“Shoulder-to-Shoulder” No More in Afghanistan?


The slogans and pageantry following the rollout of the Trump Doctrine has left U.S. partners and allies in South Asia with much to be anxious about. What does an “America First” foreign policy look like for them? How will this change the currents of a 15-year state building project in Afghanistan? What does a war on “radical Islamic terrorism” really mean? While allies are in an anxious wait and see mode as the new administration generates its foreign policy, we wondered what Afghan professionals thought of the challenges ahead. To that end, we conducted phone and email interviews with a dozen current and former officials residing in Afghanistan and working at various levels of military, intelligence, and political affairs in the Afghan government. Not surprisingly, they paint a gloomy picture of security conditions in the country. They also express hope and optimism the United States will remain an “all weather” partner. At the same time, they are offended by the rhetoric and rumored policy changes coming out of the Trump administration. Like a bull in a china shop, Trump is shattering years of patient diplomacy and costly security assistance as Afghanistan enters yet another year of uncertain outcomes.

Growing distrust between U.S. and Afghan allies could not come at a worse time. Most of those we spoke with represent the new generation of emerging Afghan leaders. This generation was born into conflict, but they are eager to lead their country out of war, repression, and religious fundamentalism. They are modern, ambitious, and open to engaging with the Western world. This is why they are so disheartened to see the sudden shift in U.S. policy from inclusive to exclusive politics. At a time when their own state leadership is in question, our Afghan allies want reassurance of U.S. leaders’ commitment to the international order and ideals it has long stood for.

Sleepless in Kabul

The two main issues keeping people up at night are the political crises in Kabul under the National Unity Government and the deteriorating security situation around the country.  The National Unity Government failed to meet important electoral deadlines and cabinet positions remain unfilled, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah rarely speak to each other, and the unhinged behavior of Vice President Abdur Rashid Dostum has included threatening violence on his own government and actually torturing political opponents. At the least, the political circus has caused considerable frustration and morale exhaustion among the bureaucratic ranks. One officer was very concerned with “weak political leadership” that is unable to develop and deliver a coherent national strategy to address the myriad of problems facing the country. Another officer is concerned about the absence of a “professional officer corps at the highest levels able to understand the changing nature of warfare.” He is frustrated with corruption in the ranks, namely promotion by way of “loyalty and political connections.” Most worrying is the impression that political squabbles in Kabul have on lower ranks within Afghan security forces.  Soldiers and police witness political maneuvering in the Ministries of Defense and Interior, often based on ethnic alliances, seeing “senior officials position themselves to undermine each other’s effectiveness and influence.”

Security in the country has deteriorated since last year according to data and impression of those we interviewed. Word on the street is that conditions are “bleak,” while Commander of U.S. Forces Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson describes the situation as a “stalemate.” U.S. military assessments suggest Taliban control 10 percent of the population, while the Afghan Army maintains control over major population centers or 2/3 of population; 15 percent remains contested.  The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reports nine districts under Taliban control, 32 under Taliban influence, and 133 as contested out of a total of  407 districts in Afghanistan. Other studies put many more of those “contested” districts in the Taliban “control” column. One of those contested areas is Lashkar Gah, the capital of southern Afghanistan’s Helmand province. One official we spoke with traveled there recently and found the Taliban control nearly the whole province. Lashkar Gah still stands, for now. Approaching the capital, he noted that bridges were blown up, roads destroyed, and cars abandoned. What used to be a two-hour drive from Musa Qala to Lashkar Gah now takes up to seven hours given the number of checkpoints manned by Taliban units and criminal groups, not to mention road damage. Insurgent and criminal predation has led to business decline in the market place, increased school closures, a growing unemployment rate, and a greater resistance role for the madrassa—now serving as a safe haven and recruitment center for the insurgency.  Coupled with political corruption and state neglect, this is a toxic mixture for a growing state–society division as extremist narratives resonate.

Three hundred U.S. marines are slated to arrive this spring to help retake lost districts and defend Helmand’s capital, but Afghan military officials are split on the effectiveness of more troops. On one hand, the increase is welcome, but not enough. During Operation Moshtarak, 15,000 marines (with NATO forces) stormed Marjah and surrounding districts in the largest offensive of the war. No one expects a repeat on a scale of that commitment and sacrifice. However, as one officer noted, a “medium surge” able to “help keep provincial capitals from falling” and “improve logistical and technical capabilities” of the Afghan defense forces is desirable. On the other hand, “peace building should take a bottom-up process. Afghans are the only ones who can and should take the country forward.” That does not mean training, advising, and equipping are unwelcome, but our Afghan allies realize the deleterious impact that a large contingent of foreign ground forces present politically and culturally. The Sustainable Security Strategy — the Afghan Defense Force strategy founded upon a methodology of “hold, fight, and disrupt” — so far exhibits inadequate results. The Afghan Ministry of Defense reported that in the last ten months, Taliban initiated 19,000 attacks while government forces conducted 700 counterinsurgency operations (the U.S. Department of Defense reported effective insurgent attacks at under 800 per month between Dec 2015–May 2016). However, the U.N. Assistance Mission Afghanistan recently documented a 3 percent increase in civilian casualties since 2015. Moreover, there is growing concern about the effects Afghan clearing operations are having on the local population, namely expanding the number of internally displaced people, many of whom have fled to Kabul, increasing homeless rates and stretching the capital’s very limited social welfare programs. Outside of hard power, one area the US can invest more resources in is ensuring Pakistan is a reliable partner against terrorism. All our interviewees suggested the U.S. put greater pressure on Pakistan, which they view as the “source of terrorism” in Afghanistan.

Are We Still Friends?

