How easy it is to shout “common sense” on Twitter – and how difficult it is to make decisions “when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office”. Something any adult person in public life could have told you, but still seems to have come as surprise to President Trump.
It turns out Afghanistan is not amenable to simple solutions like withdrawing and leaving the Kabul government at the mercy of the Taliban, after all. What is a pleasant surprise however is that not even the Trump administration is willing to pay the price of such simple-minded and superficially populist policy.
Viewing the world from “behind the desk in the Oval Office” comes with the benefit of having the best intelligence about what happens just about anywhere in the world. But sitting behind that desk comes with the burden of having to make responsible decisions based on knowledge that you cannot share with your democratic public. Or just knowledge that your electoral base simply does not care to delve on.
Fortunately, the White House somehow managed to make a decision in the national interest of the United States, and in the security interest of all of its allies, despite the fact that this will play badly with Trump’s base. And so Trump has had to do what he criticized Obama for. Despite promising that he would get us out of this failed war, just as Obama had promised during his initial presidential run, he has increased troop numbers by 4,000.
If there is one thing that the most powerful army in history can do, it is to destroy things, overthrow governments and kill enemy leadersDr. Azeem Ibrahim
And let us not mince words. The Afghan war is a failure. The original aim of the war was to remove the Taliban from power for having harboured and aided al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden both before 9/11 and after. In that, America and its allies succeeded. If there is one thing that the most powerful army in history can do, it is to destroy things, overthrow governments and kill enemy leaders.
What it cannot seem to do, what it has failed to do consistently since at least the 90s, is to win the peace. 16 years of brutal war later, Afghanistan still has not been persuaded to accept the peace and the political order desired by Washington. And half of the country continues to be under Taliban control.
The Western-backed government in Kabul still cannot sit on its own feet. And the United States will, by the looks of it, have to sustain that government in power through its own blood and coin for as far as we can see into the future. The United States is committed to be the military guarantor of Kabul in perpetuity.
And yet, there is no better option. We have already seen a sizeable expansion into Afghanistan of ISIS. Things are only likely to get worse as the last remnants of ISIS in Syria are dispersed. The Taliban are just as likely to fight ISIS incursions as the Western-backed forces for the time being, but this is circumstantial.
Back to square one
If ISIS forces could be directed by the Taliban outward, say, toward targeting Western interests, there is no reason why a Taliban -dominated Afghanistan would not harbour ISIS in the same way they harboured al-Qaeda in the 90s. If we left the Kabul government to its own fate, we would soon be back to square one. It would be absurd for us to trust the Taliban with our medium to long-term interests.
Trying to overpower the Taliban again, like we have done during the “surge”, is likely to fail for the same reason it failed last time: the Taliban are an integral part of rural Afghan society. Every time you kill a Taliban fighter you kill someone’s brother, or father, and you have just recruited another Taliban fighter. It is neither sensible, nor desirable to wage war against a society like that.
So the only alternative left, the only way to protect American and Western interests and lives by preventing Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist haven once again, is to do what we are doing now: maintain a force in the country to sustain the Kabul government and destroy ISIS and other militant groups, and manage a slow and painful low-level conflict of attrition with the Taleban.
This is not a ‘solution’. And it is deeply offensive to our natural preconception that wars are fought to be won, and that conflicts like this need resolution. There will continue to be loss of lives on both sides, and unfortunately, some of those lives will be civilian lives. But as Colin Powell famously said of Iraq, “if you break it, you own it”.
And though Afghanistan was a mess before America invaded, America owns the ways in which Afghanistan is broken now. And America cannot fix it. The only thing it can do is continue to pay the maintenance costs.
Azeem Ibrahim is Senior Fellow at the Centre for Global Policy and Adj Research Professor at the Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College. He completed his PhD from the University of Cambridge and served as an International Security Fellow at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and a World Fellow at Yale. Over the years he has met and advised numerous world leaders on policy development and was ranked as a Top 100 Global Thinker by the European Social Think Tank in 2010 and a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum. He tweets @AzeemIbrahim.