Blog Post

The Need for an Enduring International Strategy and Effort in Afghanistan

September 06, 2017
4 min read
Photo Credit: Getmilitaryphotos / Shutterstock

My first visit to Kabul was November 20, 2001, a week after the Taliban had fled the capital. 

We landed in Bagram, since the Kabul airport had been bombed. We were required by the U.S. military to land after sunrise and fly out before sunset on the same day. This left a tight window for our agenda, given that we had to travel 70 kilometers to Kabul and back along the one damaged and mined road.

There was a sense of hope in the Afghans I met on the street, in the different Ministries, and at the Indira Gandhi Hospital. They were yearning for relief from the Taliban’s oppression, long years of civil war, and economic deprivation.

It is disconcerting that 16 years later we are still discussing the right way forward. Blame for this does not lie with a single decision. The United States did not deploy sufficient military resources to the initial effort, blinded as they were by the rapid battle field success. And soon they were distracted by the decision to divert to war in Iraq. The police, antinarcotics, and judiciary efforts shared among NATO Allies  — Germany, the U.K., and Italy — did not deliver the desired results. The Afghan political process remained fractured, torn apart by personal and ethnic rivalries, competing regional interests, unresolved tensions between traditional tribal affiliations, and externally sponsored state structures.

There was no doubt success on many fronts. This could be seen in the large number of Afghans who returned, and the promising data on economic activity, including in construction, school enrollment, female literacy, and health care.

Considering how much “blood and treasure” have already been invested in bringing stability to Afghanistan and the potential threats posed by an Afghanistan that could once again provide safe havens to terrorist groups,  many would be reassured by the “conditions based” Afghanistan strategy announced by President Trump on August 21. However, depending on how the approach is developed, it could also have a negative impact.

 The United States and others must work to support governance and security institutions that endure constant attacks from the Taliban and other onslaughts, and are torn by political rivalries. 

Trump spoke of working for an “honorable and enduring outcome.” The United States and others must work to support governance and security institutions that endure constant attacks from the Taliban and other onslaughts, and are torn by political rivalries. 

More sharply than his predecessors, Trump criticized Pakistan for giving “safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror,” and warned that “no partnership can survive a country’s harboring of militants and terrorists who target U.S. service members and officials.” So far Pakistan has managed to get away with both receiving U.S. aid and supporting terrorist groups because of its utility as a transit point for U.S. forces’ supplies, since alternative routes through Iran or Russia are not feasible alternatives. Incentives — through the Kerry-Lugar-Berman $1.5 billion annual commitment for five years, or the nearly $1 billion in annual Coalition Support Funds for many years — have not worked. Nor has coercion, with China pledging “friendship higher than the mountains and deeper than the seas.” Only time will show if President Trump is more effective in addressing Pakistan’s negative orientations than his two predecessors.

Consistent with his campaign, President Trump also affirmed that the United States would not seek to rebuild countries in its own image. President Obama had also said on December 1, 2009, while announcing a post review surge in troops, that “it is the Afghan government and people who would be ultimately responsible for their country.” However, without enduring institutions with a claim to legitimacy, a military’s loyalty and effort cannot be sustained, and a U.S. counterterrorism presence will be challenged. Thus, without some kind of legitimate state structures, the fight against terrorism cannot be won. 

Seeking to allay Afghan concerns, President Obama also said in that speech that the “U.S. will not claim another nation’s resources.” President Trump has shown a more transactional approach to justify continued engagement, contrary to his “instincts” to withdraw, by seeking a role in Afghan economic development “to help defray the cost of this war to us.” This could add to local suspicions about U.S. motives. 

The global challenge from terrorism has clearly mutated since 9/11, requiring active U.S. effort and engagement in Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and West Africa. But, as the president noted, with 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Washington cannot afford to walk away. To achieve sustainable domestic support for longer-term engagement in Afghanistan, the United States, and Europe,  leaders will have stress ever more its centrality in the framework of the global counterterrorism effort.

There is much to welcome in Trump’s announcement to renew engagement in Afghanistan, but the end game and endurance of the effort remains unclear.