Foreign Relations & International Law

Toward a Redefinition of ‘Winning’ in Afghanistan

John Sipher
Monday, August 28, 2017, 12:00 PM

There has been no shortage of editorial commentary on the potential impact of having military officers occupy so many senior positions in the Trump Administration. Whether the development is good or bad, they have certainly influenced the re-crafted policy in Afghanistan set forth in President Trump’s speech on Monday.

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There has been no shortage of editorial commentary on the potential impact of having military officers occupy so many senior positions in the Trump Administration. Whether the development is good or bad, they have certainly influenced the re-crafted policy in Afghanistan set forth in President Trump’s speech on Monday.

Since 9/11, there has been tension between those diplomats, intelligence and military officers working in Afghanistan and their counterparts in Pakistan. Over the years, those who were dedicated to success in Afghanistan were often frustrated by the fact that, when push came to shove, U.S. interests in Pakistan often came out on top. “Winning” in Afghanistan always seemed to take second place to our troubled but critical relationship with Pakistan. Military officers like Mr. Mattis, General McMaster, and Mr. Kelly, who all served in Afghanistan and who are now helping to craft our new strategy, were personally privy to this tension. The re-dedication to victory in Afghanistan may be a result of their experience. I fear, however, that the tensions that militated against success in the past may make future victory difficult to come by as well. Ultimate success will depend on a wide variety of factors—including how we define success. I will leave a comprehensive analysis to others, but would like to suggest some questions to consider as we move forward in Afghanistan.

First, are we planning to fight and defeat the Taliban? Those with experience in the region over the past few years know that fighting the Taliban has not been our primary focus, though we have supported the effort. U.S. power has been applied against terrorist groups like Al Qaeda and ISIS who present a threat to the U.S. homeland, and also has been used to assist Afghan forces against the Taliban. That is not to say that we have not fought back against Taliban attacks or been in the middle of the fight when our Afghan partners have taken the initiative to hit Taliban forces. However, we have not tried to destroy the Taliban using U.S. forces.

Certainly, the Taliban are heinous and present a threat to the long-term viability of a stable and western-oriented Afghanistan. However, they are not a direct threat to the U.S. homeland or our allies. The Taliban are fighting for control of Afghanistan. They kill Americans because we are in their country. Unlike ISIS, Al Qaeda and other global jihadi groups, they will not come looking for us outside Afghanistan if we are not there. Paul Ryan recently tweeted in support of President Trump’s speech, claiming that the Taliban can no longer hope to wait us out since we have not signaled an end date to our commitment. I’m pretty confident they will try to wait us out because they live there, and we won’t be there forever.

So, going forward, has our strategy changed? President Trump said that we will not be nation-building in Afghanistan, but killing terrorists. Are the Taliban terrorists? Does winning mean a defeat of the Taliban? Will our forces seek them out and attack them directly? If so, it is hard to see how a modest increase in U.S. forces will be able to do the job. If not, the administration needs to make it clear to the public that a military defeat of the Taliban is not part of our strategy to win in Afghanistan.

What is our primary strategic interest in the region? Is it to win in Afghanistan, or something broader? While we certainly do not want Afghanistan to again become a haven for terrorists who may threaten the U.S., it seems that our interests in the region are more diverse than preventing that outcome. If our goal remains what it has been since after 9/11—to ensure Afghanistan can no longer serve as an ungoverned space for terrorists to breed and launch attacks—securing Afghanistan would be analogous to using one finger to plug a hole-ridden dyke. ISIS and its kin can train and deploy from Syria, Libya, Iraq, Somalia and a host of other places. Indeed, the 9/11 terrorists came largely from Germany and Saudi Arabia. Victory in Afghanistan doesn’t buy us much in this regard, as terrorists have other places to go.

Most important, however, is the issue of Pakistan. Anyone involved in the region over the past decade and a half surely knows that our objectives in Afghanistan and Pakistan are often in conflict, and that our interests in Pakistan win out more often than not. Afghanistan is a small and militarily weak country. Pakistan is a potentially unstable nuclear power with almost six times the population of Afghanistan and is home to numerous terrorist groups—including those with global ambitions. As such, we have interests in Pakistan above and beyond what happens in Afghanistan. We need Pakistan to secure its nuclear weapons, we want its help tracking global terrorists, we have needed its acquiescence in our anti-terror efforts in the tribal areas, and we require its assent to utilize transit routes across Pakistan to support our forces in Afghanistan.

Going forward, we will need to acknowledge that putting real pressure on Pakistan will not be cost-free. As we push in one area, Pakistan can threaten to withhold assistance in another. Almost every senior foreign policy analyst has come to the conclusion that we need to be tougher on Pakistan. Previous efforts to pressure Pakistan have faltered largely because of to our efforts to utilize both carrots and sticks at the same time. However, we have always resisted dropping the carrot altogether for fear that the consequences could be even worse.

I’m skeptical that a stick alone will do much good—and it could do damage. Pakistan is a proud country likely to react negatively to what it perceives as efforts to bully it, especially since it believes China will step in if the U.S. pulls its funding. And if we “win” Afghanistan and lose Pakistan, we will have lost the war. If Pakistan falters or becomes increasingly unstable it will be a nightmare for our security.

How could Russia impact our plans in Afghanistan? My first thought as I listened to President Trump’s speech was that Afghanistan is a perfect environment for Russia to use its tools and nefarious influence against us. They can easily complicate our efforts by playing off Iran, India, Pakistan and the Taliban against us. Russia has a long history with India and a burgeoning relationship with Shia Iran. President Putin holds a grudge regarding the U.S.-led effort to expel Soviet forces from Afghanistan. Further, as noted by John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, the Russians appear to be providing support and even arms to the Taliban. It would be naïve to think that Putin will not do all he can to harm our interests in Afghanistan.

