Six months into his presidency, Donald Trump and his national security team are struggling to develop an Afghanistan strategy. His defense secretary, Jim Mattis, presented a proposal last month, which included an increase in the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan by 4,000 troops, but the president rejected it, ordering his team to come up with a better plan. This week it has been reported that Trump is considering replacing U.S. forces in Afghanistan with private security contractors, an idea that has received heavy criticism.
The Cipher Brief’s Bennett Seftel sat down with Dr. Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan at New York University, to discuss some of the issues facing U.S. policymakers as they deliberate next moves in Afghanistan.
The Cipher Brief: The Trump Administration has thus far failed to deliver an Afghanistan strategy. What is the hold up?
Barnett Rubin: According to media reports, there is an unusually strong opposition between U.S. President Donald Trump and his nationalist supporters on the one hand, and on the other hand, his National Security Advisor Lt-Gen H. R. McMaster, who speaks for a near-consensus among the military and national security professionals. McMaster argues that Afghanistan remains a top priority in the counterterrorism campaign and that the U.S. needs a long-term military and CT presence there, including an increase of about 50 percent in the number of U.S. military trainers and advisors. Though the war against the Taliban cannot be won in battle in Afghanistan, a U.S. presence and aid costing about $23 billion a year can enable the government to continue to reform and strengthen itself and perhaps press at least some Taliban into negotiations.
To Trump, Bannon et al, that sounds like an expensive indefinite commitment to nation-building with no strategy for “winning.” They challenge the need for and effectiveness of such a strategy and are exploring the use of private military companies combined with withdrawal of professional U.S. military forces. So far, President Trump seems to be unpersuaded by all proposals presented to him. Unfortunately, those proposals do not include any strategy based on diplomacy and negotiation with the states in the region and the Taliban, all of whom object to our military presence and have an indefinite capacity to prevent us from achieving our objectives.
TCB: What are some of the issues that the current administration must consider when developing its Afghanistan strategy?
Rubin: The administration, as always, is over-emphasizing the importance of the front lines in Afghanistan and hence the military side. This is at most a secondary consideration. The Afghan government is more likely to collapse over ethnic-political differences or because of a collapse of external funding than it is to be overthrown by the Taliban.
The nations around Afghanistan have been transformed since 2001, and they no longer support the U.S. military presence. The economic takeoff of China and India has led these two countries to undertake huge infrastructure projects, which would produce a big payoff to peace and security. But every country in the region except India now views U.S. troops in Afghanistan as more of a threat than a counterterrorism partner.
The threat perceptions have also changed. Through effective regional diplomacy, the Taliban have convinced Russia, Iran, China, and Pakistan that they pose no threat to them, and that their ambitions end at the Afghan border. Hence these nations are no longer invested in the fight against the Taliban. To the contrary, they are invested in the fight against the U.S. and ISIS. However, these countries are not opposed to the Afghan government, except for what they see as its excessive subservience to the U.S. They are still supporting it, but they are increasingly willing to contemplate making it collateral damage in the fight against the U.S. and ISIS.
TCB: What should the U.S. endgame be in Afghanistan? Are there any clear objectives?
Rubin: The endgame should be to negotiate conditions under which the U.S. and NATO can withdraw their troops from Afghanistan without a collapse of the Afghan state or the violent seizure of power by the Taliban or any other group, leaving behind a government that will be a moderate effective partner in fighting ISIS, al Qaeda, Leshkar-E-Taiba (LeT), or other international terrorist groups. The U.S. should commit to continued funding for at least a decade of the Afghan state, including its security forces, education, health care, and economic management.
TCB: It has been reported that Russia is arming the Taliban as they fight U.S. and Afghan troops in Afghanistan. Do you believe these reports? If so, what is Russia’s strategy and objectives in arming the Taliban? How can the U.S. push back?
Rubin: It is possible that Russia is supplying a small amount of arms to the Taliban in return for the Taliban’s cooperation against ISIS and perhaps the United States. Russia is not engaged in a strategic effort to arm the Taliban to overthrow the Afghan government and expel U.S. and NATO troops by force.
Even if this is the case, there is also no effective way to “push back.” Instead, we should recognize our own interest in stabilizing Afghanistan with the support of neighboring countries and engage Russia (and Iran) on the issues that concern them, which above all, includes whether the U.S. intends to maintain permanent military bases in Afghanistan. Such bases would be a very significant expansion of the U.S. global military footprint at a time that both rising powers and the U.S. public are calling for retrenchment and focus on domestic welfare.
TCB: Should the U.S. withdraw completely from Afghanistan? What are the pros and cons of such a decision?
Rubin: The best result would be a negotiated withdrawal that preserves stability. That means negotiations (and all negotiations involve both pressure, problem solving, and conciliation) with neighboring countries and the Taliban as well as the Afghan government.
But we can’t give anyone in the region a veto over our withdrawal. Hence at some point, probably sooner rather than later, we should probably resort to former U.S. President Barack Obama’s model of setting a timetable, even if it were longer, if only as a bargaining tactic to an eventual agreement. “Conditions-based” withdrawal will never work, as different actors in the U.S. government will evaluate conditions differently, as they do now, depending on their policy preferences.
TCB: If there is a complete withdrawal, would we face a situation similar to where we were before 9/11 and leave a power vacuum for terrorist organizations to exploit?
Rubin: If we just withdraw precipitously with no political negotiations, then that could happen, though the neighboring countries, especially China and India, now have many more resources than in 2001 and would try to prevent such a vacuum. Negotiating the terms under which they would do so would be a very good outcome.