Back to First Principles: Four Fundamental Questions about Afghanistan


“We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!” That was Donald Trump tweeting in November 2013. Fast forward and President Trump is considering sending 3,000 to 5,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Although the precise troop numbers and particulars of their deployment are still being mapped out, all indications are that these additional forces would not directly contribute to the counter-terrorism mission. Rather, they would be sent to shore up the Afghan government forces fighting against the Taliban. As the White House reviews the proposed increase, there are numerous questions it should address. Four are paramount.

1. Is shoring up the Afghan government forces necessary to enable an ongoing counter-terrorism mission, and, if not, then what U.S. interests are at stake?

For the past three years, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan has focused on targeting al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and any other terrorists that could directly threaten the American homeland or U.S. persons and infrastructure overseas. The narrowness of the mission makes it easier to achieve and to sustain. However, the ability to conduct this mission — at least in its current form — is contingent on a friendly Afghan government remaining in control of its territory.

The Taliban currently controls approximately 11 percent of Afghan districts and contests another 29 percent. Taliban gains might enable al-Qaeda to reconstitute itself in Afghanistan. This should be a concern, but not necessarily the only one. Indeed, the current purpose of U.S. forces in Afghanistan is to neutralize precisely these types of threats. There is a danger is that as the Taliban seizes territory, the U.S. counter-terrorism mission becomes more difficult to execute. The worst-case scenario would be a replay of Yemen, where a friendly government was toppled by a domestic insurgency and U.S. counterterrorism efforts were seriously curtailed as a result. Thus, the debate should be focused on whether buttressing the Afghans against the Taliban is necessary to achieve vital national interests related to counter-terrorism. If not, then any review will need to make the case for why the United States should expend more blood and treasure and what Washington reasonably hopes to accomplish.

2. Does the United States want to create conditions for a political settlement, or does it want a semi-permanent military presence?

Leaving aside for the moment whether a political settlement to end the war is attainable (on which more below), decision-makers should also consider if the United States could live with the consequences of catastrophic success. As Barnett Rubin observed in this space not too long ago, Washington has not decided whether its aim is to maintain a military presence or pursue a political settlement.

Afghanistan currently provides the United States its only military foothold in the region. This has obvious utility for counter-terrorism. It is tough to imagine a settlement with the Taliban that allowed for an ongoing U.S. troop presence. Afghanistan’s neighbors are also unlikely to throw their weight behind a settlement that does not end with the withdrawal of American troops. Yet even if the Taliban promised to break with al-Qaeda and not to allow Afghanistan to become a haven for international terrorists, it is tough to see how the United States would be comfortable trusting any Afghan government to enforce this pledge. It is similarly difficult to imagine what circumstances would lead U.S. decision-makers to be comfortable withdrawing all American forces.

Of course, military access in Afghanistan is not simply useful for counterterrorism. It also has utility for a potential contingency in Iran or Pakistan. Any decision to deploy additional troops needs to be clear about whether the aim is to create conditions for a future settlement. There are arguments to be made for prioritizing a semi-permanent troop presence over a settlement that could be considered disadvantageous to the United States. But let’s be clear — this choice comes with costs for the United States and for the region. And it is one that the administration must be clear about before committing more troops.

3. Depending on the desired objective, will another 3,000 to 5,000 troops achieve it and in what time frame?

If the purpose is simply to buttress the Afghan forces in order to ensure the United States can continue conducting its counter-terrorism mission, then the Trump administration must account for why this escalation is anything other than a stopgap measure. Without changing the conditions on the ground in a meaningful way, a troop escalation just plays for time.

If the purpose is to create or improve Afghan capacity and capabilities to the point where they beat back the insurgency, then the administration needs to outline why this will work now when it did not before. In other words, what can up to 5,000 troops accomplish now that 100,000 could not several years ago, and why? There’s general agreement that President Barack Obama’s decision to attach a timeline for withdrawal to the troop surge he authorized signaled to the Taliban and their supporters in Pakistan that they could wait out the United States. So it is conceivable that an open-ended commitment that kept U.S. troops in Afghanistan for years could ultimately help Afghan government forces to wear down the Taliban. However, this was hardly the only factor that explains the failure of the Obama surge. Although Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is serious about reform, his government is still achingly corrupt and overly reliant on predatory warlords. Thus, any review that culminates in a troop escalation will need to address how to facilitate improvements in governance.

The administration will have to account for these same variables if the purpose is to create conditions for settlement. China and Russia are playing a bigger role in Afghanistan than in the past, including wading into the pursuit of a peace settlement. Moscow hosted regional conferences on Afghanistan in December 2016 and February 2017 that the United States did not attend. Russia is also reportedly providing some assistance to the Taliban. Sending U.S. forces to advise and assist Afghan government forces theoretically could help the United States regain influence to shape a future settlement. However, this presumes the administration has thought through not only what an acceptable endgame would be, but also how simply blunting Taliban gains — as opposed to sufficiently weakening the movement — achieves it.

4. What does the administration plan to do about Pakistan?

Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security advisor and no stranger to Afghanistan, has urged “a holistic review” of American policy toward Pakistan. The Pakistan Army remains committed to shaping the future Afghan government in order to make it friendly to Pakistan and to reduce India’s presence and influence in Afghanistan. Widespread Pakistani perception of Indian and Afghan support for anti-Pakistan groups based in Afghanistan reinforces its policy of backing the Taliban and Haqqani network. Ending support and safe haven for them would not only sacrifice a powerful instrument for shaping the endgame in Afghanistan, but could also lead to increased attacks in Pakistan.

The United States suffers from an asymmetry of interests. Afghanistan is more important to Pakistan than it is to America. Efforts to change Pakistan’s calculus with incentives have failed repeatedly. Pressing for sweeping changes in Pakistani security policy is unlikely to yield results even if the United States suddenly got much tougher. Any increase in the use of coercion would need to account for the ways in which Pakistan could retaliate. It still provides ground and air access for U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan and limited, but important counterterrorism cooperation in terms of intelligence sharing. There is less of a need for access than when the United States had tens of thousands of troops in Afghanistan, but it is unclear how long the United States could maintain resupply, and retrograde if this access were removed entirely.

Pakistani leaders believe they need the United States less than in the recent past thanks to Beijing’s promised investment of over $60 billion for the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and provision of weapons systems. Analysts, including me, have recommended various measures to promote shifts in Pakistani behavior. But there are no magic bullets for solving the vexing problems related to working with Pakistan or getting it to stop providing support to the Taliban and Haqqani Network.

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America abandoned Afghanistan after Soviet forces completed their withdrawal in 1989. The Taliban swept to power the following decade and provided numerous terrorist groups, including al-Qaeda, with safe haven. This understandably has made U.S. leaders gun-shy about turning their backs on Afghanistan a second time. However, in doing so they have made many other mistakes along the way. The issue before the administration now is how to move forward. Well before the Syrian civil war erupted and became the problem from hell, Afghanistan was already a Gordian knot of violence. Any strategy to untangle that knot will be multifaceted. But it must be based on a sound understanding of the fundamentals. Thus, any review that considers sending more troops must include a clear-eyed assessment of the interests at stake, the objectives these forces are intended to achieve and the probability of achieving them given the long-standing challenges in the region.


Stephen Tankel is an assistant professor at American University and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. He previously served as a senior advisor for Asian and Pacific Security Affairs at the Department of Defense. You can follow him on Twitter at @StephenTankel or interact with him directly in the War Hall

Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Matthew B. Fredericks