The Trump administration, as well as its critics, are reportedly wrestling with the question of a new strategy for the war in Afghanistan, where the government has shown no signs of being able to turn the tide in the 16-year war against the Taliban. General John Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, with support from Secretary of Defense James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, has asked for more troops, apparently in service of a strategy that, for the moment, seeks simply to “not lose.” President Trump has granted this request in principle, but these reinforcements have not yet been dispatched, because the president's advisors seem to believe that he is not committed to stay the course. Instead, a strategic review is underway. Meanwhile, Senator John McCain has offered his own strategy for Afghanistan, which appears to be the “old” strategy, with the admixture of a commitment to stay forever and provide the commanders with a blank check for forces and money to do so.
But these approaches, which will reportedly be discussed at a meeting at Camp David on Friday, misunderstand the dilemma. For America, the perhaps-counterintuitive answer in Afghanistan may be that only by reducing its presence, or withdrawing completely, can it advance the full range of its strategic interests.
When the United States overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001, it was the most capable state in the world—sufficiently powerful to deter the ambitious and reassure the fearful. These days, geo-political rivalry is back, as new powers have risen and old ones have recovered some of their vigor. Without prejudging whatever new grand strategy the Trump administration has in mind for this new landscape, the United States is clearly in competition—sometimes globally and sometimes only regionally—with Russia, China, and Iran. In most of the world, America’s policies for the last 20 years have driven these competitors toward each other or solved security problems for them that they would otherwise be forced to solve for themselves.
For the United States, the value of skilled statecraft lies in the ability to tie competing nation-states up in knots by engaging their national-security interests in ways that benefit America. When America intervenes to manage a civil war, other powers can throw darts at the Americans from the sidelines; when it is absent, those on the sidelines have to solve the problem for themselves, and will often disagree about the solution.
From a strategic perspective, then, a dramatic reduction of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan—or even a complete drawdown—would likely realign regional behavior in ways that would drive current U.S. adversaries apart, force them to deal with difficult local problems, and encourage other regional powers to seek better ties with Washington. From an American perspective, it is a win-win.
A U.S. drawdown would almost certainly reorient Iran’s approach to its neighbor to the east. Many Americans don’t know that the fundamentalist Sunni-Taliban government of Afghanistan and the orthodox Shia government of Iran came to the brink of war in 1998. The Taliban repressed Afghan Shiites, many of whom live in the western part of the country, near the Iranian border. At the same time, Iran provided arms and financial assistance to the "northern alliance" of Afghan Tajiks and Uzbeks, who never surrendered to the Taliban government. The Taliban, in turn, received strong backing from Pakistan. Within Pakistan, sectarian attacks on Shia were and remain quite common.
All of these factional tensions persist to this day. As many have observed, a Sunni-Shia civil war remains interwoven with conflicts across the greater Middle East. Were the United States to significantly reduce its support to the current government of Afghanistan, Iran would likely find it in its own interest to cease its reported flirtations with the Taliban and lend support to the Afghan government, or to broker a settlement between the two. Iran is interested in building a new “silk road” trading route that runs from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf, which could best flourish in a peaceful Afghanistan. Moreover, Iran would probably find it reasonable to station more military forces on its eastern border to deter Taliban misbehavior. Overall, an increase in Taliban influence is ultimately a threat to Iran's security, and would place a new constraint on Iran's adventurism elsewhere in the region, where it typically seeks gains at the expense of U.S. allies such as Saudi Arabia and Israel, who inevitably come to Washington demanding assistance to shore up their positions.
If the United States left Afghanistan, Russia, effectively an ally of Iran in the Syrian civil war, would also find it reasonable to assist the Afghan government in its fight against the Taliban. Russia intervened in Syria for many reasons, but fear of a jihadi victory there was central. A Taliban victory in Afghanistan would be as problematic for Russian security because Islamist groups from the Caucasus—hostile to the Russian government—could then find sanctuary there, as they have in the past. Like Iran, Russia once aided the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance. Thus, it would also be in Russia's interest to support the Afghan government and oppose the Taliban. While the United States insists that Russia is providing aid to the Taliban—perhaps an instance of Vladimir Putin succumbing to the temptation to discomfit America—when the Taliban is pointed at Russian forces, they will be forced to change their behavior.
To Afghanistan’s east is Pakistan, which has also long been deeply involved with the Afghan Taliban. Although Islamabad denies it, it offers sanctuary for the leaders of the Taliban, as well as the space to train and plan its operations. Because Iran and Russia would oppose a hypothetical Taliban victory and subvert a Taliban regime if it reassumed control of Afghanistan, Pakistan would end up at odds with both nations. Pakistan also has close relations with China. Thus, Russia and China could end up on opposite sides in the next phase of Afghanistan's riven politics. Close Russian and Chinese relations have been a problem for the United States, as each typically confronts the United States in regions where the other has few interests or little capability. Each profits from the diversion of U.S. capacity and attention provided by the other. Rivalry between the two in Afghanistan would throw some sand in these gears.
Finally, India has long dabbled in Afghan politics, though probably not to the extent that Pakistan claims. India also aided the Northern Alliance, and has provided some assistance to the Afghan government. It also has burgeoning trade and transportation links to Iran. Pakistani leaders feel threatened by India and by any Indian role in Afghanistan. A U.S. withdrawal would likely draw India deeper into Afghanistan; intensified Indian-Pakistani competition in Afghanistan would deepen the emerging rivalry between India and China, driving India closer to the United States.
Afghanistan, then, is a good place to create problems for America’s adversaries. And the best way to do that is to get out. Those who instead advocate a dramatic increase in the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan would say that the best way to fight terrorists is to remain on the offensive. The problem with that argument is, of course, that America has been on the offense for nearly 16 years in Afghanistan and elsewhere and victory remains elusive. Terrorist groups motivated by a particularly toxic interpretation of Islam remain strong, and in fact have emerged in new places. Nothing about this strategy, by the way, need prohibit U.S. raids on known terrorist hideouts in Afghanistan.
Some may also argue that Washington cannot afford to undermine its prestige by leaving Afghanistan in the lurch. Given the lives, money, and time that it has poured into building a stable Afghanistan, it is Afghans who have let the U.S. down, pouring more resources into a losing effort won’t enhance confidence in U.S. judgment or its staying power.
Finally, others yet may assert that the United States has an ethical debt to all those progressive Afghans who fought alongside the coalition. They either have not fought hard enough, or they could not win enough domestic support to win. That said, those Afghans who cooperated with America at great personal risk, and who find themselves at some future point in need of an exit option, should be placed high on the list for U.S. immigrant visas, should that time come.
When the Cold War ended, the national security establishment quickly came to believe that the happy accident of overwhelming relative U.S. power and the apparent decline of geo-politics would last forever. Instead, U.S. hegemony is under pressure. Some would say America must now shore up that hegemony, that the Afghan policy outlined here is simply too ruthless, or that exacerbating great and middle power conflicts is, in the end, too dangerous for global stability. Fine words. But the overall stock of U.S. hard and soft power assets is simply not sufficient to manage the world. Thus, the United States must play a tougher international game.
In particular, the U.S. should stop solving security problems for those states that are eager to create problems for us. And if getting out of Afghanistan creates a few headaches for them, so much the better.