The Never Ending Story: The Morass of Afghanistan and Pakistan

Kevin Hulbert
Former CIA Chief of Station

The new administration must surely be thinking about the challenges of Afghanistan and Pakistan and what to do.  The region has bedeviled outsiders for generations.  Afghanistan perplexed Alexander the Great, got the best of the British, beat up on the Soviet Union, and now it’s befuddled U.S. Presidents Barack Obama for the last eight years and George W. Bush for most of the eight years before that.  While Obama had originally hoped to end our long U.S. military efforts in Afghanistan, he wound up going sideways over the last few years, grudgingly maintaining about 10,000 non-combat mission troops on the ground. 

What might the new Trump administration do?  On the good side, Secretary of Defense James Mattis has deep experience in the area.  On the bad side, you unfortunately have a situation that frankly does not have any good answers.   These are difficult foreign policy challenges for the U.S. (and the world), and ones where there are no real “solutions” to implement – only a slate of bad options from which you are going to have to choose something and try to make it work.  

In Afghanistan, we have now had U.S. military forces in the country for over 15 years.  What is the plan?  Is there a plan?  Are we getting out?  Staying forever?  Combat operations ended at the end of 2014. 

There seem to only be two broad choices in Afghanistan for the new Commander in Chief – and both choices have serious downsides:   

  1. Stay the course and continue to spend tens of billions of dollars on Afghanistan every year, paying billions to U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) and billions to Afghanistan to support the Afghan National Army and other institutions.  The only real mission today is to stop the country from falling to the Taliban and to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists who might plan attacks against the West.  Meanwhile, if we stay, the death toll for the U.S. continues as the casualties dribble in.
  2. Pull out, save tens of billions of dollars, save some lives, but despite our best efforts to build an effective government and military in Afghanistan over the last 15 years, the country will probably fall to the Taliban in 30 days after we leave, causing a lot of people to wonder why we spent all that blood and treasure on Afghanistan.  Then, the country will likely become a terrorist safe haven, too. 

There is a third way: withdraw U.S. troops, but have the U.S. Intelligence Community monitor the area much more closely than it did in say, 2001, to ensure that Afghanistan does not again become a terrorist safe haven and to take decisive action if it does.  This course of action is admittedly easier said than done.  There is the added concern that if you lose the big U.S. military footprint, you’d have a real force protection issue, and it would be exceedingly difficult for others to stay in the country in large numbers. Further, you would be at risk of losing the entire (alleged) Predator program. 

In James Mattis’ written testimony for his confirmation to be Secretary of Defense, when asked, “What are the U.S. national security interests and objectives in Afghanistan and what strategy to you recommend to achieve them?” his answer was a succinct, “We all remember what it felt like on 9/11 and 9/12.  We should do what is necessary to prevent such an attack from occurring again.” 

So, it might appear that the writing is on the wall: We’re likely to stay in Afghanistan, stuck there in a non-combat role, ensuring that the country never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists. 

How much money have we spent in Afghanistan, and further, should we just keep on spending money there forever?  To the first question, nobody really knows how much the war in Afghanistan has cost.  You can add up all of the funding specifically approved by congress for the Afghan war through fiscal year 2017, but that only gives you a very partial understanding of the total costs.  But, whatever the total, it is surely a number that is both staggering and disheartening.  Some estimates put the total at over a trillion dollars.  Others say it was “just” many hundreds of billions.  The Congressional Research Service recently soberly opined that the cost of keeping one U.S. soldier in Afghanistan was approximately $3.9 million a year.  It seems untenable to keep doing this forever and at some point, we are going to have to think about bringing our troops home and letting the chips fall where they may. 

They don’t call it the graveyard of empires for nothing. 

Pakistan represents an entire other host of issues.  Pakistan is like the bank that is “too big to fail,” or “too big to allow to fail” more appropriately, because allowing the bank to fail could have catastrophic impacts on the greater economy.   The “failure” of Pakistan would have implications for the world.  We have big problems in Afghanistan with its population of 33 million people, but Pakistan has about 182 million inhabitants, over five times the size of Afghanistan. 

With a failing economy, rampant terrorism, the fastest growing nuclear arsenal, the sixth largest population, and one of the highest birthrates in the world, Pakistan is of grave concern.  But, what should we do? 

The U.S. has given Pakistan tens of billions of dollars in aid, coalition support funds, and International Monetary Fund loans over the last 15 years because they helped us on terrorism, they helped us in Afghanistan (albeit not always as much as we had hoped), and because the specter of Pakistan collapsing presents the U.S. President with more nightmare scenarios than probably any other country in the world.  So, we keep throwing money at it, trying to steer them towards good behavior, and with only limited success. But, we must keep trying.   In the end, while Pakistan is not the most dangerous country in the world, it probably is the most dangerous country for the world.

There seem few levers to pull in Pakistan today, but if we pursue a strategy of containment or disengagement, things will only get worse.  I used to brief U.S. policymakers that Pakistan had the very unique distinction of being both one of our best partners on counterterrorism and one of our worst partners on counterterrorism— all at the same time.   Imperfect partners though they are, writing Pakistan off would be a big mistake because then we would lose the ability to work together with Pakistan on various efforts in that troubled region. 

The Author is Kevin Hulbert

Kevin Hulbert is a former senior intelligence officer in the CIA's Directorate of Operations who retired in June 2014.  He is currently the President of XK Group.  Kevin served multiple overseas tours as CIA Chief of Station and Deputy Chief of Station.

Learn more about The Cipher's Network here