No Retreat: The American Legacy in Afghanistan Does Not Have to Be Defeat


As President Donald Trump prepares to embark on his first foreign trip since taking office, he finds himself considering a conundrum that has beguiled his three predecessors — Clinton, Bush, and Obama — over the past two decades: What does “success” in Afghanistan look like? Put another way, what level of stability is required in Afghanistan to prevent the resurgence of jihadist groups that can pose renewed threats to United States? Importantly, two key factors have changed since Trump’s predecessors wrestled with this issue: First, the national security team around the president — Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, and Gen. John Nicholson, the commander in Afghanistan — have no learning curve when it comes to Afghanistan and the broader region. Second, the American people, having watched the U.S. military’s precipitous withdrawal from Iraq and the rise of the self-proclaimed Islamic State, now have a greater appreciation of the need to deal with local instability as a means to keeping international terrorism at bay. Thus, as the president reviews options this week for America’s role going forward in Afghanistan, gone will be the Vice President Joe Biden-like recommendations of focusing solely on counterterrorism problems in isolation of local and regional dynamics.

Rather, the options coming from McMaster and Mattis are likely going to be infused with an understanding that “success” in nearly all insurgencies requires some type of political rather than military resolution, but that most insurgent leaders won’t negotiate until their movements have been sufficiently weakened militarily and their ideology has lost credibility. The key ingredient to that approach is time — most likely decades. “Winning” against an insurgency is often painfully gradual and typically occurs when the guerillas become more of a law enforcement problem than a military problem. This most recently happened with the FARC in Colombia where the government signed a favorable peace accord after two decades and billions of dollars of support from the United States under “Plan Colombia.” Overall, it took the Colombian government over 50 years to get to this point in its struggle with the FARC and it was arguably more advanced in its capability than the Afghan government.

Today, in Afghanistan and globally, the United States needs to embark on a long-term strategy, much as it did against communism in the Cold War, to undermine the ideology of extremist groups that prey on vulnerable Muslim populaces in unstable countries. Washington acknowledges the importance of the “war of ideas,” but it must take more meaningful action towards the effort of winning it — and acknowledge it is likely to take generations.

With this long view in mind, the United States can realize some shorter-term gains in the next four years with certain adjustments to the current military strategy, a shift in the development focus, and a significantly firmer stance with Pakistan. Currently, the Afghan government is slowly losing its grip on the Afghan countryside and could soon find its writ isolated to the major cities. This has already allowed al-Qaeda to reconstitute in some areas and the Islamic State to gain a foothold. Anti-government attacks by the Taliban and the Haqqani Network have gradually eroded Afghan security force numbers over the years. They cannot sustain these losses. Though Nicholson described the situation as a stalemate in his most recent Congressional testimony, many observers believe the Afghan government is slowly losing. Here are some of the key steps that should feature in the president’s new strategy.


The signals the Trump administration sends to the region and at home through its strategy review is as important as the strategy itself.  It must be targeted at each audience.  The Afghan people need to hear that the United States is with them. Extremists need to hear that they cannot just wait for an American withdrawal. And the American people need to hear that its soldiers will be in a supporting role.

Changing the narrative from the White House will realize immediate benefits. Without investing a single additional dollar or soldier, the president can have a significant impact on the Afghans, U.S. allies, and the behavior of Washington’s and Kabul’s enemies by telling the world the United States will stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the Afghans in the long war against extremism and that their enemies are our enemies. People in the region — from governments to village chiefs — are making daily life and death decisions. They must believe the United States is there to stay.

The message. The United States is eroding the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and it cannot allow another caliphate to re-emerge in the no-man’s land along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. The Afghans, like the Iraqis, can fight their own battles at the tactical level, but they do need American operational support. The United States can provide that support through “sustained engagement” like it did in the Cold War with South Korea, Germany, and Japan.

Domestic considerations. The Obama administration hid behind America’s war exhaustion as an excuse for its policy of retrenchment. The rise of the Islamic State and attacks in Europe and the United States painfully demonstrated the results of the United States turning its back on Iraq and Afghanistan. The American people need leadership and an explanation that it is in the national interest to partner with the Afghan government even though it is expensive and will take a long time to see tangible gains. The Trump administration must overcome the challenge of explaining a sustained engagement strategy in light of its “America First” campaign slogan. The president will have to help Americans understand that allowing Afghanistan to devolve back into chaos will directly result in U.S. citizens being less safe at home because al Qaeda and ISIS will rise in the wake of the Taliban.