Cold warriors will recall that India was probably the place where Russian and Soviet propaganda was most effective. Prior to the digital age, Russians bombarded India with disinformation, printing newspapers, cultivating journalists and shipping in literally tons of propaganda flyers, posters, magazines and newspapers every week. They kicked off many of their most nefarious disinformation efforts in India, including the charge that AIDS was a biological weapon created by the Pentagon and used against the developing world. It’s hard to imagine that they wouldn’t use their cyber and propaganda skills to impact audiences throughout South Asia. I worry that even a minimal Russian effort could well result in much larger problems for the U.S. in the region.

Is the U.S. positioned to win in Afghanistan? It is a common quip in Afghanistan (and other war zones) that the U.S. has not been at war in Afghanistan for sixteen years, but instead has fought for one year, sixteen times. As argued by the historian and former Army colonel Andrew Bacevich and others, the U.S. doesn’t seem to place victory at the top of its priority list. Unlike in World War II where all elements of U.S. power were concentrated on victory, the war in Afghanistan is more akin to simply a single program to manage among many others. General Dwight Eisenhower did not return home after a one-year assignment. Personnel rotation schedules took a backseat to winning the war. Victory assumed a full commitment of national resources, industry, and engaging the population—the combined efforts of the national security apparatus and political will. Nowadays, the Pentagon and intelligence services are hesitant to let the effort in Afghanistan impact other priorities. The 16-year war has barely interfered with regular personnel schedules and the needs of officers to broaden their experience with time in graduate schools, among other things. On the ground, progress has been hampered by the overarching goal of minimizing casualties, hardly a recipe for victory.

These days, we go to war as a side endeavor, and then we are surprised when we don’t “win.” For example, even though we’ve been at war for 16 years and have just signed up for a bunch more, I’ll bet that we still have only a handful of military and intelligence officers who have learned Pashto and Dari, the languages of Afghanistan. This is not meant to place primary blame on the military. Indeed, they are the ones bearing the brunt of the effort and suffering for it. Instead, several successive administrations have been willing to send our sons and daughters to die, but not to summon the will to win. Most Americans couldn’t even find Afghanistan on a map. I don’t want to dwell too much on this point. But the bottom line is we need to acknowledge that if victory is truly our goal, we need to radically rejigger our priorities and resources.

Can India really help? President Trump has placed India at the center of the renewed U.S. effort to succeed in Afghanistan. The root motivation is understandable. Foreign policy thinkers have long desired that India become a regional ally. Likewise, South Asia practitioners have tried to build a mutually beneficial relationship between the United States and India, even prodding India to play a larger role on the world stage. India’s vibrant democracy, economic potential, huge population and strategic location all suggest it is hitting below its weight on the world stage.

But I see two potential problems with relying on India. First, we have no evidence that it is ready and willing to play the role asked of it. I am all for India playing the role of an active regional ally, but it seems unwise to bank on them since they have never shown any real willingness or capability in this area. Fingers crossed.

More importantly, any suggestion that India will play a central role in Afghanistan is certain to antagonize Pakistan. To people who haven’t spent time in Pakistan, it is hard to convey the country’s obsession with India. A much-used aphorism in South Asia is that while most countries have a military, Pakistan is a military that has a country. And that powerful military is built, positioned and ready to fight India.

Indeed, the Taliban was largely created by Pakistani state intelligence forces with the aim of keeping Afghanistan off-balance and out of hostile—and particularly, Indian—hands, allowing Pakistan to maintain its focus to the east. The notion of being sandwiched between India and an India-allied state is not something that Pakistan will accept. The larger the role played by India in Afghanistan, the more Pakistan will do to undermine Afghanistan’s success.

In his Monday address, President Trump defined victory as killing and defeating terrorists. While acknowledging the magnitude of the challenge, the President declared himself a problem-solver dedicated to winning. It is an appealing notion, but measuring success will be particularly difficult. Those who have tackled problems in the region realize that often solving one problem simply begets another. Each of Afghanistan’s powerful neighbors—Pakistan, Russia, Iran and India—have conflicting visions for Afghanistan’s future, and each will have a say. And whatever the case, the Trump administration will need to engage the public as we move forward; otherwise after another few years, voters may be resentful to find that victory was defined in a manner wholly different from their expectations.

John Sipher is the co-founder of Spycraft Entertainment, a production firm providing content and talent to the entertainment industry. He is also a Director of Client Services at CrossLead, a software and consulting firm. John is a sought-after foreign policy and intelligence expert. His articles have been published in Lawfare, The New York Times, The Atlantic, Politico, Foreign Affairs, Newsweek, Slate, and Just Security, among others. He regularly appears on the PBS NewsHour, CNN, NPR, MSNBC, BBC and speaks to corporate, academic and governmental groups. John retired in 2014 after a 28-year career in the Central Intelligence Agency’s National Clandestine Service. At the time of his retirement, he was a member of the CIA’s Senior Intelligence Service, the leadership team that guides CIA activities globally. John served multiple overseas tours as Chief of Station and Deputy Chief of Station in Europe, Asia, and in high-threat environments. He has significant experience working with foreign and domestic partners to solve national security challenges. John also served as a lead instructor in the CIA’s clandestine training school and was a regular lecturer at the CIA’s leadership development program. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Career Intelligence Medal. John graduated from Hobart College and has a Master’s in International Affairs from Columbia University. He has attended a variety of executive courses at Harvard University, Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, The Aspen Institute, and the Intelligence Community’s Executive Leadership program.

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