With Afghanistan, Third President’s a Charm

Obama declared combat operations ended in 2014—except they didn’t

President Donald Trump. Win McNamee/Getty Images

No one ever really wins a war in a complicated nowhere like Afghanistan. Grim, landlocked terrain and helter skelter demographics make daily life difficult. Add war, and the difficult becomes Hell.

Logistics and transport problems bog expeditionary armies entering Afghanistan—we’ve known this for at least 2,500 years. Tribal and ethnic hostilities and sectarian disputes among locals always confound outsiders. Alexander the Great would call this old news. Indigenous guerrilla forces may achieve limited military and political victories over foreign invaders, but ethnic and sectarian rivalries, little wars within wars, never quite end. Meanwhile, the people of Afghanistan suffer. The vulnerable in the crossfire die by the hundreds of thousands from starvation, exposure, combat, criminal slaughter and sectarian execution.

In 2017, many Americans seem to have forgotten that Afghanistan is where Osama bin Laden, the Soviet Union and the U.S. intersected. In 1979, Moscow saw the chronically weak Carter administration trapped in the Iran hostage crisis. An Afghanistan Soviet Socialist Republic would be a step toward obtaining one of the czars’ strategic goals: a warm water port on the Indian Ocean. After Afghanistan, the Russians would take Pakistan’s Baluchistan (western Pakistan) and Russian-controlled territory would split the Asian continent.

Outlandish? Perhaps, but many mad dreams in Moscow have led to war.

U.S. support for the Afghan Mujahideen made Cold War sense. So Washington helped them defeat the Soviet invaders. However, when the Soviets left, America lost interest. In doing so, America failed itself and the people of Afghanistan. But bin Laden didn’t lose interest. The Russian defeat and U.S. abandonment led bin Laden and his terror organization to conclude the world was ripe for his global brand of Islamist revolution. In bin Laden’s view, America is a quitter.

The Clinton administration ignored Afghanistan’s post-Cold War battlefield and enjoyed the peace dividend. In 2000, George W. Bush ran on a platform disdaining nation-building and promoting high tech military modernization.

No, America didn’t expect to fight a war in the Himalayas. But the 9/11 terror attacks on New York and Washington—when Islamist terrorists informed America they were waging a global war—forced the fight.

It’s a bitter adage. You may not want war, especially in hill country where every warlord valley’s conflict is unique. But sometimes war in a nowhere Hell wants you.

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Korea is America’s longest war—not Afghanistan. Korea’s occasionally bloody stand-off has continued for nearly seven decades, waxing hotter, waning cooler and never concluding. Today it’s once again in danger of escalating to all out combat.

Do the math. America has stuck it out for 67 years. South Korea has worked hard and prospered immensely; it is now one of the world’s wealthiest countries and a stalwart American ally. While Seoul is a happening place, North Korea has starved and shriveled while seeking nuclear weapons. Only some of the light bulbs in Pyongyang work.

When 9/11 occurred, America had been on the ground in South Korea for 51 years. America in for the long haul is a lesson in and of itself, one the myopic bin Laden missed because he was certain his Caliphate had divine sanction.

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A bottom line man like Donald Trump has to ask: What does America have to show for 16 years of war in Afghanistan? South Korea in 1966 had a semi-authoritarian government but one devoted to economic and social development. Seoul was building a military force and would eventually deploy divisions in Vietnam. Sixteen years on Afghanistan’s government is fig leafs, band aids and slush funds. Its security forces are unreliable. The Taliban remain waiting in the hills, both in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al-Qaeda still has cadres in country. The Islamic State had a deep bunker command center on Afghan territory—until an American MOAB bomb destroyed it in an attack that may prove to be a peek at the Trump administration’s new Afghanistan strategy.

Why so little progress? Barack Obama and Pakistan both deserve a lot of blame, as does the Afghanistan government.

Barack Obama did nothing to solve the problem of Afghanistan’s nowhere. Obama left Afghanistan worse off than he received it. His administration claimed U.S. combat operations against the Taliban officially ended in 2014. Except they didn’t.

Recall Obama as tweeter-in-chief (hat tip Instapundit and Powerline):

He spewed a lot of other self-serving falsehoods as he wasted lives, treasure and time. Obama intended to sell himself as a war-ender—no matter the conditions on the ground. He pulled the same con in Iraq. President Barack Obama’s 2011 decision to withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq was not based on the conditions within the country. It was based on his 2012 re-election campaign.

How callous. In Spring 2014, the Islamic State invaded Iraq. In 2017, U.S. combat troops are on the ground in Iraq.

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In Afghanistan, the Trump administration has decided to emphasize “security first” instead of nation building. The Trump administration won’t tell the world when it will reinforce and withdraw personnel and where they will go. In other words, it will practice military common sense.

The Trump administration’s strategy is conditions-based, not time-based like Obama’s flawed policy. Trump’s team will use a “regional approach” to achieve these favorable conditions. Pakistan must end its material and political support for the Taliban and other anti-Afghanistan government organizations. It will no longer be a safe haven for these groups. To the contrary, Pakistan must help police and destroy these groups. In order to do this, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) bureau will have to fight an internal civil war, but so be it. My guess is Indian, British and U.S. intelligence agencies can supply the names of the ISI officers involved in aiding Islamist extremist organizations.

The emerging U.S.-India alliance puts additional pressure on Pakistan. Pakistan is increasingly isolated. China is not a reliable Pakistani ally, nor is Russia. Islamabad knows China and Russia covet Pakistani territory. Both are allies of last resort. While Pakistan is giving Chinese warships access to a seaport, China refuses to give Pakistan a mutual defense arrangement.

As for the Afghanistan government: It will not be coddled. Afghanistan’s leaders must make real reforms, show real progress and produce real results. One of those real results must be policing terrorist groups (like Pakistan). To paraphrase the president and vice president, American patience is limited and America is prepared to stop writing checks.

There are no guarantees in war. There are no guarantees that the Trump administration’s new strategy will sufficiently secure Afghanistan, curtail outside support for the Taliban, and lead to a negotiated peace that preserves stability and serves U.S. strategic interests

But it’s better than Obama’s lies and fecklessness.

Austin Bay is a contributing editor at StrategyPage.com and adjunct professor at the University of Texas in Austin. His most recent book is a biography of Kemal Ataturk (Macmillan 2011). Bay is a retired U.S. Army Reserve colonel. 

With Afghanistan, Third President’s a Charm