- - Monday, August 28, 2017


Victory, in the traditional sense of the word, will not be achieved in Afghanistan. The Taliban have a virtually unlimited source of young military-age Pashtun males to draw from in their stronghold areas. In addition, the war has become a Taliban for-profit cottage industry in many rural areas along the border with Pakistan. This is particularly true of the Haqqani organization, which is really a criminal network in Taliban clothing.

This is not to say that an acceptable end state to the American and NATO participation in the war is not possible. If properly executed, the recently announced Trump strategy can work if it sets realistic benchmarks for a final transition of the internal security of Afghanistan to the Afghans.

From an American standpoint, we have achieved our major goal going into the war, which was to deny transnational Islamic extremists (particularly al Qaeda) the use of Afghanistan as a sanctuary base to launch attacks on the United States and its allies. We defeated the Taliban’s grip on Afghan national governance and their protection of al Qaeda. The goal of total destruction of the Taliban was never realistic, but that is now water under the bridge. The new Trump strategy is realistic in that it realizes two things: First, an end to the war must be a negotiated settlement, even if that means giving the Taliban some kind of a role in Afghan governance. Second, self-sufficiency of the Afghan security forces can’t be achieved by the kinds of arbitrary timelines set by the Obama administration that led to the situation we are now in. Establishing condition-based goals is both doable and reflects common sense.

I am less sanguine that we can expect Pakistan to play a constructive role in Afghanistan, but the threat of bringing India in as a major player may send a chill up the spines of leaders in Islamabad, particularly of the notoriously perfidious Inter-Services Intelligence.

Particularly encouraging is the intention to make the Afghan Air Force self-sufficient. My sources tell me the shooting goal is to do so by 2021. That is realistic. If the air force can deliver fuel and ammunition to ground troops and provide medical evacuation over Afghanistan’s notoriously rugged terrain, it will give the ground forces the self-confidence required to hold the distant outposts needed to roll back Taliban gains since 2012 and prevent further loss of territory. Four years may seem like a long time, but it is a credit to the retired and active-duty American general officers who crafted this strategy that they realize how dysfunctional the Afghan Air Force is today. Sometimes, the key to solving a problem is to realize how serious it really is.

Assisting the Afghan government in reducing endemic corruption is a problematical challenge, but the current leadership in Kabul seems to be making heroic efforts to get corruption at the national level down to manageable levels. Afghanistan will probably never be a civics book model of governance, but reducing corruption down to the level of Chicago or Providence, R.I. would be a good start.

Justice would be another area where real progress would strengthen the Afghan government’s hand in any future negotiations. One selling point that the Taliban have exploited in the rural regions of Afghanistan is that they are good at enforcing their version of the rule of law. Their justice system, however brutal, is quick and fair. This contrasts with the official system, which can take years to deliberate a simple land dispute or livestock possession case. Worse still, the winner is often the plaintiff with the most cash in his pocket. If NATO forces can provide helicopter transport for an honest and effective circuit court and its security details to remote regions, it would have an asymmetrical impact on support for the central government until the Afghan Air Force is capable of taking over the transport mission.

The Trump administration strategy is devoid of the arbitrary timelines that doomed the Obama approach to failure, and it avoids the delusion that the Taliban can be totally defeated on the battlefield that clouded our vision early in the war. Insurgencies can be ended in a number of ways. El Salvador and Columbia ended in negotiated settlement. Malaysia ended when the root causes were eliminated. However, some end when the insurgents actually win. The key to an acceptable end state for the insurgency in Afghanistan is convincing the Taliban that they can’t win in a purely military manner.

Gary Anderson is a retired Marine Corps officer who served with the State Department as a civilian adviser in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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