Trump asked the right question on Afghanistan
Flanked by Vice President Mike Pence to his right, national security adviser H.R. McMaster to his left, and veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan around the rest of the table, President Donald Trump asked the same question so many Americans have for more than a decade and a half: Why has the U.S. been in Afghanistan for so long? He wants “to find out why we’ve been there for  years, how it’s going, and what we should do in terms of additional ideas.”
Americans who have opened their wallets for the war’s cost — estimated at more than $1 trillion — and hundreds of thousands of families who have seen a loved one, a relative, or a friend undergo multiple deployments to Afghanistan have been waiting for answers. The problem is that all the answers that have been given revolve around the same basic, but bankrupt, assumption: that the United States can win in Afghanistan at a reasonable cost over a reasonable amount of time, or that there is anything at all to win.
Instead of acknowledging the full and uncomfortable truth — that in the grand scheme of things, Afghanistan’s political stability is not important for U.S. national security interests — the American people are told the same standard talking points that three U.S. presidents, six secretaries of defense, and 16 field commanders have relied on for the last 16-plus years. We are typically told that stabilizing Afghanistan’s political and security situation and helping the Afghans build self-sufficiency in their ministries and in their security forces are all imperative to keep the U.S. safe from another 9/11 attack. Americans are also told that as long as U.S. troops operate in close coordination with Afghan soldiers on the ground and prevent the Afghan government from falling prey to the Taliban, the U.S. is secure — a conclusion that assumes that terrorists will have a much harder time planning terrorist attacks against Americans if they can’t rely on a safe haven.
This, in essence, is why approximately 9,000 U.S. troops — and perhaps thousands more — are trudging on the same ground that many of them had to clear from Taliban fighters in 2010 and 2011. Yet the entire premise of U.S. strategy is based on a misrepresentation of how important territorial safe havens are to terrorist organizations and how terrorist groups operate in the 21st century.
It is a fundamental truth that regardless of who stands on piles of dirt in Afghanistan, terrorists around the world will still be busy planning, plotting and attempting to conduct acts of indiscriminate violence against the western world and anyone who refuses to subscribe to their interpretation of Islam. Afghanistan, simply put, is not all that important to terrorists who are seeking to do America harm. Islamic State, al-Qaida, Boko Haram, and its affiliates, associates and copycats simply don’t need ungoverned spaces to survive anymore (and Afghanistan is far from the only such territory). All that is required is a potent propaganda machine, an individual susceptible to extremist ideologies, and encrypted communications to inspire followers to take violence into their own hands.
Simply put, U.S. national security officials continue to treat Afghanistan’s stability as far more vital to the pursuit of our counterterrorism goals than it really is.
Indeed, the Trump administration is on the cusp of deepening U.S. military and financial involvement in Afghanistan — on top of the 15-plus years of sacrifice the country has already given, to the exclusion of much more important geopolitical priorities such as a rising China and nuclear proliferation — when this isolated, war-scarred land has been resistant to every foreign occupation or intervention since the British still boasted an empire.
Statistics released by EUROPOL, the pan-European law enforcement agency, help support this theory. According to EUROPOL’s most recent terrorism trends report, the number of jihadi-related arrests in Europe in 2016 actually increased from the year before — despite that ISIS’ caliphate in Syria and Iraq was contracting throughout that time period. The United Kingdom’s top police official has stated that the trend has continued regardless of how much territory ISIS controls; “Progress on the ground in Syria and Iraq,” Cressida Dick said, “does not necessarily translate into a reduction in threat here.”
Unfortunately, she is absolutely correct, and after the attacks in San Bernardino, Calif.; Orlando, Fla.; and elsewhere, the U.S. counterterrorism community has concluded that threats from terrorism today are just as likely to come from self-radicalized men trolling the internet for bomb instructions as from in badlands of North Waziristan or the mountains of Kunar, Afghanistan.
With this in mind, what should the U.S. do in Afghanistan?
The first thing Trump must do is order his national security team to provide an explanation of what benefits the U.S. will receive in return for yet more American investment over a period of years. Is propping up the Afghan government in perpetuity and shoveling between $3 billion and $4 billion a year to the Afghan security forces a worthy venture? Will terrorism against Americans or American interests be eliminated if Afghanistan is a peaceful nation with a government strong enough to defend itself and sustain itself economically? And is it even within America’s talents to help Afghanistan fulfill those ambitious goals?
After 16 years of trying everything in Afghanistan — from surging tens of thousands of U.S. troops into the country and attempting to grow crops to negotiating with the Taliban and showering Kabul with billions of dollars (squandered in rampant corruption) — the answer is obvious by now to everyone except the foreign-policy establishment in Washington.
Nearly 16 years after the first U.S. bombs were dropped and the first detachment of special operations forces roped out of the Apaches, Trump is still not comfortable with the options that his national security advisers have presented.
One of those options should be reassessing the effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of the entire campaign against terrorism — and knowing when to walk away from a mission that has dragged out for so long that the soldiers now serving in Afghanistan were in elementary school when the war started. If, as I suspect, his generals come back to the White House with the status-quo ante, Trump should order a U.S. troop withdrawal from a conflict that could aimlessly go on for another decade and a half.
Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities, and organization that “believes U.S. actions around the globe should derive from a realistic grand strategy focused on protecting and securing our vital national interests.”