The current US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, recently advised Gen. James Mattis, Secretary of Defense, that he needed several thousand more troops to enhance the training of Afghani troops. The speculation is that troop levels will increase to somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000. President Trump will almost assuredly comply with any request from his defense secretary.
The idea that America will disengage from Afghanistan any time in the near future is wishful thinking. In light of the fact that President Trump will almost assuredly comply with Mattis’s request, whether he should, or, whether we should have gone there in the first place, are moot points.
It is worthwhile, however, to consider the events that led to our initial invasion and how those events have affected and are still affecting our mission there. Understanding these events may provide the key to our way forward in terms of our relationship with, and responsibility to, Afghanistan and its people.
Any discussion along these lines must begin with the historically, strategic importance of Afghanistan to the world. All the major powers, including the United States, have longed for influence in that region — some out of fear that their adversaries would gain such leverage, and other simply as a conduit for commerce.
Pakistan, as recently as President Benazir Bhutto’s administration, wanted to assure the ability of commerce to move back and forth through Afghanistan. Russia and England, of course, have battled for control of the country as a strategic defensive buffer. The British learned fairly early that the idea of controlling Afghanistan was a bad one. It took Russia a little longer, but they, too, came to a similar conclusion. The United States, to its credit, has never desired to control the country as much as it has desired to give the Afghan government the ability to control itself. We may have gone about this a bit clumsily, but our intentions have, for the most part, been altruistic in nature.
The mistake we made initially was assuming the people of Afghanistan wanted what we have. That being the key to our efforts, we set about force-feeding them. Our military leaders have pretty much always understood this was a misguided assumption, but, as is far too often the case, they have been overruled by politicians.
These errors in judgement have allowed the Taliban to reemerge as a powerful force. The Obama administration even tried to pressure the Afghan government into recognizing the Taliban as a legitimate political party.
The mistakes made by America and its NATO allies have also allowed Russia to subtly and benignly seep back into the country. Russian officials have reestablished a role for themselves as providing vital infrastructure expertise and support, since most of the equipment currently used to supply the needs of the country came from Russia, and Russian engineers are most capable of maintaining it. Russia has also negotiated agreements with the government to play key roles in narcotics intervention and control. Additionally, analysts agree Russia is secretly supporting and providing weapons to the Taliban, which is led, ironically, by many former enemies of Russia.
It is worthwhile to recall the supporting roles played by the major powers following the Russian retreat from Afghanistan. The country’s leadership fell into the hands of one of two factions which had up to that point pooled efforts to defeat the Russians, but were now battling each other for control of the country. The Islamist hardliners, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the more moderate Tajik and Uzbek forces led by the likes of Shah Masood and Rashid Dostom, both rushed headlong into the capitol to be the first to fill the void left by the abdication of Najibulah, the Russian backed communist leader.
While the Russians were still licking their wounds, the Saudis and Pakistan ISI intelligence were backing Hekmatyar. America, meanwhile, was arguing over what to do, but secretly rooting for the moderates. The confusion and chaos provided a fertile atmosphere for the rise of the Taliban in the south and east. Massod took control of the government, but he and his forces were later routed by the Taliban.
America entered the scene following 9/11 to capture/kill Usama Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda followers. After the retreat of Al Qaeda and an American-supported Northern Alliance defeat of the Taliban, American forces settled into a role of training and supporting Afghan military forces. For the past 15 years, America’s military mission has been to help the Afghan government become a force which could consistently control and/or defeat the Taliban insurgency with little or no outside assistance or support. Unfortunately, this effort has been hampered and confused by politicians in our own government, many at the highest levels who have urged diplomacy and negotiations and, even, official recognition of the Taliban. The mixed message has demoralized the Afghan army, especially at the NCO level and below.
Many of these aforementioned politicians have never been to Afghanistan, and few of them understand that, to the typical Afghan citizen, the Taliban is an enemy to be feared and shunned; not a potential partner in government. The typical Afghan understands very well that the leaders of the Taliban philosophically and ideologically are not interested in sharing power. When the Taliban was strengthening in the early 90’s, UNOCAL oil and gas officials announced to the Taliban leadership they wanted to build a pipeline from Turkmenistan through Afghanistan to Pakistan, bringing immense wealth to the region. They simply needed the Taliban to negotiate a peace agreement and a shared governance with Ahmad Shah Masood. The Taliban’s response: “No! We want to dominate.”
Their religiously driven goal is to dominate and rule the entire country under the extremes of Sharia law. There has never been, and will never be, within the leadership structure of the Taliban, the slightest appetite for negotiations or shared rule. Their objectives are founded in religious mandates. And as such, there is no consideration for compromise.
Most military leaders, including President Trump’s new National Security Advisor, director Gen. H.R. McMasters, understand the Taliban must be totally defeated or diminished to a level from which they cannot reemerge. These leaders also know such an effort will take a recommitment of forces and a visible determination; a determination that can be seen, adopted and replicated by forces of the Afghan army. Such an effort will also require commitment at the highest levels of our government. President Trump is signaling that he is willing to commit to this, and is willing to allow his military commanders on the ground the freedom and support to accomplish this mission.
The military leaders who have been selected by President Trump, Secretary of Defense former Gen. James Mattis, McMaster, along with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, all understand defeating an enemy takes swift committed action that produces “shock and awe” among the ranks of the enemy. The Taliban cannot be defeated with half measures, and these men know that better than anyone.
President Trump may not completely understand this, but he has complete faith in the judgement of these leaders, and all indications are he will give them full support and a full “free reign.” America should prepare itself for swift and assertive action.
The irony is that battle-hardened fighters among the ranks of the Taliban also understand and respect this type of fully embraced warfare. Once they see the commitment and resolve of a new command in Afghanistan, they will retreat and likely become disorganized.
Decisive action in Afghanistan will also end any plans for an Islamic State foothold, and will serve as a warning to young jihadists around the world that they are now up against a committed enemy.
President Trump would, additionally, be wise to send the message that America has no plans to leave Afghanistan. Grounded intelligence data from Islamists and Jihadists across the Middle East indicated a clear bolstering of morale and a strengthening of commitment two years ago when President Obama announced our imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan. A corresponding decrease in morale and commitment would be seen the moment we assure our allies and our enemies we have no intention of leaving. From his actions and his words, President Trump has signaled he is willing to send such a message.
As actor Al Pacino said in "The Godfather" movie series, “just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in.”
The difference this time is we just may be pulled back in with a whole new agenda, and a whole new attitude about who’s in charge.
Contributing Writer Dr.Godfrey Garner is a veteran special operations counterintelligence officer who retired from US Special Forces in 2006. He served two military tours and six civilian government related tours in Afghanistan. His work there most recently was as a counter-corruption analyst. Garner is author of, Danny Kane and the Hunt for Mullah Omar, and, The Balance of Exodus. Also read Garner and Stephen C. McCraney’s recent exclusive report, New Research Project Aims to Identify Those ‘At-Risk’ to Succumbing to the Message of Islamic Extremism and Recruitment.