim, increasing ground troops appears to be a make-believe version of a strategy.  That was precisely what Obama was doing. 

Perhaps after receiving some hard-hitting briefings from Mattis and McMaster, Trump finally realized Obama’s decision to remain in Afghanistan was both realistic and necessary.  The United States cannot afford to get out and hand over Afghanistan to the Taliban for certainly an Islamist rule.  The effect of such a move would have been devastating for Trump’s own emphasis of defeating and eradicating the global jihadists.  More to the point, Mattis and McMaster must also have told the greenhorn President how harsh ground realities have been in Afghanistan. 

The best description of those ground realities was presented in a January 2017 report issued by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR).  Some of its highlights are:

  1. The current weakness of the Afghan government is underscored by the fact that, at the end of 2016, only 57.2 percent of the country was “under its control or influence,” which was a “6.3 decrease from 2015.”  The Taliban controlled 10 percent, and the rest of territory was “uncontested.” 
  2. Taliban also controlled more than 80 percent of Helmand Province.  
  3. According to a recent statement made by General John W. Nicholson, the commander of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan, “Of the 98 U.S.- or U.N.-designated terrorist organizations around the globe, 20 of them are in the Af-Pak region.”  He added, “This is the highest concentration of the numbers of different groups in any area in the world.”  This statement underscores what is really at stake in Afghanistan for the United States and why it should stay militarily involved in that country.
  4. Just in 2016, “583,000 people fled their homes…”  This was “the highest number of displacements since record keeping started in 2008.”
  5. Opium production in Afghanistan “rose 43 percent from 2015 levels.”  This constitutes 90 percent of the world’s opium production.

The saddest reality about Afghanistan is that all major actors either directly or indirectly involved in that country are trying to maximize their respective spheres of influence.  Helping Afghanistan remains only a secondary objective for all of them.

The United States’ chief interest is to stabilize Afghanistan under a democratic government and to not leave that country after that.  Therein lies the rub.  The Taliban have intermittently let it be known that they will not come to the negotiating table unless foreign forces leave Afghanistan. 

China’s chief interest is to stabilize Afghanistan for the successful implementation of “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) strategy, which is its grand strategy to connect  entire world to its business center.  It includes new “maritime silk roads” “connecting Southeast Asia, South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.”  Because of Afghanistan’s proximity to the Persian/Arabian Gulf, Pakistan, and Central Asia, its stability is very important for the successful implementation of the OBOR strategy in the calculus of the mandarins of China’s foreign policy.

Another important variable is the East Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), which is resolute about destabilizing Xinjiang—China’s Western province.  A potential success of the ETIM there is rightly referred to as “China’s nightmare.”  The ETIM has also been present in Afghanistan and has powerful links with the Taliban.  So, another crucial objective of China is to neutralize its ties with the Taliban by engaging them in the peace process.   

Russia seems to be getting increasingly interested in escalating its presence in Afghanistan.  For this purpose, it is reported to be engaging the Taliban on the premise that they are not part of global jihadist groups.  It is also reported to be supplying weapons to them, and they have invited India and Iran to participate in future negotiations with the Taliban.

Pakistan is the only regional power that holds a few cards, in the context of pushing for negotiations between the Taliban and the government of President Ashraf Ghani.  However, it also brings a lot of baggage with it.  It is disliked by the Afghan government for its perceived hegemonic aspirations toward that country, and the Taliban do not place a lot of trust in Pakistan in its role as an honest broker.  However, Pakistan remains important because it is willing to provide security havens for the Taliban and is a source for their arms.  

The involvement of these actors and their conflict agendas keeps the Afghan conflict in a constant state of flux.  However, the questions of the hour are whether Pakistan can bring the Taliban to the negotiating table and whether the US-China partnership will continue to evolve for pushing for those negotiations.  Considering the considerable sway of China over Pakistan as its ally, the chances are that China will persuade Pakistan to push the Taliban for negotiations.

About the Author(s)

Ehsan Ahrari is specialist in Great Powers relations and the strategic affairs of the world of Islam.  He has taught at America’s premier senior military educational institutions.  His latest book, The Islamic Challenge and the United States: Global Security in an Age of Uncertainty, was published by McGill-Queens University Press in February 2017.  He is also the author of The Great Powers Versus the Hegemon (McMillan, 2011).


Outlaw 09

Mon, 06/12/2017 - 12:41pm

Dayuhan...good to see your comments again....

I think you're consistently misreading the motivation here. Certainly there was a rather half-assed and utterly unrealistic plan to introduce "Democracy" in both Iraq and Afghanistan, but I think that is less about any overarching dream of westernizing the world than about the demands of domestic politics. US leaders have to sell themselves a good guys, and they have to sell their interventions as moral and upright. The only way to do this is to install a form of government that the US voter will recognize as "democracy". Our policy in both countries, and a few other places as well, is unrealistic not because of a missionary impulse to westernize, but because our polices are designed to win the approval of Americans, not the people in the countries affected.

Bill C.

