Is Trump Right About Afghanistan?

The country is still dangerous nearly 17 years after the U.S.-led ouster of the Taliban regime.

Joshua Roberts / Reuters

President Trump reportedly told his top advisers he thinks the U.S. is “losing” the war in Afghanistan, and is reportedly considering replacing his top general in the country with Lieutenant General H. R. McMaster, his national-security adviser.

That Trump is skeptical about the need for more U.S. troops in Afghanistan isn’t a surprise. Last month ahead of a meeting with veterans of the Afghan war, Trump told reporters: “We’ve been there for now close to 17 years, and I want to find out why we’ve been there for 17 years, how it’s going, and what we should do in terms of additional ideas.” Asked during a subsequent visit to the Pentagon about whether he’d sent more troops to the country, Trump replied: “We’ll see.” In June Trump gave the Pentagon authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan. Still, Defense Secretary James Mattis has not yet deployed 3,900 troops the president authorized in June to send to Afghanistan, possibly because of Trump’s skepticism of the continued U.S. presence in the country.

It’s a skepticism Trump shares with his predecessor, Barack Obama, who campaigned for president vowing to win the war in Afghanistan, but by the end of his term dramatically reduced the number of U.S. troops there. At one point, he sent 30,000 troops to bolster security in the country on the advice of his military counselors. This was a move he felt, as Jeffrey Goldberg reported in 2016, he was “jammed” into by the Pentagon. Indeed, in 2013 Trump tweeted that he “agreed” with Obama’s plan for a “speedy withdrawal” from Afghanistan.  “Why should we keep wasting our money?” he asked, suggesting the funds were better directed on domestic expenditure. (It’s worth pointing out that Trump has staked contradictory views on troop withdrawals: At the height of the Iraq war, he said in multiple interviews that he’d “get out” of the country, but during his presidential run, he attributed the rise of ISIS to Obama’s troop drawdown in Iraq, and said the U.S. should have taken Iraq’s oil in exchange for deposing Saddam Hussein—a case he’s made more recently with Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.)

Still, Obama’s Afghanistan policy, grudgingly executed though it may have been, was an acknowledgment, as The New York Times reported toward the end of his presidency, that the “the counterterrorism challenges are real.” That’s perhaps even more true now than when Obama left the White House in January.

The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), in its most recent quarterly report to Congress, said that as of May of this year, the Taliban controlled or influenced 11 percent of Afghanistan’s 407 districts. The Afghan government, the report said, controls or influences about 60 percent of districts. Twenty-nine percent of the country’s districts remain contested, the SIGAR report added. The assessment is based on data from U.S. Forces-Afghanistan and Resolute Support, NATO’s mission in the country.  

“The only problem is both USFOR-A and Resolute Support have significantly underestimated and understated the Taliban’s control of districts in the past,” Bill Roggio wrote in the Long War Journal.  

The Taliban has made steady gains, handing Afghan security forces embarrassing defeats in Kandahar Province, which was its former stronghold, as well as places like Helmand Province, one of the focal points of the Obama surge which it now mostly controls, and Kunduz Province. All of this, as the SIGAR report pointed out, after the Pentagon obligated $675 billion over 15 years in Afghanistan (out of total U.S. spending of  $714 billion in the country); not to mention the rising death toll of Americans killed in the conflict, including two this week who died in a Taliban attack on their convoy. It’s little wonder Trump is skeptical about the prospect of more spending and more troops—and it’s a view shared by many experts who have worked in Afghanistan.

“Military victory is not plausible in any foreseeable time frame,” Laurel Miller, the RAND Corporation analyst who until recently ran the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, told Vox. “This is an enormously complex situation. There are genuine underlying grievances that have to do with Afghan politics, various cleavages within Afghan society. None of these can be addressed or resolved without some kind of political power sharing through a reconciliation process—and that’s nowhere in sight.”

Those are among the reasons U.S. military leaders want to increase the 8,500 American service members already in Afghanistan. The Afghan national government is simply not in a position to provide effective governance in a country that has rarely known it, to provide security in a country that hasn’t had it for decades, and to subdue the various militant groups and warlords who have been a feature of Afghan life since at least Alexander the Great. And the Taliban is unlikely to want to negotiate with the government, widely seen as corrupt and ineffective, when it’s gaining ground. Additional U.S. troops could push the Taliban back—as prior U.S. surges have done—forcing the militants to some sort of political reconciliation, though no troop numbers that have been publicly reported under Trump are comparable in scale to the Obama-era surge so it’s hard to see how, if that period didn’t force the Taliban to the negotiating table, a lower number would do so when the Taliban is gaining ground.

Trump is still expected to get more options on a new strategy for the country. NBC News has reported that his advisers were meeting Thursday to discuss the issue. One thing the president is reportedly pressing them on is how to get U.S. companies more access to Afghanistan’s vast mineral wealth—though its unclear if acquiring those mineral rights would be worth the expense of providing security.

Ultimately, this president will have to answer one question: whether remaining in Afghanistan is in the long-term U.S. national interest. There are subsidiary questions that that inform this one. Do the Taliban, and the various other militant groups including ISIS that have footholds in the country, directly threaten the U.S. to an extent that justifies the cost of continuing to fight them? Can a stable, democratic Afghanistan be achieved within at a politically sustainable time frame at a politically sustainable cost? Do the risks of leaving really outweigh the risks of staying? With few imminent prospects of political reconciliation in Afghanistan, and fewer chances of an outright military victory for the Afghan government, the decision of what the U.S. role in Afghanistan may well lie with a future president—whether Trump likes it or not.