- - Sunday, April 30, 2017

Over the past two weeks National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis have taken quiet trips to Afghanistan. They are the president’s eyes on the war our military has been fighting for almost 16 years.

Their trips come more than two months after Army Gen. John Nicholson, U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, “I believe we’re in a stalemate.” Gen. Nicholson said that while he has sufficient counter-terrorism forces he needs a few thousand more troops to continue training the Afghan military. U.S. troop strength in Afghanistan is now close to 10,000.

Gen. Nicholson described a stalemate that was created by former President Obama’s Afghanistan policy, which kicked the can down the road so that his successor would have to deal with it.

In early 2009, Mr. Obama said that our policy was to “secure” Afghanistan but that “victory” wasn’t our goal. Mr. Obama described Afghanistan as “the just war” in his speech accepting his aspirational Nobel Peace Prize in 2009. From then on he micromanaged the war and created the existing stalemate.

Later in 2009, Gen. Stanley McChrystal — then U.S. commander in Afghanistan — sent Mr. Obama a report that requested about 40,000 more troops and said that unless those reinforcements were received, we would reach the point where defeating the Taliban was no longer possible.

Mr. Obama fussed and fretted over the report for months. When he finally decided his policy, it was not what Gen. McChrystal wanted. Instead, Mr. Obama came up with a policy that amounted to “McChrystal lite.”

Mr. Obama sent some, but not all, of the troops Gen. McChrystal wanted but at the same time said that the troops would be withdrawn in 2011. In 2014 he declared in 2014 that our combat mission was over.

The Taliban, however, didn’t end their combat mission. Against a force we’ve been training for over a decade, they continue to succeed. The Afghan army is still incapable of defending their nation from the Taliban. It is rife with corruption and suffers both significant desertion and a high rate of illiteracy.

After more than a decade of U.S. training, the Afghan army still cannot protect its nation or itself. The most recent proof is the April 24 Taliban attack on a base near the northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif. At least 144 Afghani soldiers were killed. Three days later both the chief of staff of the Afghan army and the Afghani defense minister resigned.

Mr. Mattis and Mr. McMaster are experienced battlefield generals. Mr. McMaster, an Army general who gained fame in the Tal Afar campaign in Iraq, is a veteran nation-builder. He said at the time that he wanted not only to kill terrorists, but also win over civilians so that they would reject the terrorists when the Americans left. That, to say the least, didn’t succeed.

On returning from his trip to Afghanistan, Mr. McMaster said the Taliban knew we were reducing our efforts in Afghanistan so, he said, “Our enemy sensed that and they have redoubled their efforts, and it’s time for us, alongside our Afghan partners, to respond.” That sounds much like what we heard for almost a decade from Army leaders in Iraq. When we pulled out of Iraq, Shiite militias turned most of the country into an Iranian satrapy. And ISIS arose.

Mr. Mattis arrived just a few days after the April 24 Taliban attack. Through his Marine eyes, he may see things a bit differently than Mr. McMaster did. Mr. Mattis is not a nation-builder. McMaster insists that there is no causal relationship between Islam and terrorism. Mr. Mattis understands that to defeat enemies such as the Taliban, their ideology must also be defeated. No peace can be negotiated while the Taliban’s ideology remains intact.

Mr. Mattis knows that since the advent of Islam, its ideology has had such a strong grip on Afghanistan’s tribal society that two British invasions, in 1839 and 1878, both ended in bloody retreats. He will remember the Soviets’ 1979-1989 invasion which, with the help of CIA arms, also ended when the Soviets withdrew defeated.

Mr. Mattis and Mr. McMaster know that the Russians are supplying the Taliban with small arms. So far, no heavier weapons — such as shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles — have appeared on the battlefield. But there’s no reason that the Russians won’t supply the Taliban with such weapons. They obviously want to impose on us the same defeat they suffered at the hands of the Taliban’s predecessors.

Mr. Trump has never said what our goal in Afghanistan should be. Based on what Mr. Mattis and Mr. McMaster advise, he will have to do more than just determine whether Gen. Nicholson’s request for more troops should be granted. The president will try to devise a policy to bring the seemingly permanent war in Afghanistan to a successful end, including how he chooses to deal with the Russians’ arming of the Taliban.

The president won’t want to quit and has foresworn nation-building. He doesn’t want to have “lost” Afghanistan, though we never really “had” it.

Mr. Trump’s choices are grim. Will we continue — for decades or centuries to come — to prop up the continually-failing Afghan army and government, or will we withdraw entirely and let the Taliban again make it a terrorist safe-haven? We can’t win unless we defeat the ideology of radical Islam.

• Jed Babbin served as a deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of five books including “In the Words of Our Enemies.”

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