Wed, 06/07/2017 - 1:22pm

In reply to by Dayuhan

Dayuhan: You said:

"The US habit of failure is a direct consequence of the US habit of setting utterly unrealistic goals. If the US definition of "success" is a stable, democratic, pro-western government, brace for failure, because that is no more realistic in Afghanistan than it is in Iraq."

Or could the problem here be -- not so much with the U.S./the West setting broad, overarching goals ("containing" and "rolling back" communism, after all, appears to have worked) -- but rather with:

a. The invalid premise (exs: universal western values, the overwhelming appeal of the western way of life, etc., the end of history) upon which our outlying state and societal transformation missions, of late, have been undertaken? And, thus and accordingly, with:

b. The strategy(ies), means, methods, resources and time-lines which were formulated, implemented and applied based on same?

Thus, if we were to go back to 2003 and determine that:

a. While our goals are valid and indeed are the same (to transform outlying states and societies of the world, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines),

b. These such missions would be undertaken in more of a "hostile to this idea/this mission" environment -- this, rather than the false "welcoming" environment that I note in my first item "a" above.

If such were our understanding in 2003 then:

1. Might success (possibly over a much longer period of time) ultimately be achieved in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan? This,

2. Via the formulation and implementation of strategies (etc.) which give due consideration to this "hostile" (rather than "welcoming") environment, to wit: the very environment in which these such "transformational" missions were then, and in fact are now, going to have to be undertaken?

(Herein, I am envisioning something of a "long, twilight struggle" in an often hostile, rather than welcoming, environment. [In this regard, see my comment below]. Thus, an environment similar to that which the Soviets/the communists faced when they in the 20th Century -- much as we have in the 21st Century -- set out to transform the Rest of the World more along often alien and profane political, economic, social and value lines.)

It is interesting, and perhaps revealing, that the list of "major actors" does not include a single Afghan entity. Are the Afghans the supporting cast? Are the Taliban not a "major actor"?

The US habit of failure is a direct consequence of the US habit of setting utterly unrealistic goals. If the US definition of "success" is a stable, democratic, pro-western government, brace for failure, because that is no more realistic in Afghanistan than it is in Iraq.

The importance of Afghanistan to China's "one Be;t, One Road" effort seems somewhat overrated here. No matter how much anyone tries to position Afghanistan as a target of economic significance, it just isn't.

Bill C.

Mon, 06/05/2017 - 5:38pm

In reply to by Tropiccid

Should we see Afghanistan -- not so much within the context of terrorism, terrorist sanctuaries, etc. -- but more within the context of great nation competition; such as that outlined below:


Russia’s cyberattacks should be teaching Americans something that those situated in the orbits of China, Iran, and Russia have long known: There are serious political competitions underway for regional and strategic dominance. These extend beyond military battlefields and are a fought across a variety of domains – political, economic, informational, and cultural. Is the United States finally ready to compete? ...

Competitiveness is inherent in the way that military and intelligence agencies think and act, but it is virtually absent in most other government organizations. Typically, those organizations focus on administering systems, running programs, and maintaining relationships as ends in themselves. Yet in virtually every theater of the world, local and regional competitions over ideas, economic systems, and societies affect America’s ability to protect and advance its interests.

END QUOTES (by Nadia Schadlow)

(Nadia Schadlow is now, I believe, a member of the National Security Council and, therein, Deputy Assistant to the President and Senior Director for National Security Strategy. In this job, I believe, she is expected to oversee/manage the writing/authoring of the National Security Strategy of the United States for President Trump?

In such a great nation competition context as that described by Ms. Schadlow above (ex: "These extend beyond military battlefields and are a fought across a variety of domains – political, economic, informational, and cultural"), will such things as "stability" -- and "coaxing whatever government to provide democracy over time" -- suffice? Maybe not.

Thus, in this great nation competition light, to see that:

a. "Stability," at any cost, will not be pursued or allowed? And that, accordingly, in order to "protect and advance our interests,"

b. Competition by the U.S./the West -- "in virtually every theater of the world" -- will include, yesterday as today, the continued aggressive promotion of our own political, economic, social and value ideas and institutions?

Bottom Line Thought:

In the pursuit of glorious "stability," it appears the U.S./the West is still not ready to hand over the keys to city [i.e., to the world] just yet?

Jeff Goodson

Wed, 05/31/2017 - 12:30am

In reply to by Tropiccid



Tue, 05/30/2017 - 4:49pm

Appreciate the perspective about why the US can't abandon Afghanistan, and now appears to be in an irredeemable quandary. However, I disagree with your concluding assessment of American interests, specifically that Afghanistan be left stable under a democratic government. I believe that democracy, at least in America's liberal, individualistic interpretation of it, is not required for American interests to be satisfied. After all, we are content with monarchy in Saudi Arabia, Morocco and Jordan, so why not a uniquely Afghan alternative, as long as it is capable of stability and geographic control. I think American interests would even be served by a brutally repressive authoritarian regime capable of denying Islamists a safe have. I think we are in a trap of wanting our Cake and eating it too. Let's shoot for stability, with an intent of coaxing whatever government provides it into democracy over time. The era of bringing democracy to the world has been attended by much death and little fruit. It must end.