Editors’ note: A version of this article was first published at The Weekly Standard
In a primetime speech Monday evening, President Trump is expected to announce the deployment of several thousand more American troops to Afghanistan. We doubt this will be enough to win the war, but it is better than the alternatives offered to the president. A complete withdrawal would have been disastrous.
The premature withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State, which evolved into an international menace after overrunning much of Iraq and Syria. A similar scenario could have unfolded in Central and South Asia. The Taliban-led insurgency currently contests or controls more territory today than in years. And a withdrawal would have cleared the jihadists’ path to take even more ground, possibly leading to dire ramifications throughout the region.
Therefore, President Trump deserves credit for making a decision that went against his gut instinct, which told him to get out. In the process, America and its Afghan allies avoided the near-certain catastrophe that would have followed.
But if America is really going to put the Afghan government on the path to victory, then the Trump administration will have to learn from the mistakes of its predecessors. In particular, the US government needs to drastically reassess America’s jihadist enemies and avoid the policy pitfalls of the past.
With that in mind, the Trump administration has the opportunity to make the following course corrections.
Stop underestimating al Qaeda
President Trump can explain to the American people that al Qaeda is still a significant problem in South Asia—a potentially big one. President Barack Obama frequently claimed that al Qaeda was “decimated” and a “shadow of its former self” in Afghanistan and Pakistan. That wasn’t true. The Obama administration’s counterterrorism campaign dealt significant blows to al Qaeda’s leadership, disrupting the organization’s chain-of-command and interrupting its communications. But al Qaeda took measures to outlast America’s drones and other tactics. The group survived the death of Osama bin Laden and, in many ways, grew.
Consider that from June 2010 until 2016—that is, most of the Obama administration—the US government repeatedly insisted that there were just 50 to 100 al Qaeda operatives in all of Afghanistan. This was clearly false at the time, and US officials were eventually forced to admit that this figure was far off.
From October 2015 until the first week of December 2016, the US and its allies killed or captured 400 al Qaeda members in Afghanistan—four times the longstanding high-end estimate. In October 2015, American and Afghan forces raided two large training camps in the Shorabak district of Afghanistan’s southern Kandahar province. One of them was nearly 30 square miles in size. US officials described the camp as likely the largest al Qaeda training facility in the history of Afghanistan. Both of the Shorabak camps were supported by the Taliban.
Think about that: In October 2015—more than 14 years after the 9/11 hijackings —the US led a raid on what was probably the largest al Qaeda training camp in history. So much for being “decimated.”
Al Qaeda continues to fight under the Taliban’s banner as well. Its newest branch, al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent, is deeply embedded in the Taliban-led insurgency. And just days before the 2016 presidential election, the US killed a veteran al Qaeda leader in eastern Afghanistan who was both planning attacks against the American homeland and supporting the Taliban’s insurgency. Incredibly, al Qaeda is still able to plot attacks against the US from inside Afghanistan.
Some of the Americans newly deployed to Afghanistan will be called upon to perform counterterrorism missions. Similar efforts have disrupted anti-American plots in the past. But al Qaeda has used its broader role in the insurgency to regenerate its threats against the West. The American mission needs to root out al Qaeda, much more so than in the recent past. Are there other Shorabak-type training camps? How many fighters does al Qaeda really have in Afghanistan— taking into account its ethnically diverse membership? The Trump administration needs to focus on these types of questions. Otherwise, al Qaeda will keep coming back.
Forget about a grand bargain with the Taliban’s senior leadership
Many officials in the US government think the only way the Afghan war ends is by negotiating a peace deal with the Taliban. There’s just one problem: The Taliban has never shown any real interest in peace.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton oversaw negotiations with the Taliban during the Obama administration. The talks were a fiasco. The Taliban extracted various concessions and the US never got anything in return, other than Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, an accused deserter. The current Taliban honcho is Mullah Haibatullah Akhundzada, whose son carried out a suicide bombing in July. Akhundzada is a jihadist ideologue, not a prospective peace partner. Negotiating with him would be sheer folly. The Obama administration also pursued talks with the Taliban under the theory that the group could forswear al Qaeda. See the details above—that idea was always a dangerous fantasy.
The US and the Afghan government can and should attempt to peel away mid- to low-level Taliban fighters and commanders. But the idea that a grand bargain can be had with the Taliban has never been rooted in reality.