Most expressed confusion over an ill-defined and over-generalized expression Trump used in the campaign and now as president: his vow to eradicate “radical Islamic terror.” One Afghan official expressed dismay: “I don’t think he knows what it really means,” but he hoped Trump would come to a proper understanding and take the right measures. Another said it should be eliminated, “but in a manner that does not provoke further extremism.” Another asserted “there is no such thing as radical Islamic terror.” Instead, he said, the United States should focus on the sources of extremism, which he cited as “terror sanctuaries, safe havens, and states that produce, support, or use terrorism as part of their state policy.” Another believed the United States “must create convergence” between Muslim countries fighting terrorism, while also “applying pressure” on those countries “supporting and empowering terrorism.” Finally, one official cryptically indicated, “terror cannot be eradicated through terror,” referencing America’s growing reliance on drone strikes and covert operations (though he might also have meant the growing number of botched airstrikes by the Afghan Air Force). Instead, he thought the United States should focus on “cultural-educational strategies” and devise strong counter-narratives to defy those who espouse terrorism.

When asked about the “America First” foreign policy, one officer responded:

It was always America first! We understand — the U.S. is not a charity organization. But if Trump really believes in “America First,” then he has to focus on Afghanistan because this country gave America a problem and will continue to if it is ignored.

One officer understood that some of the president’s policies were populist in nature, meant to rally his base of supporters, and might even help him gain support in America. However, he warned that his statements would “increase anger among less educated and radical groups who are less familiar with U.S. politics, making it very hard for moderate forces to convince people” through a more inclusive narrative. Another officer noted this policy would “feed the extremism” and put American nationals “in danger everywhere in the world.” Instead of providing “greater opportunity for terrorists” through Trump’s rhetoric of exclusion, an officer recommended “we strengthen interaction and communication between Muslims and non-Muslims.”

Frustration was clearly discernible when discussion arrived at the immigration and refugee bans. One officer advised us, “We will no longer be fooled by the slogans of camaraderie” – referring to Afghans and Americans fighting “shoulder to shoulder.” He was irked by the idea that the priorities of these two nations have diverged:

It’s clear now that we are different. While we fought and shed blood together on the battlefield, now we are denied by America? It’s a real shame. Many of us are wondering if we can believe America and its promises. If President Trump is saying “America First,” he needs to honor America and its values, which doesn’t include abandoning the rest of the world.

Another officer was confident the immigration and refugee restrictions (which he viewed clearly as a “Muslim ban”) was “a gift to terrorist groups” and would serve as a “perfect propaganda tool” to increase recruits and terrorist activity. He was sure the ban would “increase dramatically” recruits for Taliban and Daesh. There are already signs the Executive Order on travel has driven a wedge between U.S. and Iraqi troops. Even though the order did not reference Afghanistan, and has been blocked by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, it seems to have had a strong impact among our allies and the potential for undermining partnerships elsewhere should be considered.

Where Do We Go From Here?

The new administration faces a number of unresolved issues in Afghanistan. The most critical include the legality and viability of the National Unity Government, Taliban and Islamic State territorial gains, and the capability and capacity of the Afghan Defense Forces. In addition, there are concerns about balancing regional powers, “lending legitimacy” to the Taliban, migration flows in/out Pakistan, external support to the Taliban, and internal resource constraints. All of these will test the resolve of the U.S.–Afghan partnership. The current NATO presence in the country – 8,400 U.S. troops and 4,900 troops from other NATO member states – is a far cry from the state-building ambitions that defined the war under the Bush and Obama administrations. Early indications suggest an increase in U.S. troops is forthcoming. It is unclear whether troop increases will come from a more vigorous foreign policy team that endorses hard power options or in response to degrading security conditions across the country. In either case, the U.S. would be well advised to pay attention to the assessments of Afghan allies and to the lessons of history. Moreover, success in managing unresolved issues in Afghanistan may be partially dependent upon how domestic policy decisions are rolled out in America. We have no doubt U.S. and Afghan professionals can overcome and look beyond strategic missteps in the U.S. administration, but they still require and demand strategic guidance, leadership, and sound policy from their respective governments.

When a state is so dismissive of soft power that it is willing to divide even its allies for insignificant domestic political victories, it cedes critical ideological space to the enemy. In other words, as Leslie Gelb warns, states should not make “strategy by giving away power.” The boogey man in the closet, “radical Islamic terrorism,” has been given the gift of free power, which it neither had nor deserved. Equally unfortunate is that this strategic blunder upsets the internal momentum in Afghanistan and South Asia in general. As one officer noted, we look to America to balance differences in the region and be an example as “leader of the free world.” Where statecraft is formed, leaders in Afghanistan and Pakistan will be forced to make hard choices between their own domestic politics, regime stability, and an exclusive “America First” doctrine. Where statecraft is carried out, our professional allies in the military and intelligence community will also face hard choices between moral and professional imperatives. Each day America does not lead by virtue of its values it yields power to enemies and weakens allies.

The United States has spent over $70 billion on resourcing, developing, and training Afghanistan’s national defense forces. The success of that mission shows in the commitment that these dozen professionals exhibit and their faith in ideals that a segment of America seems willing to forsake: the liberal international order, free markets, strong civil society, democratic institutions, a free press, and equality under law. If the United States turns its back on those traditions, not only does it give up on these millennials in Afghanistan that have bled and fought with the United States for a chance to be free, but it also gives up on the generation of Americans that fought with them, shoulder-to-shoulder, over the last 15 years.



Matt Dearing is Assistant Professor and Director of the South and Central Asia Security Studies Program at the College of International Security Affairs, National Defense University.  Ahmad Waheed is a Fulbright alumnus and former senior research analyst at the Naval Postgraduate School. All opinions are those of the authors and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Capt. Charles Emmons