Trump’s dilemma over Afghanistan reflects that of his predecessor, Barack Obama. As I’ve previously reported, Obama 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 reluctantly sent 30,000 troops to bolster security in the country on the advice of his military counselors. Obama’s goal in Afghanistan was to stand up the Afghan security forces to the point at which the Afghan government could take care of its own security. But critics point out that while Obama’s strategy for Afghanistan was realistic, its implementation was poor.
“We didn’t implement it very attractively at all,” Cunningham told me, “including by setting deadlines for withdrawal that just encouraged our adversaries to wait out the situation and discouraged our friends and partners who were afraid of what was going to happen when we did finally withdraw.”
Ronald Neumann, who served as U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007, said Obama put timelines on the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, but did not “resource those timelines.”
“The strategy is bringing means and actions together with goals,” Neumann, who is now president of the American Academy of Diplomacy, told me. “A lot of Washington discussions goes around as if you could separate those things. Obama separated them.”
None of the experts I spoke to said they believed that the U.S. commitment to Afghanistan be open-ended or that it should involve a large surge of troops. What they did say, however, was that any solution should result in an Afghan government capable of governing the country and security forces capable of fighting militants—or as Cunningham put it: “to … move onto a strategy that involves heavy political and diplomatic focus on trying to find a way to bring the conflict ultimately to an end.” (They also commended Afghanistan’s U.S.-trained special forces, and said it was untouched by the dysfunction and corruption seen in other parts of the government.) Where they did disagree was what would happen if the U.S. withdrew.
“We don’t need to turn it into a model state,” Neumann said, but added that if Afghanistan fails there’s the danger of terrorist attacks in the U.S. and elsewhere. That’s a belief shared by many experts who see Afghanistan’s symbolic value for Islamist extremists: It is, after all, the place where the mujahedin defeated the Soviet Union, one of two global superpowers during the Cold War. If the U.S. leaves, they argue, the Islamist fighters will believe they have defeated the world’s remaining superpower, as well.
Kolenda disagreed. He said it would be a concern if Afghanistan descended into another civil war like it did in the 1990s, making groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS stronger. “At the same time, today is not September 12, 2001, and the situation in Afghanistan is very different, too,” he said. “The U.S. intelligence and counterterror capabilities are very different. We need to bring our thinking to 2017—and not be trapped in 2001 or 2011.”