The New York Times, 22-08-2017, door Max Boot (Council on Foreign
The Opinion Pages | Op-Ed Contributor
Back to Nation-Building in Afghanistan. Good.
After a torturous and protracted White House review, President Trump
unveiled what was billed as a new Afghanistan policy on Monday night. But what
exactly was new?
There were two significant departures from the Obama
administration’s policy. First, Mr. Trump rejected a timeline for withdrawal:
“Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy
from now on.” Second, the president gave up any hope, admittedly slim, of
successful peace talks with the Taliban: “Someday, after an effective military
effort, perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes
elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan. But nobody knows if or when that will
This is an overdue recognition that an unseemly rush to the
exits and an overeagerness for peace talks defeat the United States’ objectives
in Afghanistan by convincing the Taliban that we lack the will to prevail and
will soon be gone. But on a deeper level, there was far more continuity than
change — not least in Mr. Trump’s denial that he is engaged in nation-building
when he is doing precisely that.
Here is President Barack Obama, on June
22, 2011, announcing the withdrawal of 33,000 troops from Afghanistan: “America,
it is time to focus on nation-building here at home.” And here is President
Trump on Monday, announcing the dispatch of more troops to Afghanistan: “We are
not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.”
But when I
visited Afghanistan a few days ago, traveling with Gen. Joseph L. Votel, the
chief of the United States Central Command, all the briefings I received from
American officials were about nation-building. Admittedly, no one used that term
— the preferred euphemisms are “capacity building,” “enabling” and “working by,
through and with.” But the intent is the same: to create Afghan government
institutions that can overcome the threats from the Taliban, the Haqqani
network, the Islamic State, Al Qaeda and other Islamist terrorist groups active
in that country.
The United States really has no alternatives. It is
willing neither to abandon Afghanistan, that way allowing it once again to
become a safe haven for transnational terrorists, nor to put the entire combat
mission on the backs of United States forces, an effort that would call for the
deployment of hundreds of thousands of troops.
Some, like former Vice
President Joseph R. Biden Jr., have argued for a narrowly focused
counterterrorist mission with a small number of Special Operations forces. But
that model was discredited by recent history in Yemen, where the collapse of the
central government forced the withdrawal of American Special Operations forces.
No counterterrorist operation can be effective in a chaotic and lawless
environment where insurgents control a significant proportion of the country.
The only conceivable path to success lies in fostering stable and
effective institutions of government that can police their own territory with
diminishing amounts of outside assistance. In other words, nation-building.
And that is what United States forces are trying to do in Afghanistan,
albeit with insufficient resources and support from Washington, where successive
presidents have insisted on defining the mission in narrowly counterterrorist
terms. The easiest — though far from easy — nation-building efforts are focused
on building up the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces.
regular police and army have been disappointing. The police are corrupt and
ineffective, while the army is intent on staying in fixed positions rather than
taking the fight to the enemy. The biggest success has been the Afghan Special
Operations forces: Despite making up only 7 percent of the military, they have
taken the lead in nearly three-quarters of offensive operations.
international coalition is planning to increase the size of the Afghan Special
Operations forces to 30,000 personnel (from about 21,000) — and on Aug. 20, I
attended a ceremony at Camp Morehead, southeast of Kabul, to mark the creation
of a new corps. The hope is that this larger force, assisted by American
advisers and airpower, will be able to take ground from the insurgents that
currently control or contest territory where 40 percent of the country’s
The regular army will be the “hold” force, while the
police move from paramilitary duties to regular civilian policing. The coalition
is also pouring significant resources into the Afghan Air Force. By 2021, the
Afghan Air Force should be able to take over most of the air-support role now
played by the United States and allied air forces.
forces do not exist in a vacuum; it will be necessary also to reduce corruption
in the Afghan government and increase its capacity for effective action. This
has proved to be a far more difficult task, with an administration often
seemingly paralyzed by infighting between President Ashraf Ghani and the chief
executive, Abdullah Abdullah. Northern warlords, meanwhile, have engaged in open
Officials in Kabul do, however, report a modest thaw in the
Ghani-Abdullah feud, which has allowed them to agree on reformers to lead the
defense and interior ministries. More important, Mr. Ghani has made headway
against the corruption that has served as a potent recruiting tool for the
Taliban, thanks to several successful prosecutions of senior officials by the
country’s crusading attorney general, Farid Hamidi.
The United States
will never achieve any lasting success in Afghanistan unless it can prevail in
the inglorious and frustrating business of making Afghanistan’s government work
better. These efforts have never received the same level of backing from
Washington that combat operations have. The American military has had to take
the lead in expanding the Afghan government’s capacity because our civilian
agencies have been ineffectual.
Mr. Trump must direct the United States
government to do this job better. That is nation-building, but as long as he
does it, the president can just call it a “win.”
(@MaxBoot) is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author
of the forthcoming book “The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the American
Tragedy in Vietnam.”
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