What Will be the Fate of Trump’s Afghan Campaign?


On Dec. 21, 2018, President Donald Trump surprised his own closest advisors by deciding to pull troops out of Syria and to reduce the 14,000 American troops in Afghanistan by half — a radical reversal of his August 2017 commitment to increase troops and to “never let up until [the terrorists] are dealt a lasting defeat.” Two weeks later, the president later gave some indication of the reasons for his reversal in a televised cabinet meeting. It’s impossible to summarize the president’s arguments, which took more twists and turns than a corn maze, but at the heart of the matter seems to be the issue of cost.

To explain why the United States should leave Afghanistan, the president offered a cautionary tale of an earlier Afghan war, and did so in a way that left geographers, historians, and regional experts around the world scratching their heads. “The reason Russia was in Afghanistan” from 1979 to 1989, Trump explained with a confidence divorced from evidence,

is because terrorists were going into Russia. They were right to be there. The problem is, it was a tough fight. And literally they went bankrupt; they went into being called Russia again, as opposed to the Soviet Union. You know, a lot of these places you’re reading about now are no longer part of Russia, because of Afghanistan.

There’s an old joke that “God created war so that Americans would learn geography.” If that’s true, the president may need another lesson — and a few others on Cold War history and economics as well — because nothing he said about the Soviet-Afghan War was accurate.

The Soviets did not invade Afghanistan because of terrorist incursions into Russia (which is 1,500 miles to Afghanistan’s north, with Tajikistan and Kazakhstan lying in between). Rather, as another writer has chronicled well on these very pages, the Soviets invaded to prop up Afghan communists, who had seized power in 1978 and then fell into violent infighting that sparked an insurgency. Moscow didn’t fear terrorists. It worried about the loss of a Soviet client state. Nor did the Soviet-Afghan War bankrupt the Soviet economy. Falling oil prices mattered more, as did the politburo’s failure to rein in farm and energy subsidies, all of which produced the hyperinflation and the shortages that ultimately robbed Moscow of its political legitimacy.

Nor were the Soviets “right to be there,” since the invasion violated the U.N. Charter, was roundly condemned by the U.N. General Assembly, involved multiple, credible accounts of war crimes and atrocities, and so destroyed Afghanistan that it descended into civil war shortly after the Soviets departed. This isn’t a still-evolving historical debate with reasonable positions on either side. I’ve been studying Afghanistan for almost a decade and have never met another historian who thinks the Soviet-Afghan War was anything other than a mistake and a tragedy, predicated on terrible assumptions, that eventually killed at least 500,00 Afghan civilians and created over six million Afghan refugees.

Trump is famous for saying outrageous things, but these remarks should give everyone pause. Clear and careful language requires clear and careful thinking, and both are prerequisites for running a country or devising a coherent foreign policy. A quick review of the president’s changing Afghanistan policies reveals very little coherence and more than a few contradictions and confabulations. And yet, if handled properly, the president’s latest decision to draw down forces in Afghanistan may be constructive, if he can pursue it with more discipline and patience than he has thus far demonstrated.

Is There a Trump Doctrine for Afghanistan?

To understand Trump’s positions on Afghanistan, a curious reader first needs to ask “when?” because they have changed early and often in his brief political career. Before taking office, candidate Trump’s position could best be summarized as “Get the hell out but win on the way!” He railed against the costs of Afghanistan’s reconstruction and made disingenuous arguments — Brexit Bus-style — that the roughly $30 billion America was then spending there each year could easily be redirected towards domestic spending if the United States just brought the boys back home. In his tweets and speeches, withdrawal proposals glided effortlessly into reckless boasts about annihilating Islamist terrorism around the world, but Trump never explained how he would do this without any troops in the very countries riven by Islamist violence.

