Trump Isn't Winning in Afghanistan
He's repeating the mistakes of Bush and Obama
The Trump administration is optimistic about Afghanistan. Since the president a year ago introduced his plan—putting more U.S. boots on the ground and committing to our fifth round of re-entrenchment in America's longest war—the conflict has been punctuated by a key milestone: its first ceasefire since 2001.
That brief pause in hostilities "really unleashed the Afghan people's desire for peace and an end to violence," Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters from Kabul last week. "I believe [Trump's] strategy is working," he continued. "So, the strategy was announced about a year ago. Within six months, we had two peace offers on the table."
But the Pentagon's own assessments of Afghanistan are bleaker.
As Foreign Policy summarizes in a new report, recent months have seen the "Taliban maintain their grip on much of the country, and the civilian death toll has reached a record high." The Afghan branch of the Islamic State remains active and has executed high-profile attacks on civilian targets. And the Taliban "are using the rural terrain to conduct attacks within major urban areas," undermining tactical gains that were expected to accrue from denying them city bases.
The Pentagon report tactfully suggests it is "difficult to fully assess the overall progress under the [administration's] strategy." A more trenchant observer would conclude President Trump's escalation in Afghanistan, like the four ordered by presidents before him, has failed. It is not making Afghanistan more stable. It is not routing out terrorism or raising ordinary Afghans' quality of life.
This is not surprising, because though he framed it as innovation, President Trump's Afghanistan strategy was always more of the same. He doubled down on what Washington has been doing in Afghanistan for 17 years—in the words of military historian Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, "pursuing the bad guys, trying to create Afghan forces and an Afghan government that demonstrate a modicum of competence; seeking to curb corruption and opium production; imploring Pakistan to stop making mischief; hoping that the Taliban and other anti-government forces will tire of the struggle and lay down their arms." That approach, Bacevich adds, "hasn't worked so far, indeed, hasn't come close." It won't start working now, and saying the contrary doesn't make it true.
And yet Nicholson is right that an opportunity for peace exists. Where he is wrong—and dangerously so—is about its cause. To the extent that there is an opening to move Afghanistan toward some semblance of stability, it is not to be credited to the Trump administration's bombs. Credit is due to Trump's willingness to talk.
Nicholson's own words point in this direction. Under Trump, the "U.S. is prepared to work with the parties to reach a peace agreement and political settlement to bring a permanent end to the war," he said in Kabul. "At the end of the day, any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and the Afghan government. This must be an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, with Afghans talking to Afghans. And the U.S. is prepared to support, facilitate, and participate in these discussions."
This is exactly right, and it is this, not the inevitably futile military escalation, that has created a possibility of progress in Afghanistan. Diplomacy—difficult and tedious though it will be—is the sole viable option to bring a desperately needed end to this conflict.
Rather than fiddling with troop levels and repeating reckless errors of the past in a vain attempt to win an unwinnable war, the United States' chief occupation in Afghanistan now must be negotiating for peace.