According to legend, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky
famously said that “you may not be interested in war, but war
is interested in you.”
None of this squares with President Donald Trump’s campaign
pledge of an “America
First” foreign policy, nor with his healthy skepticism
of how America’s long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were
managed under Presidents Bush and Obama. No matter. The
Afghanistan conflict grinds on, and although Trump may not be
interested in the details of this war, the war is interested in
However, before the U.S. reaffirms its commitment to the
war” in Afghanistan, we must confront some fundamental
questions about what we are doing fighting
there and whether these new troop commitments will accomplish
anything good. If Trump and his generals cannot resolve these
questions, they should not commit more troops to fight in
When we talk about strategy, we’re really talking about a
of ends, ways, and means. Good strategies choose ends—or
objectives—that are so critical they compel the commitment of
national resources (the ways and means). No nation, even one as
powerful as the U.S., can do everything, so strategies must
prioritize which goals to pursue, based on the national
interest and the resources available.
A clear strategy for Afghanistan begins with defining our
national interests. The attacks of 9/11 gave rise to the
current war, nearly 16 years ago. The prevention of future
attacks remains our dominant interest, if not our only
compelling one there.
Beyond this, the Bush and Obama administrations articulated
broader interests such as the development of a functioning
government or economy that could ensure
Afghanistan never again becomes a failed state and sanctuary
for international terrorism. These broader interests led to
even broader strategies that poured billions of dollars of
aid into Afghanistan in an endless, fraught nation-building
effort. However, it was never clear how these programs
ultimately linked back to our core interest of preventing
Other than that, it’s not clear the U.S. has any other
compelling interests in this distant land, and certainly none
that would animate an administration that puts “America
Of course, defining national interests is only the first
step, and arguably the easiest one. Designing a
strategy of ways and means to achieve those ends has
over the past 16 years, even for the best practitioners.
In broad brushstrokes, the U.S. has pursued (at
least) three strategies in its Afghanistan war. During
the war’s early years, the U.S. treated the mission as a
punitive expedition, hunting
al-Qaida’s leadership and doing what was necessary to
bolster the nascent Afghan government during what was
effectively one giant raid.
In the war’s second phase, from roughly 2003 to 2014, the
U.S. pursued some version of a counterinsurgency
strategy (COIN, in military parlance), employing military
force but also diplomacy, development, economic aid, and
other tools to build Afghan society at the same time as we
fought the Taliban and al-Qaida.
Troop levels and funding levels varied widely during this
time, as the U.S. considered whether it should pursue
some other variant of counterinsurgency
or counterterrorism—but ultimately the U.S. remained
committed to a counterinsurgency strategy that aimed to fight the Taliban and al-Qaida,
and rebuild Afghanistan.
That changed in 2014, with the U.S. withdrawal
of combat forces from Afghanistan, leaving behind a small
force devoted to counterterrorism and some minimal advising
of Afghan security forces. Since then, the U.S. has pursued
a minimalist counterterrorism strategy of direct action
against al-Qaida and the Taliban, coupled with advisory
assistance to Afghan forces, and an anemic development
effort. The results have been poor
all frontsbesides counterterrorism, where the U.S.
special operations and drones machine has continued to
stack bodies like cordwood.
If the Trump administration decides there is a compelling
U.S. interest in Afghanistan (which seems very likely,
judging by its rhetoric and approval
of engagement), the next step will be choosing a strategy
to achieve that interest. Here is where the Trump
administration must get smart quickly.
A counterinsurgency strategy (of the sort reportedly
proposed by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster)
offers the greatest possible reward—a lasting Afghan state
that can secure itself and prevent the resurgence of
al-Qaida or Taliban elements that can threaten the U.S.
However, this strategy also requires the greatest level of
resources and carries the greatest risk, both in terms of
failure and cost in American blood and treasure. It assumes
the U.S. can actually prevail
in a protracted counterinsurgency campaign—a premise
undercut by recent American history, as well as the
experiences of British,
forces over the past three centuries in Afghanistan. If the
U.S. could not succeed at counterinsurgency in Afghanistan
with more than 100,000 troops, it is unlikely the U.S. can
succeed with 12,000 troops.
By contrast, a more minimalist counterterrorism strategy
would focus on killing those terrorists who could directly
threaten the U.S. or its interest. This has been the de
facto policy for the past three years, and it has largely
worked through a combination of special operations raids
and drone strikes.
This strategy exacts a heavy toll on those engaged in it:
the small units of SEALs, Rangers, Green Berets, and other
operators deployed again and again, and their families too.
But because of its size and limited scope, counterterrorism
raids can arguably be sustained almost indefinitely.
However, a counterterrorism strategy carries risk, too: It
may not sufficiently aid the Afghan government in securing
itself, allowing other threats to emerge, and it may
generate significant antibodies among Afghans who resent
U.S. special operations on their soil.
Given the administration’s conservative “America First”
rhetoric, and its apparent choice to focus resources on
fighting ISIS in Iraq and
Syria over Afghanistan, it seems only natural that the
administration would choose a narrow strategy that
constrains the Pentagon’s troop commitments and focuses on
just those counterterrorism operations necessary to achieve
America’s goals in Afghanistan.
However, that appears to be exactly the opposite of what
the administration is considering. News
suggest the Pentagon is requesting blanket authority from
the White House to deploy additional troops to Afghanistan,
without any presidential limits on the number of troops.
Further, reports suggest that McMaster has proposed a
strategy that continues many of the same counterinsurgency
activities of the past 15 years. This dissonance
may reflect a split of opinion between Trump and his
political aides, and the military leaders he’s picked
to run his Pentagon and National Security Council.
is the wrong way to plot an effective strategy. We need a
clear vision of American interests and a clear allocation
of the resources (troops, material, money, and diplomacy)
for pursuing those interests. And that will require radical
candor from our commander in chief—oddly, a strength of
If he could restrain his penchant for dishonesty and
misinformation, he might accidentally articulate the true
goals and costs of our continued war in Afghanistan. But
without a president who can level with his administration
and the American people, the forever war
will grind on, consuming lives and dollars for more years
to come, with no end in sight and no way to judge whether
it has all been worth it.
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