Some blunt questions for the authors of our new Afghanistan strategy

Special to

By Washington staff, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs

U.S. President Donald Trumps was fully aware that his Aug. 21, 2017, speech on a supposedly new U.S. “strategy” on Afghanistan — his first major prime time policy speech since taking office — was neither his speech nor his policy.

Neither was it, in any meaningful sense, the announcement of a “strategy”. President Trump read it, uncharacteristically without comment, from teleprompters as if to signal that these were not his words.

China invested in and will be the chief beneficiary of Pakistan’s strategic new port at Gwadar.

And the next day, on Aug. 22, 2017, at a political rally in Phoenix, Arizona, his talk — directly addressing his support base — made it clear how much he disagreed with Washington’s attempts to constrain his Administration. Significantly, his Phoenix address stimulated support from his voter base, in direct proportion to the derision his “Afghanistan strategy” drew from that same base as well as professional military analysts.

The Afghanistan policy broadcast indicated that he had allowed his military advisers to prevail, reinforcing the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan — albeit without a strategy or an end goal — while also criticizing longtime ally, Pakistan, as being a haven for terrorists. Even those “establishment” bodies, such as the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), which had been hostile to the “unscripted” Trump were ambivalent toward the “scripted” President.

CFR analyst Max Boot acknowledged the true authors of the policy: “Trump adopted the strategy crafted by McMaster and Mattis, both of whom served in Afghanistan. The most important commitment that Trump made was to shift from a time-based approach on troop withdrawals to one based on conditions — meaning that the U.S. will only take out troops if the security situation improves.”

But it was the McMaster- and Mattis-scripted attacks on Pakistan which highlighted the lack of grand strategy thinking or experience in the Administration’s military leadership. CFR’s Max Boot endorsed the allegations — essentially by McMaster and Mattis [and probably White House Chief of Staff Gen. (rtd.) John Kelly, USMC] — that Pakistan was “still supporting the Taliban” insurgent opposition in Afghanistan, a claim which has no evidence. It is a claim made consistently by India in its attempt to drive a wedge into U.S.-Pakistani relations.

Indeed, although U.S. media analysis claimed that the Trump speech was an attempt to push India into doing more to help stabilize Afghanistan, it was, in reality, an Indian-influenced speech designed to give India license to once again intervene in Afghanistan.

Earlier Indian intelligence-led missions there had not, in fact, been aimed at helping to stabilize Afghanistan, but were merely to fund and arm various Pashtun tribal groups to create unrest along, and inside, the Pakistan border with Afghanistan.

A strategy, and particularly a grand strategy, is defined by its goals, and measured by its outcomes. The McMaster-Mattis speech delivered by President Trump defined neither goals nor desired outcomes. It merely promised an open-ended commitment to retain U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Little had changed, then, in the 16 years of U.S. military operations in Afghanistan, other than the fact that (a) troop escalations or reductions would not be announced, and that (b) nation-building in Afghanistan had been abandoned.

It was significant that, when the U.S. went into Afghanistan militarily in the immediate aftermath of the September 11, 2001, Al Qaida terrorist attacks on the U.S., it was to attack Al Qaida. The then-Taliban Government of Afghanistan had given safe-haven to Al Qaida before that group had undertaken to attack the U.S., and there is ample evidence that the Taliban had been angered by the unilateral action of Al Qaida, which had brought the U.S. into military operations in Afghanistan.

The generals’ policy raises questions:

1. Was it not the U.S. which created, or assisted the creation of the Taliban, during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan (1979-1989), and pushed the Pakistan Government and its Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to sustain the Taliban?

2. Was it not the U.S. Government which demanded that the Pakistan Government use its military to break the historically-guaranteed boundaries of the Federally- Administered Tribal Areas (FATAs) of Pakistan in order to find Al Qaida leaders allegedly being given safe-haven there? And, as predicted by Pakistani and British officials, did this demand by the U.S. not lead to the flooding of angry Pashtuns into the mainstream of Pakistan, contributing to the destabilization of the country?

3. Why did the U.S. gradually transform the Taliban in Afghanistan into the “main enemy”? Clearly, the Taliban resisted the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan (and lost power there as a result), essentially transforming the Taliban into “the enemy”. But it remains significant that the Taliban itself has not, like Al Qaida and other jihadist groups, transformed itself into a global movement targeting the U.S.

4. Why is the U.S. in Afghanistan? What is the end-state desired by U.S. policies? Does the U.S. seek to stop Afghanistan being a haven for anti-U.S. terrorists? [And, if so, is it not clear that the past 16 years of operations — now being repeated into the future — have not achieved that goal?] Did the U.S. wish to preserve its post-Cold War entry up into Central Asia where it hoped to capitalize on possible alliances with Central Asian former Soviet states? And if that is the case, has not the past 16 years seen the U.S. position in Central Asia consistently decline?

5. How does the U.S. expect to continue to sustain meaningful military operations in Afghanistan if it alienates Pakistan to the point that it will refuse to allow U.S. transit access? The U.S. suspension of $350-million in “military aid” and purchases to Pakistan in recent months, and the McMaster-Mattis speech by Trump, had resulted, by Aug. 27, 2017, in Pakistan Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif canceling the visit to the country by U.S. Acting Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs Alice Wells. But the Russian and People’s Republic of China governments came to Pakistan’s defense as a result of the U.S. speech.

6. Is it not clear that the PRC’s major overland link to the Indian Ocean and to its African and Middle Eastern resources and markets is via the Karakoram Highway and the port of Gwadar in Pakistan? And that by attacking Pakistan, the U.S. not only loses its logistical access through the country to Afghanistan, it drives Pakistan into consolidating its strategic ties with the PRC? This not only damages the U.S. strategic posture, it also damages India’s chances of ever being able to work with Pakistan to have overland access to the markets and resources of Central Asia.

The questions could continue, but the basic evidence is clear — as President Trump’s instincts told him during his election campaign — that U.S. policies in Afghanistan had failed and that there was no U.S. strategy for the region, other than to avoid highlighting the fact that “American lives had been lost in vain”. The vacuity of the generals’ new Afghanistan policy may hang the Washington generals rather than President Trump.