The Afghan war is approaching its 17th year with no end in sight. Now The New York Times reports that the Trump administration is looking into a new reason to stay in Afghanistan: the exploitation of the country's mineral resources.
Last month President Donald Trump authorized the Pentagon to increase troop levels in Afghanistan but, as the Times notes, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has not yet acted on that authorization, "perhaps reflecting his recognition that the commander in chief is uncomfortable with it."
The possibility of mining should not comfort Trump. In 2010, U.S. officials estimated the value of Afghanistan's unexploited mineral deposits at $1 trillion. But as the security situation deteriorated significantly, the price of the commodities involved has sunk.
The Afghan government only became open to the possibility of the U.S. exploiting mineral resources after Trump took office. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani reportedly talked mining with Trump in one of their first conversations. Ghani supposedly changed his mind because he realized Trump would be "intrigued by the commercial possibilities," as the Times put it.
But the Obama administration was intrigued by those possibilities too. It's far more likely that Ghani changed his mind out of fear that Trump might otherwise pull out of his country.
Ghani's government relies on an international military presence for its continued existence, but such a dependence does nothing to foster his regime's self-sufficiency. Indeed, it lessens the incentive for his government to improve its security forces or otherwise act to strengthen its position. It's no surprise Afghan security and intelligence agencies are failing when they can lean on the U.S. instead.
If this newfound interest in mineral exploitation is a sign that the Afghan government believes the U.S. might actually leave the country, America's best option is to use that momentum to encourage the Afghan government to take its stability and security into its own hands. To that end, Washington should try to negotiate a speedy and complete withdrawal.
Asked last week about a potential troop surge in Afghanistan, Trump said "we'll see" before adding that ISIS was "falling fast." The presence of ISIS in Afghanistan has been one of the most recent justifications for maintaining the U.S. military presence there.
When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 as a response to the September 11 terrorist attacks attributed to Al-Qaeda, based at the time in Afghanistan, the country was virtually the only terrorist safe haven in the world. After 16 years of the war on terror, such safe havens have proliferated. Continuing the same policy of endless war will only lead to more of the same.