Like most Americans, I listened closely to President Donald Trump’s speech Monday night hoping to hear a different U.S. strategy toward Afghanistan. Maybe I listened a little more closely than others because I worked in Afghanistan for 10 years managing civilian “nation-building” programs between 2003 and 2016. Unfortunately, the strategy is more of the same and additional troops are now headed for Afghanistan. This speech could have been given by former presidents Barack Obama or George W. Bush, and probably was. All this tells me (and us) that America’s longest war in history is going to continue endlessly into the future with the same miserable results.
Sixteen years’ investment of blood and treasure in Afghanistan has taken its toll on the U.S. with little to show for it. The January 2017 quarterly report of the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued to Congress summarized that:
• Since 2001, 2,247 U.S. military personnel have died and more than 20,000 have been wounded.
• The U.S. has spent more on Afghanistan’s reconstruction than it did on the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.
• Reconstructing Afghanistan has been the largest expenditure to rebuild a single country in our nation’s history.
The president’s “new” five-point strategy includes the following:
1) A “conditions-based approach,” which means our continued involvement there will be determined by the actual improved situation on the ground, not a timetable. What this means is that more U.S. troops will now be sent to Afghanistan indefinitely, despite Obama’s authorized deployment of 100,000 troops to Afghanistan in 2010-11, with little effect. The result of that deployment is that the Taliban now control nearly half the country.
2) The “integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic, military — toward a successful outcome” that is intended to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. This approach was tried under the Obama administration, when it was called an “All Government Approach.” Again, the intent was to bring all American resources to bear on strengthening the Afghan government and military to change the momentum of the war. But according to comments made in May by the U.S. director of national intelligence, Dan Coats, conditions in Afghanistan will “continue to deteriorate” because of the Afghan government’s “political dysfunction and ineffectiveness.”
3) More pressure will be brought against Pakistan to stop supporting the Taliban. This has been part of the strategy of both Bush and Obama ever since 9/11, and hasn’t worked. Pakistan created, supports and directs the Taliban because it is part of Pakistan’s overriding strategy to create a “friendly” government in Afghanistan that would support Pakistan in any future war with India.
4) Ask India to do more in Afghanistan. India is already a major economic development partner with the Afghan government and in the past year has also started to provide significant military support. This is not going to turn things around for the dismal performance of the Afghan military, and will only cause Pakistan to increase its support for the Taliban to prevent its deadly enemy (India) from gaining ground there.
5) Change the “rules of engagement” for the U.S. military so it can more aggressively target the Taliban. Again, in 2010-11 we had more than 100,000 troops in Afghanistan. With President Trump’s plan to add another 4,000 to the 8,400 already there, it is hard to imagine how this is going to make any difference no matter how aggressive their rules of engagement might be.
The one encouraging phrase I heard in the president’s speech was, “we are not nation-building again.” I think most Americans have forgotten (and maybe the president has, too) that our involvement in Afghanistan is not just military, it’s also civilian nation-building. The U.S. has spent about $515 billion on civilian reconstruction programs alone through the U.S. Agency for International Development since 2002, all the things I did for 10 years that mostly failed to achieve their objectives. Will this continue?
I am very pessimistic about Afghanistan’s future and our continuing ill-fated involvement there.
Mark Kryzer is a former U.S. Department of State Foreign Service officer and spent 10 years in Afghanistan managing civilian nation-building programs from 2003-2016. He lives in St. Paul.