August 26, 2017–The next presidential election in the United States will occur in four years. The young Marine or GI deplaning at Bagram base then, beginning his first tour in the war, will not have been born yet when the American war in Afghanistan began. That is, assuming the U.S. war effort will not yet, by 2020, have gone down in flames. The predilection of American generals for dated and inadequate strategic formulas–which some officers even recognize as such–is one root of disaster. Another is the monumental arrogance and incompetence of a president who is simultaneously frozen in the face of decision and convinced his strategy–spoon-fed by tiny-minded generals–is the most brilliant ever. All of this is a recipe for endless anguish. And a load of tripe.
You’ll have read in a dozen places already that the United States has little reason to believe it can do with 8,400 troops in-country what it could not when there were 100,000 in Afghanistan. That’s whether or not Trump sends another 4,000–or any other number. Let’s review: When there were a hundred thousand, American troops were conducting their own offensive operations, Special Operations Forces (SOF) put a cap on the effort by targeting the enemy leadership, development programs helped win Afghan favor by building clinics, schools and the like, and there was a reasonably coherent Afghan government–one we perhaps frowned upon, but which actually had a writ that extended past Kabul’s city limits. Besides that, the Taliban enemy had been reduced to a fraction of its former strength. None of those factors applies today.
In Afghanistan today there are no U.S. operations apart from SOF’s special ones. The Afghan military is in the lead but except for their own SOF they don’t fight. Regular troops and national police hold static positions like outposts and checkpoints that merely make them clay pigeons. Recent Taliban and Afghan ISIS strikes in major national army bases, regional headquarters, and even the heart of the government quarter in Kabul, demonstrate that the static security approach is bankrupt. Depending on who you speak to the Taliban control between 50 and 60 percent of the country. Afghan police are suffering their greatest losses ever, while the military has suddenly decided its casualty figures are classified. The latest Afghan reform plan is to expand their SOF from 27,000 to much larger. That is not likely to work either–Afghan SOF constitute a very high proportion of the total force structure and cannot be much expanded without diluting their quality. Moreover, since they are already the general reserve called upon in every emergency, their offensive capability will only be restored within a context in which their effectiveness has diminished.
One American response, one particularly attractive to the CIA, was to work in Afghan localities with local militias and leaders who could call on their followers. While this has produced more troops to staff checkpoints it has not increased government’s overall capability, and has indeed increased the centrifugal forces tearing the country apart. The Afghan president is feuding with his vice-president. Another vice-, a communist general from the 80s, and other muslim warlords from that era, are all reasserting their authority. Indeed, Afghanistan today resembles nothing so much as the warlord state that existed after the collapse of communist rule in the country. Corruption is rampant, eating up the aid that is aimed at helping the nation. General H. R. McMaster, now Trump’s national security adviser, ran an anti-corruption campaign in his most recent tour of Afghan duty. He saw up close and personal the depth of corruption and disintegration of the government. Now the Trump strategy–of which McMaster is an architect–assumes a stable Afghan government. McMaster even sided with other military chiefs this past July in shooting down a different strategic approach which did not make that assumption. Hal McMaster charged an earlier generation of U.S. generals with dereliction of duty for not speaking the truth to Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam war. Here you see McMaster doing the same thing for Donald J. Trump. I call him “Appropriate Dereliction” McMaster. He has decided dereliction of duty is a good thing.
Other generals were responsible for convincing President Barack Obama to shift from a stance of steady withdrawal to one of determining the course of action by looking at the state of the war. The Taliban were worn down then, but they were reforged in the heat and darkness and have re-emerged stronger than ever. Chasing their heels are an even fiercer Afghan ISIS. The Russians, sensing an opportunity for payback from the CIA covert operation in the 1980s, are moving to help them. The Chinese seem to be headed in that direction too. The role of Pakistan–on which the U.S. defends, but which Trump has threatened–is cloudy. If war conditions dictate action this is a formula for conflict without end. That is why our 18-year old GI will be arriving at Bagram in 2020. Donald Trump explicitly promised a U.S. victory, and he said that America will attack. Under the prevailing conditions there might be a broken-backed attack but there will be no victory.