Once in office, Trump’s first move to was to do nothing about Afghanistan for eight months. When he finally announced a new Afghanistan policy in front of troops at Fort Myer, Virginia in August 2017, he began by blaming his predecessor, who had dealt him “a bad and very complex hand” by spending “too much time, energy, money, and most importantly lives, trying to rebuild countries in our own image.” This, to Trump, was not “a plan for victory.” Rather, it was misguided “micromanagement from Washington D.C.” President Barack Obama also had been too soft on Pakistan, Trump claimed, and had simply not used enough violence to defeat the insurgents.  “We are not nation-building again,” he promised. “We are killing terrorists.”

Reversing his earlier (and now, latest) position on withdrawal, Trump explained at Fort Meyer that the stakes were simply too high to cut and run. Using the same logic as his predecessors, the president warned of “the extremely predictable consequences of a hasty withdrawal,” which would “create a vacuum that terrorists, including ISIS and al-Qaeda, would instantly fill, just as happened before September 11th.”

Trump thus moved from blaming his predecessor to adopting his strategy. “We must stop the resurgence of safe havens that enable terrorists to threaten America,” he noted, using language that was almost identical to Obama’s surge announcement seven years earlier. “From now on, victory will have a clear definition,” he explained, “preventing the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan, and stopping mass terror attacks against America before they emerge.”

A New Strategy or More of the Same?

To do all of this, Trump offered what he called a “new strategy” that raised troop levels from 9,000 to 14,000 (and which increased the annual costs of combat operations by roughly 50 percent). He loosened the restrictions on airpower that Obama had put in place to limit Afghan civilian casualties and vowed to use all instruments of national power to “create the conditions for a political process to achieve a lasting peace.” He promised to get tougher on Pakistan too, and to press NATO and India for more support. And, in a direct shot at President Obama’s 2009 surge withdrawal timeline, he promised to never announce military changes in advance because “America’s enemies must never know our plans or believe they can wait us out” — a point many of us wish he had remembered before announcing his withdrawal plans on television to the entire world.

The changes announced at Fort Meyer in 2017 were neither new nor a strategy, as I explained at the time — they were at best minor tactical shifts or process changes, most of which had already been tried by the previous two administrations. U.S. troop levels under President George W. Bush were two times higher than under Trump and under Obama, they were seven times higher. Adding another 5,000 troops wasn’t a new strategy for 2017. It was merely a return to the force levels of March 2003 and December 2014.

Trump’s plan to “integrate all instruments of national power” to help Afghanistan and pressure Pakistan wasn’t new either. Both Bush and Obama paired military operations with massive humanitarian and economic aid, which has raised Afghan life expectancy by a decade and created a burgeoning middle class in Afghanistan’s cities. Bush also forced Pakistan to break diplomatic relations with the Afghan Taliban, secured basing and overflight rights from Pakistan and Uzbekistan, and worked with NATO and the United Nations to set up the International Security Assistance Force that would secure Kabul and the Bonn Process that shepherded the country towards national elections in 2004.

Obama’s Afghanistan policy was more comprehensive and integrated than Bush’s. Obama offered Pakistan economic and diplomatic carrots and sticks to change its behavior, started negotiations with the Taliban (which Trump later called a “terrible deal”), and spent more than any other American president to strengthen Afghan governance and rule of law — essential steps for battling the endemic corruption that threatens the country as much as the Taliban. By cooperating with foreign partners and international organizations instead of spurning them, Obama got U.S. allies and partners to share the very costs Trump so deplores, and to keep doing so at least until 2020.

Trump also claimed to be abandoning nation-building in Afghanistan, but this wasn’t new either. In fact, both Bush and Obama eschewed the concept in principle — Bush in his 2000 presidential election debate with Al Gore, and Obama in his 2009 troop surge speech at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. But then, both previous presidents continued to support funding for the Afghan security forces, reconstruction, and development. Trump’s new policy did the same.

