Seven months after Barack Obama took office in 2009, he received a grim report from the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, warning that additional American troops were necessary to avert mission failure. Obama was unhappy with this recommendation but felt boxed in by the military, and ultimately wound up tripling U.S. forces to 100,000 while imposing a strict deadline on their departure. By the time that Obama left office last month, the U.S. had only 8,400 or so troops left in Afghanistan. (Allies contribute another 4,000 or so.)
So it is that Gen. John “Mick” Nicholson, the current U.S. military commander in Kabul, told the Senate this week that he needs several thousand more troops to stop a stalemated situation from going south. Sen. John McCain suggested that instead of just settling for more gridlock—for playing “not to lose”—the U.S. needs to implement a more aggressive strategy to drive back and defeat the Taliban.
How President Trump will rule on Gen. Nicholson’s request is anyone’s guess given that, amid the plethora of words that the president has devoted to other topics (including Nordstrom’s decision to discontinue his daughter’s product line), he has had little to say on the future of Afghanistan even though that country remains one of the two major combat deployments still ongoing for U.S. troops. If I had to hazard a guess, I would venture that the White House, at the urging of Gen. Michael Flynn, the national security adviser who was previously the J-2 (intelligence officer) in Afghanistan, will approve Nicholson’s request but not go much beyond that.
If so, that would not allow Nicholson to pursue the strategy that McCain urges, of trying to defeat the Taliban. The problem with attempting to do so is that it would require another major troop surge similar to the one in 2009-2010—but one that will be hard to explain to the American people, who will understandably wonder why the earlier surge did not produce more lasting consequences.
The answer is because of Obama’s self-defeating timeline, which forced U.S. troops to leave Afghan forces prematurely on their own in hard-fought districts where they were unable to preserve earlier gains. Having sacrificed momentum with his overly precipitous exit strategy, Obama has allowed the Taliban to regain lost ground across much of southern Afghanistan. Dislodging the insurgents again will require returning to square one—something that few Americans will have the patience for.
So in all likelihood the Trump administration will continue to muddle along, trying not to lose rather than attempting to secure a victory. That may not be very satisfying, but under the circumstances it may be the best we can hope for. Allowing Afghanistan to fall to the Taliban would be a dispiriting defeat at the hands of what Trump calls “radical Islamic terrorists,” but trying to defeat those insurgents entirely may require more resources than we are willing to commit—especially when the Taliban continue to enjoy cross-border support in Pakistan.
It is commonly if erroneously said that in an insurgency all the insurgents need to do is to avoid losing. The opposite is more nearly the case, given that the government remains in power as long as it does not lose, while the insurgents are typically confined—as they are in Afghanistan—to the hinterland. Only if the Taliban continue to grow in power will they pose an existential threat to the state, but the commitment of more U.S. advisers to work closely with the Afghan army, combined with more permissive rules on the use of American airpower which have already been approved by Obama, should be sufficient to prevent that from occurring.
The cost of this strategy is, of course, that U.S. troops could wind up remaining in Afghanistan for decades. That is clearly an unsatisfactory state of affairs, but it is preferable to the alternative—which would be seeing the Taliban and their Al Qaeda and Haqqani friends returning to power in Kabul.