Stop treating the Haqqani Network as a separate group
The US has long operated under the delusion that the powerful Haqqani family and its loyalists are somehow distinct from the Taliban. It was always a curious assumption given that Jalaluddin Haqqani, the network’s eponymous founder, formally joined the Taliban in the mid-1990s. His son, Sirajuddin (a key al Qaeda ally), has been the Taliban’s No. 2 leader since 2015 and oversees much of the Taliban’s military operations. Sirajuddin’s ascent within the Taliban’s ranks means that no one can pretend that the Haqqani Network and the Taliban are distinct entities any longer. The Haqqani Network has long been designated a terrorist organization by the US government. The Trump administration should extend the designation to cover the entire Taliban, thereby making it clear to anyone who does business with the Taliban that they are backing a terrorist group.
The Islamic State is a threat in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but not nearly as much of a threat as the Taliban-al Qaeda axis
The US has spent disproportionate resources fighting the Islamic State’s “province” in eastern Afghanistan. Earlier this year, for example, the US military dropped the “mother of all bombs” on the group’s stronghold in Nangarhar province. Several Americans have died during operations against Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s loyalists in country.
There’s no question that the Islamic State remains a serious problem in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it still doesn’t threaten the Afghan government to the same degree that the Taliban-al Qaeda axis does. The Islamic State controls parts of perhaps several Afghan districts. But the Taliban and its allies contest or control approximately 40 percent of the country. Therefore, the US has focused a lot of resources on a, relatively speaking, smaller threat. The Trump administration will need to devise a more offensive approach to dealing with the Taliban-al Qaeda alliance, an effort that has been hampered by restrictive rules of engagement in the past.
Pakistan continues to be a big problem
It is no secret that Pakistan harbors much of the Taliban’s senior leadership. But the US has only occasionally targeted these figures inside Pakistan proper. If Pakistan won’t turn on the Taliban—and it won’t—then the Trump administration should take more aggressive action against the group’s Pakistani safe havens.
The drone campaign can be expanded to target known Taliban leaders operating inside Pakistan. For example, the organization’s leader, Mullah Mansour, was killed in a May 2016 airstrike in Pakistan after he returned from a visit to Iran. Mansour’s death was intended to open the door to possible peace talks, which didn’t materialize.
If the Taliban is allowed to continue operating unencumbered, then the administration will be repeating the mistakes of the past. For too long, the Taliban’s leaders have been able to direct the insurgency in Afghanistan from their cozy confines in Pakistan. American aid to Pakistan can and should be withheld until the country’s military and intelligence establishment proves willing to make meaningful changes in its behavior. No one should hold their breath waiting for this happen, however, and the Trump administration can’t afford to wait.
Iran remains a problem, too
The Iranian government has supported the Taliban’s insurgency since 2001. Although this assistance is not as pronounced as Pakistan’s, it is meaningful. The US government has also repeatedly noted that Iran hosts al Qaeda’s “core facilitation pipeline,” which moves fighters, funds, and communications to and from South Asia. Any successful strategy for turning the Afghan war around will have to deal with the Iranian government’s nefarious role.
The Russians are on the opposite side of the Afghan war. The Russians are, at a minimum, providing rhetorical support to the Taliban. There are reports that Russia has provided arms to Taliban insurgents as well. President Trump has made no secret of the fact that he seeks better relations with Vladimir Putin’s government. But Russia’s flirtations (and maybe more) with the Taliban are a stark reminder that this will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. In the meantime, the US will have to take steps to disrupt Putin’s relationship with his favorite jihadis in the Taliban.
The rural areas matter
US military officials often downplay the importance of rural areas, arguing that they need only bolster the Afghan government’s defenses in the more heavily populated areas. But this is a mistake. The Taliban’s insurgents have been using their advances in Afghanistan’s more rural territory to orchestrate sieges on several provincial capitals. If the US and Afghan forces don’t go on the offensive in these areas, then the jihadists will continue to squeeze the more populated terrain.
These are just some of the issues that confront the US on the road ahead.
With his decision, President Trump has ensured that the worst-case scenario won’t unfold. But that is a long way from victory. And to win, the US is going to have to get real about our jihadist enemies in Afghanistan.
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