It’s a good thing it did too, because the $5 billion spent annually on the Afghan security forces has never been charity or starry-eyed idealism. In fact, it is the central pillar of the U.S. exit strategy and has been since 2002. Afghan soldiers are not better than U.S. troops in skill level or equipment, but they are better for Afghanistan since they generate less resentment than foreign occupiers and deprive the insurgents of their “eject the foreigners” recruiting narrative. When Afghan forces are capable enough to secure the country, the United States and its partners can slowly reduce its support while working with the Afghans to keep pressure on the numerous transnational terrorist groups — including the self-proclaimed “Islamic State-Khorasan Province” — that are still in the region and planning attacks against the United States and its allies. Trump seemed to understand this cost-saving logic in 2017 when he explained that “Afghanistan is fighting to defend and secure their [sic] country against the same enemies who threaten us. The stronger the Afghan security forces become, the less we will have to do” – a phrase that, except for the grammar error, is almost identical to previous remarks by both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Trump’s Afghan Policy Two Years In: A Progress Report

Of course, an idea doesn’t have to be new to be right. Whether original or recycled, what can be said about Trump’s first Afghanistan policy a year and a half later? Have things gotten better or worse?

Worse — and indisputably so. The extra troops and expanded authorities for lethal force were meant to blunt the Taliban’s momentum and to convince them that a military victory was impossible. It hasn’t worked. In fact, the Taliban has gained ground since 2017, in part because of increased support from Pakistan, Russia, and Iran. The Taliban briefly seized the provincial capitals in Farah and Ghazni provinces in 2018 — a first for the group — and according to a December 2018 Congressional Research Service report, the “insurgents are now in control of or contesting more territory today than at any point since 2001.”

The decision to escalate bombing and to lift some Obama-era airpower restrictions also had a predictable effect: In October 2018, the United Nations reported that Afghan civilian deaths and injuries from aerial operations increased by almost 40 percent and are now at an all-time high. While the majority of Afghan civilian casualties are still being caused by the Taliban — not American or Afghan forces — Afghans’ fears for their physical safety have also risen steadily since 2012. Then, slightly less than half the country’s citizens feared for their safety on a regular basis. By 2018, that number had risen to 71 percent. If protecting civilians from harm is an essential first step for creating a legitimate Afghan state, then Trump’s looser airpower rules seem to be moving things in the wrong direction.

Trump also promised to get more support from NATO and other international partners. Here, he’s had some minor success, but nothing like his predecessor. During President Obama’s first two years in office, non-U.S. coalition troops in Afghanistan increased by 8,758. In Trump’s first two years, non-U.S. troops increased by just 1,926 and two NATO partners — Italy and Turkey — actually decreased their troop contingents.

What about increasing pressure on Pakistan, whose support to the Taliban allows it to continue to threaten Kabul? It was good idea in theory, but no real new pressure ever materialized. In 2018, Trump withheld millions in coalition support funds to Pakistan (just as Obama did in 2011). Pakistan complained loudly but made no significant changes. Trump also successfully pushed for Pakistan to be re-added to the Financial Action Task Force’s terrorist financing grey list — an important step that might threaten Pakistan’s access to international financing — but the previous administration had also tried this as well (Pakistan was on the list under Obama from 2012 to 2015).

The only new pressure Trump generated against Pakistan came from leaning closer to India and pressing it publicly to increase development support to Afghanistan — a risky choice since much of Pakistan’s support for Afghan terrorist networks is done out of fears of Indian encirclement. But Trump then undercut his own (and only) novel policy initiative by insulting the Indians for not doing enough: Prime Minister Narendra Modi “has been constantly telling me he built a library in Afghanistan,” Trump scoffed in his recent cabinet meeting. “You know what that is? That’s like five hours of what we spend.” Trump may have been confusing the unnamed library with the Afghan Parliament building that India did build and which opened in 2015. India is already Afghanistan’s largest regional donor.

What about integrating all instruments of national power — military, diplomatic, informational, and economic — to move the region towards a negotiated settlement? If that has truly been the president’s goal, he hasn’t been acting like it. Trump didn’t even nominate an ambassador to Afghanistan until six months into his tenure. As U.S. military operations escalated in 2018, governance and development funding fell by 11 percent. Trump’s extremely capable special peace envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, has held some promising meetings with the Taliban in the United Arab Emirates, but unless the president’s snap decision to draw down troops was linked to those meetings (which is doubtful), it handed away Khalilzad’s greatest bargaining chip without asking anything in return.

