Can Trump Win America's Never-ending War in Afghanistan?

With Trump expected to announce move to send more troops to confront the Taliban and Al-Qaida, defense expert warns that U.S. is merely 'kicking the can in a circle'

U.S. Marines during an interment ceremony in Arlington National Cemetery's Section 60, which contains the graves of many members of the U.S. military killed in recent conflict in Afghanistan, August 21, 2017.
JOSHUA ROBERTS/REUTERS

In November 2013, Donald Trump – back then a private businessman with unclear political ambitions – wrote on his popular Twitter account: “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Their government has zero appreciation. Let’s get out!”

On Monday night, now as president of the United States, Trump is set to deliver a speech where he is expected to announce the exact opposite of what he advocated in 2013: sending thousands of new U.S. troops into Afghanistan. After 16 years, the war over there has become the longest fought in American history, and no one knows how or when it will end.

In recent months, there has been a fierce internal discussion inside the Trump administration regarding Afghanistan. The president’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, urged the president to pull U.S. troops out of the country and replace them with hired mercenaries. The president’s top security and foreign policy advisers advocated a different path, and pressured Trump to send more troops into the Asian country, in order to make advances in the fight against the Taliban, Al-Qaida and other extremist Islamist forces.

Trump appeared at times closer to accepting Bannon’s suggestion, but last Friday Bannon left the White House and, according to recent reports, by that point Trump had already accepted the policy being promoted by Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster.

Trump has reportedly expressed frustration in recent months over “losing” the war in Afghanistan, and has even considered replacing the top U.S. military general in charge of fighting there. At the time of writing, it is unclear if in his speech Trump will present “victory” as his goal in Afghanistan, or choose a more modest word to describe his strategy.

“If Trump says we can win in Afghanistan, he’s deluding us,” tweeted Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East adviser for Republican and Democratic administrations, who is now vice president for new initiatives at the Washington-based Wilson Center. “Question is not can we win; but when can we leave. Clearly no time soon,” he added.

Bill Roggio, an analyst who writes about Afghanistan as editor of a project called The Long War Journal, told Haaretz that sending thousands of troops into Afghanistan “is a start, but not nearly enough” if the objective is winning – and ending – the war over there. In an article he co-wrote for The Weekly Standard on Monday, Roggio stated that “President Trump deserves credit for making a decision that went against his gut instinct, which told him to get out. In the process, America and its Afghan allies avoided the near-certain catastrophe that would have followed.”

Roggio, who is also a senior fellow at the Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told Haaretz that while he believes it is necessary to take further steps beyond what the president is expected to announce on Monday night, “it’s not politically viable at this time.” According to numerous polls, public opinion has turned against more involvement in Afghanistan.

However, Roggio says that if Monday’s expected addition of troops will lead to a better situation on the ground in Afghanistan, perhaps that would make it possible to push for a more aggressive strategy.

“I understand why people are tired, but I think it’s important to explain to the American public why this is a war that has to be fought,” said Roggio. In his article, he highlighted a number of policy priorities he believes the administration should make, chief among them to “stop underestimating Al-Qaida” and “forget about a grand bargain with the Taliban’s senior leadership.”

On the second point, Roggio wrote: “Many officials in the U.S. government think the only way the Afghan war ends is by negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban. There’s just one problem: The Taliban has never shown any real interest in peace. The U.S. and the Afghan government can and should attempt to peel away mid- to low-level Taliban fighters and commanders. But the idea that a grand bargain can be had with the Taliban has never been rooted in reality.”

A U.S. Army soldier with Charlie Company, 36th Infantry Regiment, 1st Armored Division blowing a bubble with his chewing gum during a mission near Command Outpost Pa'in Kalay in Maiwand District, Kandahar Province in 2013.
ANDREW BURTON/REUTERS

Christopher Kolenda, a former senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Department of Defense, told Haaretz that he believes the president “was presented with two bad choices” – increasing the military presence in Afghanistan (the position advocated by Mattis and McMaster); or withdrawing from the country and sending hired mercenaries to replace U.S. forces over there (Bannon’s position).

According to Kolenda, who served four tours in Afghanistan and took part in the writing of a special report on the war there with Gen. (ret.) Stanley McChrystal, the best policy for the administration would be trying to set up a peace process between some of the different actors in Afghanistan, including the Taliban, and the region.

“Neither side is going to win an outright victory in this war. The question is, can we begin a peace process that will serve our national interest and honor the sacrifice of Americans and Afghans who have fought for Afghanistan?”

Kolenda says he does not think a “peace deal” can be immediately achieved, but that beginning a peace process aimed at achieving a favorable and durable one could create better circumstances on the ground.

“Right now, we’re kicking the can in a circle,” he said, explaining that “this is not even kicking a can down the road, which at least means you’re moving forward. We’re doing the same thing time after time, and each time we’re expecting to get a different result.”

In response to a question on whether there is any point in talking to a violent Islamist group like the Taliban – which has been America’s enemy since the outbreak of the war and has a long history of terrorism and terror links – Kolenda said that “Al-Qaida is the real enemy. We need to differentiate between an insurgency and terror organizations that have no local governing ambitions.”

He added that there are strains between some parts of the Taliban and Al-Qaida. “People in the Taliban blame Al-Qaida for causing the American invasion in 2001 which brought down their government.”

Kolenda said that in order for such a peace process to have any success, there has to be a third party mediator involved. He suggested Norway – which has played the “mediator” role in different conflicts before, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – as a possible mediator, as well as large Muslim countries like Indonesia or Malaysia.

Kolenda added that he will look for hints of any diplomatic opening in Trump’s speech on Monday, but “I doubt there will be one. It seems like their policy right now is fixated on putting more military pressure and forcing the Taliban to sue for peace. We had 140,000 troops there in 2010-11, and it didn’t force the Taliban to seek peace.

“Some people will always say, ‘Maybe this time it will be different’ – but I’m skeptical.”