By Matt Ellison
President Trump, in emphasising military flexibility and regional cooperation, has so far gotten Afghanistan right. As before, only time will tell if simply being right is enough to end America’s longest-running war.
On Wednesday, Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport fell prey to a Taliban rocket attack, according to Najib Danish, a spokesperson for the Afghan Interior Ministry.
29 rockets are said to have struck the south side of the airport, but with no casualties and minimum damage inflicted.
The target of the attack was the United States Secretary of Defence, James ‘Mad Dog’ Mattis, whose unannounced arrival in-country was his first since President Donald Trump’s announcement of a new strategy for the 16-year war in August.
Mattis, who went by the callsign ‘Chaos’ on United States Marine Corps radio channels during the opening phase of the Iraq War, will be the sixth US Secretary of Defence under the third President to hold office during the war in Afghanistan.
The Graveyard of Promises
The US deployment in Afghanistan is the country’s longest-running war, outpacing both the World Wars, the Vietnam War and the Moro Rebellion fought at the turn of the last century.
In the years of the Obama administration, Trump was active on Twitter calling for a wind-down of American involvement in Afghanistan. In Tweets dated 2011, 2012 and 2013, Trump calls for a “speedy withdrawal” and argued that the lost “treasure” dumped into training the Afghan military would see better use “Rebuild[ing] the USA.”
In August, however, Trump about-faced on this rhetoric, which had accompanied him on the campaign trail, and announced a plan to raise the number of active service personnel in-country from its current level of 11,000 to 14,000.
Such a dramatic shift in policy is not without precedent in this war. In 2009, incoming President Barack Obama announced a complete reversal of his election campaign promise to wind down engagement with the Taliban when he caved to a request by the Pentagon to orchestrate a surge in Afghanistan to the tune of 30,000 American troops.
Speaking towards the conclusion of his presidency, Obama admitted that the decision was among the hardest he had had to face during his time in the Oval Office.
The Limits of Empire
But President Trump’s surge, with less than 10% of the troop numbers committed by Obama in ’09, is built around a multilateral approach that acknowledges the limitations of military power in Afghanistan.
The Obama-era troop surge sought to recommit to the war and give General Stanley McChrystal, then in overall command of Coalition forces in Afghanistan, a blank cheque with which to engage and assault the Taliban on his terms. It was, in spite of the disappointment among Obama’s supporters, strategically the right decision if the administration was serious about an eventual victory in Afghanistan.
Yet eight years after the surge, the Taliban has only gained ground, bolstered and given new life by the rise of the Islamic State. It now commands ground approaching 40% of Afghanistan’s national territory.
The sheer military might of the United States and her allies has not exhausted the Taliban’s ability to wage war.
Donald Trump, therefore, is approaching the issue from a uniquely Trumpian perspective – putting American interests first in how the conduct of the war is set to continue.
The commitment to nation-building, itself a controversial practice since it first saw daylight under the Bush-Cheney administration, has been thrown out, allowing America to, in Trump’s words, “fight to win” and freeing up the military to engage the Taliban across the width and breadth of the theatre.
Controversially, Trump has also announced that the United States will no longer announce troop levels and will hold to no timetable for withdrawal, raising fears among some former national security advisors in the Obama administration of a “perpetual war.”
Afghan officials have, however, welcomed the news, with one Afghan diplomat in Washington praising the fact that no timetable meant that the Taliban could not simply wait out the war, as had been the fear under Obama’s timetabled plans for withdrawal.
The Little Entente
Another core facet of Trump’s revised Afghanistan strategy is a renewed focus and pressure on both India and Pakistan.
Trump, accusing Pakistan of sheltering and aiding terrorists from neighbouring Afghanistan, has vowed that Washington “would no longer be silent” about alleged Pakistani collusion with the Taliban and other terrorist forces.
In May 2011, United States Navy SEALs located and killed al’Qaeda kingpin Osama bin Laden in a compound in Pakistan, after a decade of fruitless hunting. This, alongside other incidents, has helped cement a belief among US intelligence that the Pakistani government turns a blind eye to Islamist militants operating within its borders.
Trump has also called on India to step up its strategic partnership with the United States in the region, implying that India owed the United States as a result of the “billions of dollars” India gained from trade relations with the United States.
India and Pakistan, both nuclear powers, have had frosty relations since their independence from the British Empire in 1947.
Secretary Mattis’ surprise visit to Kabul comes on the back of a visit to New Delhi, where he and Indian President Narendra Modi issued a joint statement reaffirming America and India’s resolve to “further develop their strategic partnership” and the goals of “peace, stability and combating terrorism.”
The Long Way Home
President Trump’s Afghanistan strategy seems based around limiting America’s fiscal exposure to the war (in turning off the taps for Afghanistan’s nation-building project) while ceding responsibility for the future conduct of the war to regional powers.
As calls both in America and abroad highlight the need for America to take a back seat to events in Syria in favour of regional powers, Trump’s strategy seems to find a pragmatic middle ground between those who call for commitment to Afghanistan and those agitating for complete disengagement.
An uncomfortable reality all too often left out of liberal discussion of the Afghanistan issue is that the war has moved beyond ideological arguments about just cause and secret intentions. Whether the War on Terror was about oil, strategic dominance, the military-industrial complex or actually defending freedom is a moot point, some 16 years later, when to simply walk away from Afghanistan would doom the population to effective bondage under ISIS tyranny.
That is the humanitarian cost. The strategic cost is putting an Islamist rogue state in government right next to Pakistan, and its nuclear stockpiles which al’Qaeda has said it intends to deploy if it should ever come into receipt of them.
ISIS is losing the war in Syria, but handing them effective control over an entire country and its military and commercial infrastructure, in striking range of acquirable nuclear assets, is inconceivable. It will set events in the Middle East back by a decade. It will fast-track the coming nuclear arms race between Saudi Arabia, Iran and Israel. It will change the face of military diplomacy more completely than at any point since the Soviet Union detonated the hydrogen bomb.
This is why the Pentagon pushes for continued engagement. This, moreover, is why the Pentagon is right to push for continued engagement.
There is a deceitful comfort in criticism of successive American administrations’ refusal to bow out of Afghanistan. It resets the frame of the argument to the cosy, familiar battleground of the liberal movement vs. an opaque and omnipresent “Establishment.”
It is far more comforting to imagine a world where billionaires make up wars to boost oil prices, than a world where wars must be fought to protect the world from genuine monsters.
Until Afghanistan can be secured, and a national government exert political and military control over its full territory, America – unfortunately – has a duty to remain vigilant and to commit to the war effort.
That is not conspiracy; that is strategy.
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