Nor has Trump used any of his considerable leverage to advance a broader regional solution to the conflict since announcing his new approach. The key diplomatic challenge in Afghanistan is to unite the key players in the region — Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and perhaps even Iran and Russia — in a bargain that respects Afghan sovereignty, halts support to the Taliban, and stops undermining the Afghan state. That’s a tall order, one that starts with moving all parties away from messaging through violence, whether directly or via proxies. Trump claimed to have a regional diplomatic strategy in his 2017 Fort Meyer speech — indeed, the speech’s title was “The Strategy on Afghanistan and South Asia” — but in his recent cabinet meeting, he reversed course yet again and seemed to abandon diplomacy all together. “Why isn’t Russia there” fighting the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Islamic State?, he asked. “Why isn’t India there? Why isn’t Pakistan there? . . . They should be fighting,” — a prescription that, if followed, could pit two nuclear-capable adversaries against each other on an Afghan battlefield.

Given these facts, what can be said about Trump’s Afghanistan policy in his first two years? There is a role for strategic ambiguity in foreign affairs — keeping opponents guessing preserves the initiative and can create opportunities to exploit confusion. But this isn’t that. The better term for Trump’s Afghan policies is strategic incoherence, bordering on incompetence.

The president’s impulsiveness coupled with a genuine ignorance of the region and its dynamics has produced no battlefield gains, killed more Afghan civilians, weakened America’s alliance with NATO, reduced international pressure on Pakistan, and paved the way for even greater Taliban intransigence. The regional diplomatic “solution” proposed on Wednesday — letting all of Kabul’s neighbors fight it out on Afghan soil — was neither diplomatic nor a solution; it was an abdication of regional and nuclear security that would almost certainly precipitate a wider conflict.

What’s Next? A Glimmer of Hope in a Sea of Strategic Missteps

Hopefully, talk of letting the region fight it out was just that — talk.  But what of the specific change the president seems most intent on: withdrawing half of the roughly 14,000 U.S. troops now in Afghanistan. Actually, it’s not the worst decision he has made in office, but it must be handled right to have a positive effect.

U.S. forces are currently divided between two missions: a U.S. special operations forces-run counter-terrorism mission against al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and senior Taliban leaders and a NATO-run advise/assist mission to train, equip, and improve the Afghan security forces. Given the president’s fondness for bombs and reservations about NATO, it seems likely that he will mostly preserve the counter-terrorism forces and concentrate cuts on the 8,500 U.S. trainers. If the United States cuts and runs, other partners may follow suit, and NATO’s train and advise mission could be radically diminished or could even come to an end.

This, Jonathan Schroden has articulately argued, “could result in increased rates of desertion and defection to the Taliban, and possibly even unit fragmentation or dissolution,” which would be very bad indeed. Particularly since desertions and casualties are already chipping away at the Afghan security forces’ end strength, a major uptick in personnel losses could have cascading effects. If the Afghan security forces collapse or factionalize to the point of violence, arguments for cutting all remaining security funding or pulling out entirely will probably grow.

This is possible, of course, but it may also be overstating the case. Too often debates over Afghanistan alternate between two overly simple extremes: doubling down or pulling out.  But those aren’t the only choices, and in fact, they both proceed from the same faulty diagnosis of the problem. Double down advocates — Bush in 2008, Obama in 2009, and Trump in 2017 — argue that the Afghan state is too weak and poor to survive on its own, and only additional resources and training will create the minimally functional state needed for a U.S. exit. Leave advocates — Sen. Rand Paul, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Trump before the election, and now, it seems, Trump again in 2018 — also name state weakness as the central problem, but prefer to cut their losses rather than attempt a new approach.

But state “weakness” isn’t the real problem at all because portions of the Afghan state are generating the very corruption, predation, drug trade, and human rights abuses that allow the Taliban to survive and even thrive. As Carnegie Endowment Senior Fellow Rachel Kleinfeld argues in a new and extremely timely book, A Savage Order: How the World’s Deadliest Countries Can Forge a Path to Security, the real problem in countries plagued by endemic violence is not a lack of state power but a specific form of it that allows some political and economic elites to “consciously enable violent groups to proliferate in order to protect their perks and maintain control.” Building state capacity and expertise is important, but no amount of new governmental “muscle” will harden these countries into peace. The state isn’t too weak to end the violence; it is complicit in it.

