What's next in Afghanistan?
As President Trump wrestles with America's role in Afghanistan, he should first decide what our objectives are today compared to what we wanted immediately after Sept. 11, 2001.
Initially, the United States overthrew the Taliban regime but failed to destroy it completely. Regime supporters, allied tribal forces and opportunistic warlords escaped (or returned) to Pakistan's frontier regions to establish sanctuaries.
Similarly, while the Taliban's ouster also forced al-Qaida into exile in Pakistan and elsewhere, al-Qaida nonetheless continued and expanded its terrorist activities. In Iraq and Syria, al-Qaida morphed into the even more virulent ISIS, which is now gaining strength in Afghanistan.
In short, America's Afghan victories were significant but incomplete. Subsequently, we failed to revise and update our Afghan strategic objectives, leading many to argue the war had gone on too long and we should withdraw. This criticism is superficially appealing, recalling anti-Vietnam War activist Allard Lowenstein's cutting remarks about Richard Nixon's policies. While Lowenstein acknowledged that he understood those, like Sen. George Aiken, who said we should “win and get out,” he said he couldn't understand Nixon's strategy of “lose and stay in.”
Today in Afghanistan, the pertinent question is what we seek to prevent, not what we seek to achieve. Making Afghanistan serene and peaceful does not constitute a legitimate American geopolitical interest. Instead, we face two principal threats.
Taliban's return to power
First, the Taliban's return to power throughout Afghanistan would re-create the prospect of the country being used as a base of operations for international terrorism. It is simply unacceptable to allow the pre-2001 status quo to re-emerge.
Second, a post-9/11 goal (at least one better understood today) is the imperative of preventing a Taliban victory in Afghanistan that would enable Pakistani Taliban or other terrorist groups to seize control in Islamabad. Not only would such a takeover make all Pakistan yet another terrorist sanctuary, but if its large nuclear arsenal fell to terrorists, we would immediately face the equivalent of Iran and North Korea on nuclear steroids. Worryingly, Pakistan's military, especially its intelligence arm, is already thought to be controlled by radical Islamists.
Given terrorism's global spread since 9/11 and the risk of a perfect storm — the confluence of terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction — the continuing threats we face in the Afghan arena are even graver than those posed pre-9/11. Accordingly, abandoning the field in Afghanistan is simply not a tenable strategy.
However, accomplishing America's goals does not require remaking Afghanistan's government, economy or military in our image. Believing that only “nation building” in Afghanistan could ultimately guard against the terrorist threat was mistaken. For too long, it distracted Washington and materially contributed to the decline in American public support for a continuing military presence there, despite the manifest need for it.
There is no chance that the Trump administration will pursue “nation building” in Afghanistan, as the president has repeatedly made clear. Speaking as a Reagan administration alumnus of USAID, I concur. We should certainly continue bilateral economic assistance to Afghanistan, which, strategically applied, has served America well in countless circumstances during the Cold War and thereafter. But we should not conflate it with the diaphanous prospect of nation building.
Nor should we assume that the military component in Afghanistan must be a repetition or expansion of the boots-on-the-ground approach we have followed since the initial assault on the Taliban. Other alternatives appear available and should be seriously considered, including possibly larger U.S. military commitments of the right sort.
Even more important, there must be far greater focus on Pakistan.
A volatile & lethal mix
Politically unstable since British India's 1947 partition, increasingly under Chinese influence because of the hostility with India, and a nuclear-weapons state, Pakistan is a volatile and lethal mix ultimately more important than Afghanistan itself. Until and unless Pakistan becomes convinced that interfering in Afghanistan is too dangerous and too costly, no realistic U.S. military scenario in Afghanistan can succeed.
The stakes are high on the subcontinent, not just because of the “Af-Pak” problems but because Pakistan, India and China are all nuclear powers. The Trump administration should not be mesmerized only by U.S. troop levels. It must concentrate urgently on the bigger strategic picture. The size and nature of America's military commitment in Afghanistan will more likely emerge from that analysis rather than the other way around. And time is growing short.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, was the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations and, previously, the undersecretary of State for arms control and international security.