Donald Trump has unveiled his new strategy for our war in Afghanistan: more of the same. Under the cover of characteristically bombastic rhetoric promising victory, Trump is staying the course left by Obama. Trump’s announcement has been widely criticized in the mainstream media for failing to articulate a real strategy: What would “victory” look like and how would it be achieved? What role is diplomacy to play, beyond vague threats to Pakistan and vague openings to India? Is our commitment to Afghanistan open-ended? But let’s be fair: Trump doesn’t have answers to these questions because nobody does. I can’t argue with calls from the anti-war left for a more robust diplomatic effort, but it’s hard to imagine a diplomatic solution reconciling the conflicting objectives of all the outside parties—Pakistan, India, China, Russia, the United States, and Iran—together with, let’s not forget, the various Afghan factions. I haven’t seen anyone suggest what such a solution would look like.
Basically, there are two options in Afghanistan: stay the course or get out. Reasonable arguments can be made for both.
The argument for getting out is simple and clear. The US hasn’t made any durable progress in Afghanistan in 16 years, on either the military or the political fronts. Corruption in both the government and military remains endemic. We haven’t been able to build a coherent and capable Afghan state and military, and there is literally no reason to believe that this will change. The US presence just continues to put American lives at risk, at a considerable dollar cost, for a fruitless open-ended commitment. All we have for it is wishful thinking—the hope or wish that somehow, at some point, things will get better. How long will it take—another 16 years? 32 years?—before we decide enough is enough?
The main argument for staying the course is that an American departure would leave most of Afghanistan in the hands of the Taliban, who might again provide a sanctuary for terrorists plotting against the West, including the US. Taliban rule would also very probably be worse for the people of Afghanistan. (These are the valid arguments for staying in. There are also unsound arguments, for example the idea that we can’t leave now, after having already committed so much blood and treasure to Afghanistan. Every student of finance knows that sunk costs—in this case blood and treasure—should not be considered in assessing the future viability of a project.)
I lean toward the option of getting out. I say “lean to” because I do worry that Taliban rule–or just as bad, a failed state–in Afghanistan, would facilitate terrorist activities. But I’m not so sure that that would make a big difference in our vulnerability to terrorism. As Harvard political scientist Stephen Walt pointed out years ago,
…Al Qaeda doesn’t need lots of territory or elaborate bases to plot attacks and other conspiracies; all it needs are safe houses in various parts of the world and a supply of potential martyrs. Al Qaeda clones already exist in Yemen, Somalia and elsewhere; so denying its founders a “safe haven” in Afghanistan will not make that network less lethal. If Al Qaeda is our main concern, fighting in Afghanistan is increasingly a distraction.… [A] backward and landlocked country like Afghanistan is a poor location from which to attack the United States, which is why the 9/11 plot was conducted out of Hamburg, Germany.”
Of course, what goes for Al Qaeda goes equally for ISIS.
So, on balance, I think the preferable course is to get out. But such a course would amount to an admission of failure—something that doesn’t come easily to generals or to politicians. Trump cares above all about winning, and very likely his generals convinced him that he would look like a loser if we got out. The losers, instead, will be American soldiers and taxpayers.