Winning Afghanistan: Support Trump’s Strategy

A US soldier holds the national flag ahead of a handover ceremony at Leatherneck Camp in Lashkar Gah in the Afghan province of Helmand on April 29, 2017.
A US soldier holds the national flag ahead of a handover ceremony at Leatherneck Camp in Lashkar Gah in the Afghan province of Helmand on April 29, 2017. (Photo: WAKIL KOHSAR/AFP/Getty Images)

 

President Trump is pledging to “win” in Afghanistan by defeating the terrorist “losers.” He is correct about the disaster ahead if the U.S. retreats from Afghanistan, but his speech doesn’t seem to have addressed the concerns of those who believe that the campaign there is a lost cause.

Trump rightly pointed out that there are 20 groups designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations by the U.S. State Department operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If the U.S. abandons Afghanistan, these groups will use the country as a launching pad to target the U.S. and destabilize the region, including nuclear-armed Pakistan.

From this base, they will likely be able to roll back progress we’ve made against terror havens in Iraq, Syria and Libya. And, of course, each success breeds a multitude of new members for the victorious terrorist group as momentum is interpreted as Allah’s blessing.

Yet, these realities do not address the core skepticism of those who oppose the war in Afghanistan — that there’s simply nothing more we can do. President Trump needed to confront this head on.

It’s extremely important that the American public understand that the war in Afghanistan is not like a videotape on loop. We have made progress, but the American public rarely heard about it because President Obama did not wish to bring attention to the war and its political liabilities. The progress was then lost due to the rapid withdrawal based on an arbitrary timeline.

“We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistakes our leaders made in Iraq,” Trump said.

Addressing the need to make a long-term commitment to Afghanistan to defeat the terror forces there, Secretary of Defense Mattis said it best when he told President Trump, “Mr. President, we haven’t fought a 16-year war so much as we have fought a one-year war 16 times.”

In 2014, 95% of all operations were being done by the Afghans and they were taking 95% of all casualties, according to Michael O’Hanlon. Foreign forces were only 15% of coalition manpower. The Taliban and other jihadists had a growing presence in the areas where foreign forces decreased, but this territory only encompassed about 10% of the Afghan population.

The Defense Department’s April 2014 report said that U.S. casualties had “dropped significantly” over the previous year and the Afghan forces conduct “virtually all of these operations independently.” The Afghan economy was lunging forward and the Defense Department reported a “dramatic increase in basic education.”

The mantra we always hear in the media is that the Afghans won’t fight the Taliban and other terrorists. They did.

There was also major economic, educational and political progress.

That year, Afghanistan held a hotly-contested presidential election where all of the major candidates agreed that the U.S. military should be asked to stay. The election was a big success, as U.S.-backed Afghan forces made the Taliban and other Islamist terrorists fail miserably in achieving their stated goal of wreaking havoc during the voting.

Despite the extremely high risk, voter turnout was about 58%, matching that of America’s 2012 presidential election. One in three voters were women and a record number of women were running for office, including two for vice president.

After the vote was held, accusations of fraud came from both sides. Sectarian tension was high as each candidate represented different constituencies. Amazingly, despite all these pressures, the parties then reached a power-sharing agreement and had Afghanistan’s first peaceful transfer of the presidency through elections.

It is absolutely essential for President Trump to mention this progress to the skeptical American public so that they can know we haven’t been simply running in circles in Afghanistan. It is also important for the U.S. military that sacrifices so much to hear that their gains are known and appreciated.

Any progress that this new strategy makes will be limited by the assistance that the Taliban and other terrorists are receiving from Pakistan, Iran and Russia.

President Trump put Pakistan on notice like never before. The Pakistani government is going to be held accountable for harboring and materially supporting the terrorist network that sustains the jihad in Afghanistan. It is probable that we’ll see an increase in cross-border operations.

Trump’s praise for India as a strategic partner is a powerful lever to pull to pressure Pakistan. The State Department’s recent designation of Hizbul Mujahideen as a Foreign Terrorist Organization shows that the Trump Administration is serious about this. Hizbul Mujahideen is a terror group that primarily targets India and is backed by Pakistan.

It was strange that Iran’s role in assisting the Taliban and Al-Qaeda went unmentioned in Trump’s speech. Iran is actively murdering U.S. and Afghan troops. However, Secretary of Defense Mattis’ desire to deliver some payback to the Iranian regime for targeting the U.S. military is well-known. You can bet he has plans in mind for that.

All of the talk about the war in Afghanistan inevitably brings up the experience of the Vietnam War. Although there is much to criticize about National Security Adviser General H.R. McMaster, he wrote a critically-acclaimed book about the Vietnam War.

There should be no doubt that the lessons of Vietnam are in the mind of McMaster and have been discussed within the Trump Administration every step of the way towards crafting the U.S.’ strategy in Afghanistan.

As Trump acknowledged, Americans are understandably frustrated and sick of being at war in Afghanistan. But there is reason to believe we can be successful. Moreover, advocates of a withdrawal have yet to explain how we can withdraw and still stop Afghanistan from becoming an extremely dangerous terrorist base.

If we would withdraw from Afghanistan now, how would we feel seeing images on our TV screens of the Taliban coming back to power, carrying out massacres and once again stopping girls from going to school, knowing that we could have stopped it.

We’ve sacrificed too much already to hand Afghanistan back to the Taliban and regressive forces. The consequences of retreat are so dire that it’s worth giving Trump and his team a chance for their strategy to work.

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Ryan Mauro
Ryan Mauro is ClarionProject.org's Shillman Fellow and national security analyst and an adjunct professor of counter-terrorism. He is frequently interviewed on top-tier television and radio.