If Kleinfeld is right — and her evidence is entirely convincing — then U.S. troop reductions might actually serve to incentivize the kind of reforms that Afghanistan needs, if done properly. The President has not yet said when or how troops should come out, and if he will listen to those with diplomatic experience, he will realize that the pace and scale of the drawdown is leverage that he can exploit.

The path forward now is to carry out reductions (whether in troops or financial assistance) in ways that disempower or isolate the portions of the Afghan state that are undermining the rule of law, human rights, and proper accounting of people, dollars, and equipment in Afghanistan. This may do what 17 years of blank checks for the Pentagon have not: convince Afghan public servants to protect and respect the population that elected them and pays their salaries. Forcing Afghanistan’s elites to choose between good governance or less American dollars may thus do more to delegitimize the Taliban and halt the cycles of violence than the force of arms has yet been able to accomplish.

Here’s a practical example: The Defense Department is required to vet some Afghan security forces under the Leahy laws to ensure taxpayer dollars do not go to security forces that have committed gross human rights violations. Between 2014 and 2016, Pentagon auditors uncovered 75 reports of gross human rights violations by Afghan security forces, including sexual assault, torture, and murder, but the secretary of defense used his prerogative to waive the Leahy laws and continue U.S. support to some of the implicated units.

Here is another: The Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2008 precludes the Defense Department and State Department from providing most types of military assistance to countries that use child soldiers. The State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report has repeatedly uncovered evidence of child soldiers in the Afghan Local Police — most recently in 2018 — but the Pentagon insists that the law doesn’t apply to those U.S.-created paramilitaries because they are not technically a part of the Afghan National Army. The Pentagon has given the Afghan Local Police roughly $500 million since 2010.

What if these units were the first to see their advisors leave? Moreover, what if any Army unit or government ministry with rosters full of ghost employees, doctored fuel logs, or massive accounting disparities were next in line? Since 2002, the Pentagon has used waivers to get around normal contracting practices in some cases, and in others it has failed to develop basic metrics for auditing funds or tracking progress. This must change.

The Pentagon insists that the volatile security situation makes strict adherence to so many tracking requirements “unfeasible” but, in fact, withholding U.S. resources from those that ignore U.S. laws is not an obstacle to success in Afghanistan — it is the key to it.

Only by conditioning U.S. support on strict adherence to law and human rights norms — publicly, and without the possibility of waivers — will the U.S. help Afghanistan wean itself off of the criminal patronage networks that are keeping Afghanistan mired in violence.

No one disputes the importance of countering corruption in theory — indeed one previous International Security Assistance Force commander claimed it was a greater threat to Afghanistan than the Taliban — but in practice, the Pentagon has always found reasons to waive away American values and laws in the name of combat expediency. That should stop. U.S. taxpayers deserve to know where their dollars are going and the Afghan government must have no doubt about how seriously the U.S. takes its laws and treaty commitments. Better, more consistent conditionality on U.S. support will make that message clear.

If Trump goes forward with his troop drawdown, he has an opportunity to use it to good effect. By targeting the units and government offices with the worst track records on human rights, corruption, and financial accountability, he can achieve his desired cost reductions while offering the Afghan government a clear choice: Work with the United States to end state complicity in Afghan corruption and human rights abuses or seek support elsewhere. Doing so may be the best way to turn an incoherent policy into one that reflects American values and which moves Afghanistan towards a functional state free from transnational terrorist organizations that may still threaten the United States.


Aaron O’Connell is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and a faculty fellow with the Clements Center for National Security. Previously, he served as a special advisor to Gen. David Petraeus in Afghanistan and as director of defense policy and strategy on the National Security Council Staff in the Obama administration. Follow him on Twitter at OConnellAaronB.

Image: U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Russell Gilchrest