It recently emerged that President Donald Trump excoriated a number of his military advisors for their inability to win in Afghanistan. Specifically, he urged American Defense Secretary James Mattis to fire General John Nicholson, the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, and he suggested that his experience renovating restaurants made him an authority on military strategy. Beyond the fact that this outburst provides yet another data point suggesting Trump is a moronic and infantile man, it also begs the question of what it means to win in Afghanistan.
The current situation is less than ideal, as a recent report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reveals. In particular, there is a large amount of wastefulness and corruption in development projects, and serious security concerns remain. The SIGAR report drives this point home by pointing out that “DOD’s latest report to Congress on security and stability in Afghanistan notes that the country ‘faces a continuing threat from as many as 20 insurgent and terrorist networks present or operating in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, including the Taliban, the Haqqani Network, [Islamic State-Khorasan], and al-Qaeda, in what is the highest concentration of extremist and terrorist groups in the world.’” And according to David Axe, a writer for War is Boring, attacks are up compared to last year, suggesting that despite Trump’s (best?) efforts, the security environment in Afghanistan could be deteriorating.
The stagnating situation in Afghanistan clearly demonstrates that Trump and his Republican compatriots were massively simplifying the problems faced by U.S. and NATO soldiers in Afghanistan. Winning a war is not as simple as “bombing the shit out of them,” “loosening the rules of engagement,” and saying the words “radical Islam.” This isn’t to suggest that Obama’s administration bears no responsibility for the continuing failure of U.S. Afghan policy, but it does imply that the situation there is more complex and nuanced than many of Obama’s critics implied. Winning a war is not simply a question of toughness and moral fortitude – something many Republicans seem to believe – it’s a question of strategy. And quite frankly, the United States doesn’t seem to have one.
And this lack of a strategy is problematic not only because it prevents U.S. policymakers from determining concrete objectives and avenues with which to realize them but also because it means that it’s impossible to know if we are “winning.” This becomes apparent when one considers Trump’s commentary on the war in Afghanistan. Everything he says concerns tactics – increased use of airpower, more aggressive rules of engagement, etc. – but there is almost nothing about end goals. Is dropping a MOAB a victory? Does killing a few more terrorist per day mean we are winning? No, because none of this is occurring within a strategic framework. Thus, it’s impossible to contextualize and evaluate progress beyond looking at intermediate metrics such as schools built, terrorists killed, etc. In many ways, this mirrors the American experience in Vietnam, a war where the U.S. massively outperformed its enemy in tactical measurements such as kill to death ratios but never seemed to make progress at the strategic level. And, just like with Vietnam, the American public is getting tired of the never-ending quagmire that is the Middle East; people who were just one or two years old during the September 11, 2001 attacks are now fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that represents a massive failure on the part of U.S. policymakers and military commanders.
At this point in the conflict, I’m extremely skeptical of the prospects of success in Afghanistan. America has been at war almost my entire life, and there is very little to show for it except for thousands of dead soldiers and almost a trillion dollars spent on an arduous and seemingly never-ending conflict. If Trump seriously wants to be the president that wins the peace in Afghanistan, he’s going to have to take his job far more seriously than he has been, because saying macho things and pouring more troops and money into the conflict is not a strategy, it’s a desperate holding action that reveals the utter vacuousness of American policy in the region. In one sense, Obama’s critics were right: He had no guiding strategy for the Middle East, and he therefore adopted a reactionary approach that devoted the least amount of resources possible while at the same time failing to make a clean break with the region. Ironically, now that one of Obama’s biggest critics has assumed the mantle of the presidency, American policy doesn’t seem to have become any more coherent.