Clapper, Winnefeld: Trump Can’t Escape Nation Building in Afghanistan

Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty

The first deployments of new U.S. troops will arrive in Afghanistan “pretty quickly,” the top U.S. commander for the Middle East said on Tuesday, following President Donald Trump’s announcement the U.S. will continue its long-term commitment to the country.

“What’s most important for us now is to get some capabilities in to have an impact on the current fighting season,” Gen. Joseph Votel said. 

During Trump’s Monday night speech on his Afghanistan policy, the president refused to discuss troop numbers or to lay out benchmarks for the American people to measure progress, but he said a key shift in strategy would be the move from a time-based approach to a conditions-based approach. Trump vowed the U.S. would “fight to win” in the nearly 16-year-old conflict, as he also called for Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan to adjust their respective roles. 

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson sought to highlight this regional emphasis, saying that “we took a fairly comprehensive review of our relationships in Pakistan and our relationship with India, and we see this approach as requiring integration of all three of those strategies, and use Pakistan and India to also bring pressure on the situation in Afghanistan.”

The Cipher Brief reached out to former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Sandy Winnefeld to get their insight on Trump’s strategy, how to read his claim that the U.S. is “not nation-building again,” and what his approach could mean for Pakistan and India.

The Cipher Brief: President Trump says the “conditions on the ground will guide our strategy from now on.” What does that mean? How does the U.S. military role change, if at all?

James Clapper: This is telegraphy language for an indefinite commitment, or, “watch this space,” and we’ll define when those unspecified conditions are met. It really doesn’t change anything from what we’re doing now.

Sandy Winnefeld: President Trump’s statement that “conditions on the ground will guide our strategy” is about the “means” part of the ends, ways, means balance that is essential to any strategy. He is essentially saying that he won’t allow our level of resource commitment to be driven by arbitrary troop numbers and timelines, but rather by progress on the ground.

The question, of course, is how this progress will be measured. The U.S. military role does not seem to be changing. Rather, the president has decided to fine-tune the level of resourcing to better match the situation on the ground. Our troops’ focus will likely still be on training, advising, and assisting the Afghan National Security Forces, most often from a distance. In some cases, it might mean closer approaches to the fighting, but it is not a wholesale change.

TCB: Are you concerned about an open-ended, military commitment to Afghanistan? 

Clapper: Not sure what you mean by “concerned.” Yes, this means more U.S. blood and treasure, but leaving isn’t a very appealing option either.

Winnefeld: I’m not overly concerned about an open-ended commitment to Afghanistan as it is currently outlined. If we were on slippery slope to ever-increasing numbers, and if those troops were routinely going to be closely engaged in the fighting, then I would be concerned, because I do not believe our level of national security interest justifies that type of commitment at this point.

I do think that we are going to have to be there in some way for a very long time, as long as the Afghans are willing (unlike the Iraqis, who were not willing), in order to continue to prevent a terrorist threat to the United States and our partners from re-emerging.

TCB: Trump said the U.S. spent too much effort “trying to rebuild countries in our own image instead of pursuing our security interests” and indicated the U.S. focus would be on “winning” the battle against the terrorist threat in the region. Is he correct?

Clapper: Not really; by our staying in Afghanistan, or Iraq, we are, by definition, “nation-building.” Our mere presence constitutes nation-building.

Winnefeld: The president clearly stated that we will no longer conduct nation-building, and then proceeded to outline things we will do that sound a lot like nation-building. There is a balance between attempting to transform Afghanistan (which would be very difficult and require the defeat of a large insurgency and reform of a government and society) and simply “mowing the lawn” in suppressing terrorist (which is also hard, because it requires a presence in that land-locked country in order to generate the intelligence required to act). To remain in a position to conduct counter-terrorism, we are going to have to help the Afghans to some degree in building their nation.

TCB: The president called on Afghanistan to “carry their share of military, political and economic burden.”   Can that be done without a functioning, legitimate government? 

Clapper: The government they have “functions,” on an Afghan-good-enough scale. The larger issue is, what is “their share?” The Afghan government simply cannot survive financially without significant (as in billions) external support. The statement implies the Afghan government is going to do more? Like, what?

