February 21, 2017

Focused Engagement

A New Way Forward in Afghanistan

The war in Afghanistan was a topic largely absent from the 2016 U.S. presidential election. In 2012 and 2013 Donald J. Trump referred to Afghanistan as a “complete and total disaster.” He decried the loss of life and waste of taxpayer dollars, and called for withdrawing U.S. troops.1 During the campaign he said he would keep American troops in Afghanistan but would “hate doing it.” He has a point. The status quo is unsustainable.

Afghanistan is beset by a resilient but brutal Taliban insurgency that uses shadow governance, military operations, terrorist tactics, and propaganda to advance their cause. They have sanctuary in Pakistan to plan, coordinate operations, train, and gather logistics. The Taliban receive funding and support from covert and private foreign donors, as well as illicit economic activity. Predatory neighbors foment instability in Afghanistan. 

The United States has spent more in assistance to Afghanistan (in real terms) than it did for the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after the Second World War. Progress has been impressive. This includes tens of thousands of kilometers of roads built, a reported fifteen-year increase in life expectancy, thousands of officials trained, major advances in health care, education, human rights, and telecommunications, and the construction of a 352,000 strong Afghan National Security and Defense Forces (ANDSF). 

That support, however, has made many Afghan elites fabulously rich. Despite 15 years of capacity-building, too much of the Afghan government remains predatory and kleptocratic. Abuses by officials and warlords have inspired some Afghans to support insurgent groups that kill American soldiers. 

A recent survey shows only 29 percent of Afghans believe the country is headed in the right direction; nearly 90 percent decry government corruption as a problem in everyday life; over 40 percent fear bumping into their Army and Police. Given the understandable selection bias favoring nonviolent areas, these numbers are astonishing. 

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah want reform, but have differing visions and their administration is too divided to act decisively. The Afghan government remains unable to win the battle of legitimacy in contested and Taliban controlled areas. A successful end to the war is nowhere in sight.

The United States bears its share of the blame. Micromanagement from Washington has led to damaging bureaucratic silos, sluggish decision-making, and a host of implementation problems that have amplified the problems above and fed local perceptions that the United States does not want peace in Afghanistan.

The cost of current U.S. engagement in Afghanistan tallies roughly $23 billion per year – over $5 billion in aid and assistance and the remainder to support 8400 troops. Nearly 2,400 American troops have been killed in Afghanistan; over 150 of them murdered in so-called insider attacks. 

By nearly any measure, Afghanistan could be exhibit A in President Trump’s concerns about the wisdom of nation-building efforts. Despite efforts by some to scare the United States into an open-ended commitment, America has causes to leave.

Afghanistan has made major advances in education and human rights since 2001. U.S. service members and an Afghan Girl Scout speak Pashto together in August 2010.

John Barton/U.S. Air Force

The reasons to continue supporting Afghanistan, however, are more compelling. The place remains attractive as a safe haven for international terrorist groups that would like protected space to plot attacks against America and its allies. The country is surrounded by nuclear powers that do not get along. State collapse could bring even worse than a Taliban return to power. 

Neither the Afghan government nor the Taliban are likely to win outright while international support continues for both sides. Given the chronic problems in Afghanistan, western governments may grow tired of bankrolling a corrupt government engaged in a never-ending conflict. That could lead to state collapse and a return to the 1990s-style chaos that al Qaeda exploited. Simply putting the status quo on autopilot is the path of least resistance, but could pose the highest risk to U.S. interests.

The most realistic prospect for a favorable and durable outcome is a gradual peace process that respects the dignity and sacrifices of Americans and Afghans and prevents the return of terror safe-havens. To bring this about, America needs a more focused approach. 

Way Forward – Focused Engagement

The United States wins if international terrorist groups cannot use Afghan territory to launch large-scale terrorist attacks against the homeland and U.S. allies. To support America’s interests in Afghanistan and the region, this paper recommends a strategy of focused engagement. This approach increases the probability of a successful outcome while limiting the risks and costs of withdrawal or open-ended commitment. 

To bring the war to a successful conclusion, the United States must focus on three objectives: 

  1. Stabilize the battlefield by improving U.S.-Afghan strategic alignment, enforcing conditionality for political and security sector reform, and supporting an enduring commitment;
  2. Promote Afghan sovereignty and reduce destabilizing regional competition by obtaining and supporting an Afghan commitment to regional neutrality, penalizing states that enable the Taliban and other militant groups, and rewarding peaceful outcomes; 
  3. Advance a peace process to bring the war to a successful conclusion that protects U.S. interests and respects the service and sacrifices of the American and Afghan people.

An Afghan woman speaks to celebrate International Women’s Day in Kabul.

Kleynia R. McKnight/U.S. Navy

To implement this new approach, the Trump Administration needs to reverse the growth of White House micromanagement. President Trump should decentralize authority to a U.S. civil-military command in theater, while retaining NSC-level oversight.

The Trump administration must avoid a rush to failure. Given nearly 40 years of conflict in Afghanistan, a peace process may require more than a decade to produce a general cease-fire and a series of conflict-ending negotiations. Progress in governmental reform, regional diplomacy, and in confidence-building measures should provide the evidence needed for America’s continued support. 

Before moving forward, the Trump administration should ensure the Afghan government is sincere about bringing the war to a successful conclusion and respecting American support and sacrifices. This report offers some potential tests.

This approach cannot guarantee success, but it is more likely to protect American interests at acceptable cost than either withdrawal or open-ended and unconditional commitment. A tougher approach toward those taking advantage of U.S. support – or using it for malign activity – also can help America restore some lost credibility and self-respect. 

This report is organized in two main parts. Part I offers an overview of the Afghanistan situation, posits three strategic options, and recommends a new way forward. This new approach, focused engagement, aims to bring the war to a successful conclusion that advances U.S. interests at an acceptable and sustainable cost. Part II delves deeper into the state of play in Afghanistan and the region, explores the potential reactions to the new strategy, assesses the risks to success and offers ways to address them.

The full report is available online.

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  1. Donald J. Trump, “From the Desk of Donald Trump,” March 13, 2012; Donald J. Trump, Twitter, "Let's get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis [sic] we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA."
  2. Donald Trump on his foreign policy strategy, interview by Bill O’Reilly, The O'Reilly Factor, Fox News, 28 April 2016, http://www.foxnews.com/transcript/2016/04/29/donald-trump-on-his-foreign-policy-strategy.
  3. Zachary Warren, John Rieger, Charlotte E. Maxwell-Jones, and Nancy Kelly, eds., “A Survey of the Afghan People,” (The Asia Foundation, 2016), http://asiafoundation.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/12/2016_Survey-of-the-Afghan-People_full-survey.Jan2017.pdf.
  4. “Trump to declare end to nation building, if elected president,” PBS NewsHour, August 15, 2016.
  5. See Dennis Blair, Ronald Neumann, Eric Olson, “Fixing Fragile States,” The National Interest, August 27, 2014. “America's cumbersome approach to interagency operations in the field urgently needs reform, centered around more powerful ambassadors and coordinated in-country policy design.”


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