On August 21, President Donald J. Trump did something unusual: he reversed himself. For years he was of the view, as he put it in a tweet in November 2013, that “we have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan…Let’s get out!” But this summer, he decided not only to keep the United States engaged in Afghanistan but to double down on that engagement. Troop levels were raised modestly; importantly, Trump promised that American troops would stay in Afghanistan for as long as they were needed to secure victory, a word he used four times in his carefully scripted 2,900-word statement.
In part, Trump’s change of mind appears driven by the sunk-costs dynamic that extends so many long conflicts: the idea that pulling out of a war before final victory after so many lives have been lost would dishonour the memory of those who died. As the President put it, his new policy was intended to “honor the sacrifice of every fallen hero, every family who lost a loved one, and every wounded warrior who shed their blood in defense of our great nation.”
But the new Trump policy also appears to be driven by a recognition that none of the other options tried by those who were involved in the past in Afghanistan has produced a workable end result. The massive force levels tried by the Soviet Union in the 1980s did not work; the unilateral withdrawal of Soviet forces in the early 1990s did not work; NATO’s efforts at nation building with a light military footprint in the 2000s did not work; and the setting of a deadline for NATO’s withdrawal definitely did not work, since it merely provided the insurgents and their supporters in other countries with a clear incentive to just wait NATO out.
While the new Trump policy might be the best of a set of bad options, it has one major flaw: it ignores other countries. This is perhaps not surprising, given that Trump’s “America First” ideology seems to blind him to the realities of world politics. However, there are a number of other countries that have a deep interest in who controls Afghanistan (or doesn’t, as the case may be): regional neighbours like Pakistan, India, Iran and Saudi Arabia, and great powers like the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China. All of these countries are actively engaged in shoring up their preferred outcome by supporting war-fighters on the ground.
Trump spoke about only two of those countries. He called out Pakistan for its long-running support of the insurgency in southern Afghanistan that has killed thousands of foreign troops. But he chose not to say how he would resolve one major problem: the only way to provide supplies to foreign troops in Afghanistan is through Pakistan, which means turning a purposeful blind eye to Pakistan’s murderous double game. And Trump also praised India for its “important contributions to stability in Afghanistan,” either not knowing or not caring that Indian policy in Afghanistan, which seeks to create an anti-Pakistani regime in Kabul in order to ensure an ongoing source of instability on Pakistan’s western border, is widely seen in Pakistan as deeply threatening to its national security. Indeed, American support of Indian efforts to increase Pakistani insecurity is one of the reasons why so many other states are so actively working to undermine the Afghan government.
The President did not even mention three other countries that are deeply involved in Afghanistan: Iran, the Russian Federation and China. These are countries that do not wish America well. They have little interest in the United States prevailing over the insurgency in Afghanistan. On the contrary: these states are involved in undermining American success in Afghanistan, since their interests are particularly well served when American forces in that country face a slow war of attrition.
Moreover, the efforts of America’s adversaries in Afghanistan to confront the US with a war of attrition are made even easier given that this asymmetrical war is marked by asymmetrical rationalities: one side puts an extraordinary value on the lives of its fighters; the other side, by contrast, features fighters who are quite ready, and indeed often eager, to die for their cause.
There is a ready supply of suicide bombers trained and socialized in the madrassas of Pakistan, which have historically been funded by Saudi Arabia; some of these fighters continue to be funded and controlled by the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence agency (with a wink and a nod from Pakistan’s political elite). Thus the most probable consequence of the strategy embraced by Trump is a slow drip of flag-covered caskets being flown back to Dover Air Force Base.
It is likely that the Trump administration will soon discover for itself the enduring paradox about guerrilla warfare that Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, identified so succinctly. Kissinger wrote at the height of the Vietnam War in 1969, “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win.”
It is clear that Trump, who claimed that during his presidency Americans would “win so much” that they would be “tired of winning,” has embraced a strategy that will ensure that American forces in Afghanistan cannot win, thus guaranteeing that the insurgency in Afghanistan will win by not losing.
But because Trump has insisted that the United States will remain committed until victory is achieved, this strategy will also ensure that Afghanistan will continue to be a “war without end” — the phrase that has been so commonly used over the last 40 years to describe this conflict.
The quagmire that Trump is creating for the United States by ignoring the broader game of global politics being played out in Afghanistan has implications for Canada. For we know that the call is coming: Trump has announced that he would ask NATO allies to contribute to this new American strategy.
What should Canada do? The government’s initial reaction has been skeptical, but Canadians need to ask: what Canadian national interests would be served by supporting an American strategy that seems purposely designed to produce a slow flow of casualties over an extended period of time, but with little promise of tangible political change that would justify these casualties? What national interests would be served by supporting an American administration that is committing itself to a long war with only one purpose: to maintain the status quo — a low-intensity war in which victory is impossible, given the strong commitment of a large number of other actors to make life as difficult as possible for the United States and whatever allies join them in Afghanistan?
Canadians are not used to having debates grounded in realpolitik, since over the last 25 years we have been encouraged by our governors to believe that we have risen above realpolitik. Yet as we anticipate the Trump administration’s request that we rejoin the war without end, this is a debate that we need to have.
Published in Policy Options (September 2017): http://policyoptions.irpp.org/magazines/september-2017/canada-and-the-war-without-end-in-afghanistan/