Winnefeld: I think the president did the right thing in calling out the Afghan government to take more action to reform and forge a working political consensus. It will be tempting for them to view the president’s decision as a “breather,” when in fact they need to redouble their efforts. We cannot want this more than they do.

TCB: Is winning the battle against the terrorists and helping train security forces enough to help troubled nations such as Afghanistan turn around and no longer be a safe haven for extremists? 

Clapper: Probably not, but it’s probably enough to keep them from attacking us, and that may be all that we can realistically expect, given this level of effort.

Winnefeld: To no longer be a safe haven for extremists, a nation has to develop and sustain the conditions under which extremists do not flourish. This means many of the tangible things we take for granted: prosperity, justice, and opportunity. These things, which give people a stake in the ground they do not want to give up, cannot be developed simply by training and equipping an army. And it takes a long time.

The best we can hope for is to help the Afghan state help itself maintain security while it tries to build that nation on its own, which will almost certainly have to include some kind of negotiated settlement with the Taliban. In the meantime, while we support this indirect method of preventing attacks on our homeland, we can contribute directly to that goal through our own counterterrorism actions.

TCB: Are the military and diplomatic components properly balanced? What role will intelligence play?

Clapper:  I thought the military and diplomatic components were reasonably and sensibly balanced at the end of the last administration, particularly given the very strong tandem of the then Ambassador and General John Nicholson, who is superb. We don’t have an ambassador there now, so obviously, the components aren’t balanced.

As for intelligence—in my mind, the main reason for our presence is to sustain the counterterrorism platform and access that Afghanistan uniquely provides.  If we were to leave, and lose that access, it would be very difficult to regain it. Intelligence plays a huge role there; that’s why CIA has such a large presence.

Winnefeld: As far as I can tell the military and diplomatic components of the strategy are fairly well balanced, even though the latter were not mentioned in the president’s speech. Diplomacy in this conflict means keeping our partners on board, working especially with our most difficult partner Pakistan, and figuring out how to get the process started for a negotiated settlement. Regarding the latter, the most significant obstacles seems to me to be the internal divisions within the Taliban, and Pakistan’s insistence that it be part and parcel of the negotiation, which neither the Taliban nor the Afghan government trust it to do faithfully. Of course, if you include the other big D of “development” inside diplomacy, then the word takes on greater importance, and it’s my sense that the president would not mention that in a speech in which he states we are not going to do nation-building any more.

TCB: The president put Pakistan on notice, pressuring the leadership to do more to stop terrorists who have found safe haven in Pakistan and suggesting billions of dollars at aid were at stake.   The U.S. has long been critical of Pakistan’s efforts to reign in terrorists.  How is this different?

Clapper: It isn’t; in the last administration, we issued countless ultimatums to Pakistan about their harboring extremists, the most egregious of which are the Haqqani Network.  But, Pakistan has leverage over us.  They aren’t going to change just because of this speech.

Winnefeld: The president really didn’t articulate much more than boiler-plate admonishments to Pakistan in his speech. There really was no “or else” explicitly stated, which may have been intentional in order to leave the threats as implicit. There are a range of pressure points with Pakistan, ranging from withholding aid, to sanctions on certain Pakistani officials, to overtly taking kinetic strikes on extremist networks based in Pakistan, to removing their major non-NATO ally status, to declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terrorism.

We have to remember that there are common interests and common areas of conflict between the U.S. and Pakistan, and that each has levers over the other (namely, in Pakistan’s case, our logistics routes and their support for extremists’ networks). In South Asia, it is common for one side to both support and undermine the other in order to maintain a band of control. This is foreign to Americans—we will have to deal with this firmly but realistically.

TCB: Is Trump’s statement that India—Pakistan’s mortal enemy—should do more to assist Afghanistan, a tacit threat to Islamabad?  

Clapper: Yes, this will be construed by Pakistan as threatening to them. They do not want more Indian influence in Afghanistan.

Winnefeld: I don’t know whether the president’s statement about India considered the impact it would have on Pakistan, who dreads greater Indian involvement in Afghanistan. It strikes me as equally probable that the president’s mercantilist thought processes were the major factor: India gains from trade with the U.S., and therefore should help carry the burden in the region. Though I wouldn’t completely dismiss this as an attempt to play one country off against the other, I believe the statement would have been couched differently if it were intended as an implicit threat to Pakistan.

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