One year after President Trump announced his administration’s Afghanistan strategy, and as world leaders head to Brussels for this week’s NATO summit, it is about time the president takes a closer look at how to end America’s longest war, as the status quo is simply not working.
Trump is reliably fulfilling his campaign commitments to the American people. He cancelled the disastrous Iran nuclear deal and moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. His strong posture and unconventional approach with North Korea may well succeed in establishing a peace treaty leading to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. For the first time in three generations, this deal might end the need for tens of thousands of American troops in South Korea.
Sadly, last year the president continued the policies of his predecessors after the Pentagon and National Security Council offered him a binary “abandon Afghanistan or send more troops” decision. U.S. troops dying there today were just toddlers when the Twin Towers fell.
Like Vietnam, Afghanistan was never about troop levels; it is about how troops are utilized. After 9/11, a few hundred CIA and Special Operations personnel, backed by airpower and Afghan militias, devastated Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. That effort has since turned into a conventional Pentagon nation-building exercise and gone backward.
Western troop levels have varied from a peak of 140,000 in 2010 to as little as 4,000 in 2015. Yet, according to a recent BBC study, the Afghan government firmly controls less than 30 percent of the country. If the U.S. goal in Afghanistan is to deny terrorists sanctuary, then we—with the most expensive military in human history—are losing to a band of largely illiterate Taliban and ISIS fighters wearing sandals astride motor bikes while armed with improvised weapons.
The Pentagon now classifies the bleak and unsustainable Afghan casualty counts and has defaulted, as in Vietnam, to measuring effort, such as how many bombs were dropped, instead of actual outcomes.
America is a great nation, but it cannot spend blood and treasure endlessly. We plan to spend over $60 billion—more than the U.K.’s total defense spending, or our annual Homeland Security budget—just on our failing Afghanistan effort in 2019 alone. That excludes another $1 trillion in future health care costs for wounded vets.
The failings in Afghanistan don't fall on the shoulders of the American service personnel trying to complete their mission. The failure falls on military leadership unable to adapt to irregular warfare, and a Congress that blindly continues to fund failure. Winston Churchill once lovingly said that Americans “can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.” That time is now.
In Afghanistan, fighting—like politics—is local. Battlefield memory matters. For the last 17 years, the Pentagon deploys units that spend a few months acclimating, then become productive only to be turned over. Experienced personnel return home, many of them never to come back, replaced by new units. The process repeats. Each new unit must deploy, embed, forge relationships and learn the terrain. It’s impossible to effectively transfer that information between transient units. The U.S. has repeated this insanity for over 30 troop rotations, while rotating the top commander in the country 16 times since 2001. That explains much about where we are today. Despite bluster about Pakistan’s enduring Taliban support—and even after Pakistan sheltered Osama bin Laden near that nation’s national military academy—the U.S. is still getting played by Pakistan. We have no real leverage since we’re entirely dependent on the logistic lines crossing that nation, feeding the Pentagon’s expensive footprint in Afghanistan.
The president should immediately change course and implement a Trump Economy of Force using proven and cheaper unconventional warfare methods to defeat the terror malignancy plaguing Afghanistan.
This “Trump Doctrine” would cost less than 10 percent of what the U.S. squanders in Afghanistan now. Utilizing the right blend of Western contracted veterans and Special Forces, it would insert a mentor team into every Afghan ground unit, provide blanket air coverage and ensure process controls are in place to prevent pervasive corruption in Afghan supply and personnel systems. The total manpower requirements will drop to under 16 percent of what is currently in the country. This approach immediately saves American taxpayers over $50 billion per year while ending the 17-year circular loop of a failed strategy
This would not be a private army, but a long-term contracted skeletal support structure for the Afghan security forces, in the exact tradition as the professionals that built the American army in 1776.
By reversing the continued losses of terrain and denying any terror sanctuary, the Trump Doctrine is the only effective way to prevent Afghanistan from becoming an even greater terror haven than it is. The military-industrial complex claims America needs to stay the current course in Afghanistan—perhaps for the same 68 years (and counting) we have been in South Korea. That’s a sad paradigm that only Beltway thinking could embrace. Continuing the failure of the last two decades is both politically and financially irresponsible, and will eventually necessitate a complete withdrawal of U.S. support in Afghanistan—as happened in Vietnam and Iraq when political will evaporated.
To enact this doctrine, the president should appoint a special presidential envoy to unify the authorities of the relevant U.S. departments. This executive would serve like a bankruptcy trustee assigned to reorganize a failing business. This lead federal official would be solely responsible for harmonizing the political, intelligence, military and economic efforts in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Once that step has been taken, conventional DOD and NATO forces will rotate home, leaving a much smaller contractor footprint, and a residual SOCOM presence to ensure unilateral U.S. capability.
This is a Wollman Ice Rink moment for the president, who rightly campaigned on a pledge to end America’s endless wars—especially its longest in history. An approach like this is the only way he can do so responsibly, legally and cost-effectively, while saving the lives of America’s service personnel and hundreds of billions of dollars.
I challenge the inevitable naysayers to offer a better solution.