Military Strategy

Sustained engagement does not require hundreds of thousands of American troops on the ground, but it does require advising the from the strategic to the tactical levels. There are four key elements for a strategy of sustained engagement. They are largely in place but need to be reinforced and adjusted

Strategic planning support. The United States should help the Afghans develop their own plan for stabilization in the spirit of the strategies used in El Salvador, Colombia, the Philippines, and other successful advisory efforts. The administration must avoid yet another strategic review crafted in faraway Washington and NATO’s headquarters in Brussels.

Unilateral counterterrorism efforts. The United States should continue attacking and disrupting insurgent and terrorist leadership. The U.S. military should partner with the Afghans when possible for these operations, but retain the ability to do so unilaterally when necessary.

The advisory effort needs to be strengthened and U.S. advisors are needed at the tactical level. U.S. military advisors are currently in residence only at the Afghan Army’s Corps and a few commando units. But American advisors are needed down at the brigade and battalion levels for combat missions, and not just training. The United States needs to be willing to accept more risk to better partner with the Afghans despite concerns over “green-on-blue” attacks.

Coalition-Provided Support. Air, transportation, artillery, medical evacuation, and intelligence support are all critical to the Afghan Army, and will be for at least the next several years. This is where America’s NATO allies could be doing more. The coalition can gradually reduce levels of support and shift from direct support to advising Afghan enabling units as they stand up over time.


The real challenge in Afghanistan is Pakistan. No modern insurgency has been defeated when it enjoys external sanctuary and support. Various carrots and (relatively few) sticks have been tried under the Bush and Obama administrations to change the Pakistani calculus of using extremists as a strategic tool to affect their interests in Afghanistan. During both previous administrations, when a hard line with Pakistan was examined, the prospect of losing U.S. supply lines and risking destabilization, at best — and outright hostilities, at worst — with a nation of over 200 million (as opposed to a populace of 25 to 30 million in Iraq and Afghanistan) with a nuclear arsenal was deemed too great. Thus, the United States would resort to various diplomatic and financial incentives to try to induce the Pakistanis to take meaningful action against the Taliban leadership in Quetta and the Haqqani Network in the tribal areas.

Pakistan has taken advantage of this dynamic. Its leaders believe the United States needs them more than they need the United States. This is not the case. The Pakistan Army is highly reliant on the funds and military equipment the United States provides. Washington must be willing to call their bluff or face intractable warfare in South Asia. To force a change in Pakistan’s approach to the Taliban and the Haqqani Network, the United States needs to be serious in convincing them that if they won’t act, Washington will. If the following steps are followed, insurgents and terrorists can be dislodged from their sanctuary.

Conditional funding (for real this time). U.S. aid to Pakistan reached its height at $3.6 billion in 2011 through counterterrorism support funds. Congress requires the secretary of state to certify that Pakistan takes meaningful action against terrorism. It is time to get serious about this conditionality, impose strict accountability with deadlines, and begin withholding funding in tranches if these deadlines are not met.

Unilateral cross-border pressure. If the Pakistanis are unable or unwilling to target extremist leadership in the border region — past efforts have been a mix of a lack of will and capacity — then the United States must be prepared to unilaterally send special operations forces to do so. President George W. Bush ordered one such raid in 2008, and the Pakistan Army immediately came to the negotiating table prepared to make significant concessions in exchange for no future raids. Aside from the catalyst for action, targeted raids will provide the operational intelligence needed (that drone strikes cannot provide) to take down the network.

Enhanced covert options. Authorize a program to target Taliban leadership in Quetta and other urban areas through surrogates. The effort should be akin to the Phoenix program in Vietnam that targeted Viet Cong leadership and facilitators.

Regional Pressure. President Ghani was initially on the right track in engaging China, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Engagement with Saudi Arabia is not a silver bullet, but it could bring meaningful pressure on Pakistan. Sharif, the current Pakistani prime minister, spent his time in exile in Riyadh. Further, it is widely understood that the Saudis financed the Pakistani nuclear program.

If the United States wants to see a material reduction in violence in Afghanistan in the next four years, it must make a deal with Pakistan. The risks involved in turning up the pressure on Pakistan are great. They include a highly-destabilized Pakistan with its population of over 200 million and a nuclear arsenal. Also at risk is military conflict with the Pakistan Army during U.S. counterterrorism operations. If the president deems the risks to be too high, as the last two presidents have done, then the United States will need to commit to a significantly longer timeline to realize any type of success in Afghanistan.

