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Finding a way out of Afghanistan
At a time of tremendous frustration, one of the most daunting and unwelcome challenges facing the Trump administration is the war in Afghanistan.
President Obama won an election he could have lost as a direct result of campaigning on what appeared to be victory in that conflict, with Osama bin Laden dead and troop levels on track to draw down. As it happened, the Taliban and al-Qaida had different ideas. The war worsened again and Obama handed it off to the new administration.
With no clear way to exit the conflict or win, Trump’s divided team must settle on a mix of tactics that can create new possibilities without taking on unsupportable costs or risks.
It’s not yet apparent that the White House has figured out how to do this.
On one side of the policymaking process, Trump’s generals, Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, are conducting a review of the situation that is expected, but not certain, to result in a recommendation of deploying several thousand more troops to Afghanistan.
On the other, Trump’s adviser Stephen Bannon has, so far unsuccessfully, pushed the generals to consider a strategic shift away from direct military escalation and toward the use of contracted security — a creative but potentially troublesome option, since it would rely on paid firepower furnished by at least some professionals who are not American citizens.
For now, it’s anyone’s guess as to how Trump will respond.
But whatever the review’s final recommendation, and whatever influence on the president Bannon and his anti-nation-building constituency may have, U.S. warfighting policy in Afghanistan will have to shake things up in a carefully considered way.
The old Bush-era approach of “clear, hold and build” may have earned hard-won gains late in the game in Iraq, but the Afghan battle space, adjacent to both Iran and Pakistan, probably makes it too hard to simply port over that method at an attractive cost and with sufficiently demonstrable results.
On the other hand, flowing in a very large number of troops would strain the confidence of the American people, Republicans included, well beyond a prudent point.
Yet turning to privately contracted security forces, which might give the United States a real shot at extricating itself from the “endless” war, would also dismay too many Americans, who share just too little experience running that kind of playbook, and whose vision of “mercenary” forces does not comport with the expectations of honor and patriotism that are still extended by U.S. citizens to their armed forces.
With no one approach showing enough promise, and no moon-shot options waiting to be discovered, the Trump administration does not have much choice beyond testing out combinations of personnel and tactics.
Awkward or kludgy as that may promise to feel, there’s also something oddly American about it, reminiscent of the improvisational approach to crisis forced onto the Houston team that rescued the astronauts of the Apollo 13 mission.
Obviously, few Americans will be in any mood to romanticize what amounts to a trial-and-error approach in Afghanistan today. But many may well recognize in the necessity of that approach the need for a newly sober and focused commitment to finding our way out of the mess once and for all.
Orange County Register, Aug. 1, 2017