Political Strategy

The “unity government” will likely remain the only viable political option for the Afghans until the next round of presidential elections in 2019. A constitutional Loya Jirga is impossible without Parliamentary elections and holding a traditional Loya Jirga opens a Pandora’s box of uncertainty regarding the outcome. Further, changing the Afghan constitution to create the role of prime minister instead of the CEO position currently occupied by Abdullah would codify ethnic divisions. The United States must make diplomatic engagement with the Afghan leadership — Ghani and Abdullah — and other key power brokers a priority. In the near term, two actions can be taken:

Name a high-profile ambassador who can engage with Ghani. Naming a marquee ambassador perceived as having a strong relationship with the Trump administration would provide renewed credibility and leverage to the position in Kabul.

Reinstate monthly calls with the president of Afghanistan. President George W. Bush had calls on a regular basis with the Afghan president, which served to focus the bureaucracy and sent a strong signal of American commitment to the region. The Afghans respond well to engagement at every level — from the president to privates in the Afghan Army.

Peace Talks

Every conflict must come to a political resolution. The recent peace accord signed by the Colombian government and the FARC leadership is a good example. However, conditions on the ground, both militarily and politically, do not lend themselves to the Afghan government negotiating favorable terms. Further, the Taliban and associated groups believe they are ascendant and, so long as they enjoy sanctuary in Pakistan, they are not likely to come to the table with reasonable demands. However, the United States should continue to work with the Afghan government to use the prospect of peace talks as a means to an end to drive wedges between various insurgent groups and factions — particularly if the administration embarks on a more forceful policy to pressure them in their sanctuaries in Pakistan. American leaders cannot forget that several American hostages are being held by these groups, and their release should be prioritized during any peace talks.


The United States should fundamentally re-think how it provides “development” in Afghanistan and a significant portion of that shift should consider moving from traditional aid models to boosting Afghanistan’s private sector and natural resources exploitation. Given the country’s limited technical capacity, the limited ability of the government to effectively spend its budget, and endemic corruption that will take years to mitigate, the United States should phase aid over decades rather than surging large tranches of funds into a fragile system. The United States should lead the international community in a new approach to development aid. Washington can establish a pattern of aid leading to investment, investment leading to growth, and growth leading to poverty reduction, as was the case with giving aid money to Western Europe after World War II under the Marshall Plan.

The long-term solution for Kabul will involve trade, foreign direct investment (FDI), microfinance, savings, and taxes — the instruments that the developed world uses to finance economic development and job creation. The Afghan government should work closely with the rest of the world — especially its neighbors and Gulf Cooperation Council countries — to open their doors for Afghan goods. The United States can also work with the Afghan government to simplify legal procedures and other policies to facilitate entry for new businesses and support both domestic and foreign investment. FDI will bring in new technologies and new managerial skills, and help in creating jobs and capacity building. Innovations in microfinance to encourage small-scale entrepreneurs by providing support and opportunities can also help in economic growth. Development aide must transition to fostering Afghanistan’s private sector potential in agriculture, mining, carpets, gas, and gemstones. To fuel this growth, we must continue our investments in education — particularly women’s education. The American University of Afghanistan recently re-opened after a devastating attack in 2016 and will provide the brain trust for an eruption in private sector growth if only the international community will supply the right catalysts.

What Next?

Afghanistan will not look like Colombia any time soon. But it can look like one of the Central Asian states — relatively impoverished, but slowly working out of it through natural resources, capable of securing itself with a widely-respected military that can disrupt terrorist sanctuaries, and sustaining a political system that provides a voice to ethnic groups and provides the most basic needs. Mattis and McMaster know it will take time, that simply withdrawing is not a viable alternative, and that the American people will accept low-level sustained engagement with strong leadership from the White House to persuade them on its necessity. This is the leadership that the United States showed under Truman, Eisenhower, and Kennedy with long-term strategies to improve places like South Korea and Germany as a means to defeat the ideology of communism. Many look forward to seeing the same from President Trump.


Michael G. Waltz is the author of Warrior Diplomat: A Green Beret’s Battles from Washington to Afghanistan, a former policy aide to Vice President Cheney, a Special Forces officer, and an entrepreneur.  

Image: U.S. Navy photo by Egdanis Torres Sierra