The White House Asks: Do We Stay in Afghanistan?

Anthony Cordesman
Arleigh H. Burke Chair, Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies

Amid rising frustration in the White House about the war in Afghanistan, reports have emerged about two major dynamics: a disagreement between National Security Advisor LTG H.R. McMaster and the president’s chief strategist, Steven Bannon, over the way forward in Afghanistan, and, as part of that disagreement, the future of General John Nicholson Jr., the Commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan. Amid this debate, The Cipher Brief’s Mackenzie Weinger spoke with Anthony Cordesman, the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, about the U.S.’ future strategy – or lack thereof – in Afghanistan.

The Cipher Brief: How would you assess the current debate within the administration? How are they looking at the current strategy in Afghanistan – and developing a future one?

Anthony Cordesman: It’s a series of debates, depending on where you are. Remember, if you are dealing with military strategy and planning, you’re dealing with specifics, not generalities. If you’re in the White House, you have a debate over whether you should be or stay in Afghanistan at all. And then you have the debate over what military and civil strategy you should pursue, which is often related to issues like the budget. You have an argument over whether you should use regular forces or consider some kind of contract arrangement. And you have a separate debate at State over the levels of foreign aid and assistance. People often really don’t understand how many different communities of the U.S. government get involved in trying to shape different aspects of strategy.

But the main ones right now are, essentially, do we stay? There’s at least a marginal debate over whether we should switch over to contractors to handle the security side. There’s also a debate over what role U.S. train, and assist and combat support forces should play, and whether major increases are necessary. These are the key questions because you really have not seen the administration have any serious debates over the civil side, which may be as important as the military side. However, virtually all of the focus tends to be on the military side and at least so far, the administration tends to be very heavily focused not on the overall security issues of the region, but ISIS.

TCB: There were reports this week that President Donald Trump has suggested firing General John Nicholson and has grown increasingly frustrated over not being presented with a “winning” strategy. Do you think that’s an appropriate focus?

Cordesman: I think what you have, quite honestly, is a president who is very frustrated by the fact he’s inherited an extremely complex situation. There are no good answers to problems created in the past by both the Bush and Obama administrations. I would imagine it must be very difficult to sit there and get a briefing on what you can or cannot do in terms of marginal changes in a given year. But the fact is that this set of problems had its origins long ago.

These are some of the most complex terrain, tribal, sectarian, and ethnic problems imaginable, and you don’t win — not in the classic sense. You’re not fighting a regular enemy. I think General Nicholson has done everything that anybody can do, but I can understand why somebody who does not have a lot of military background and his advisers are sort of in turmoil, would find it difficult to understand this.

TCB: What would be your recommendation to the administration regarding the strategy? How would you weigh in on the debate surrounding troop numbers, with some pushing for additional troops and others such as Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner pushing to use contractors?

Cordesman: I think that frankly, what the Joint Staff, General Nicholson, and General McMaster has recommended is the best you can do. There’s no magic answer. The problem that you have here, and something that they’ve also already begun to do, is conditional aid. You’ve not, basically, clearly tied aid to having relatively effective personnel and policies on the part of the Afghan government. So that’s also a part of the plan that’s been presented, but it’s had virtually no focus in a lot of the broader reporting.

The other problem – that I think is a much more serious one – is that no matter what you do, it’s only half the story. It’s very clear that the structure of government between [President] Ghani and [chief executive] Abdullah Abdullah is deeply divided and not working effectively. You need to have a far more effective Afghan government and pattern of governance at every level. Right now we have no clear State, USAID, or NSC program for dealing with the civil side of the politics and the governance.

One key recommendation is you can’t win half a war. It’s critical that you have a civil program. It’s not a matter of trying to dictate or take control or occupy — it’s basically pushing the Afghans as hard as you can to actually implement the parts of their program.

There are some things you know won’t work. And that gets to your last question, which is contractors. I guess if you had never dealt with foreign governments, if you had never paid attention to all of the complaints and charges and attacks on U.S. posture and the U.S. role overseas, it might not occur to you that essentially saying we’re going to send in a force of mercenaries is about the fastest political way to aid terrorists, anti-American arguments, and virtually any critic of the United States you can possibly find.

There’s also the practical effect that anybody who has watched these people in action realizes that they are in it for the money. And in doing so, I can tell you from personal experience, that their willingness to take actions that can alienate the local population and indeed pretty thoroughly alienate many people working for the United States government, is not casual. It’s almost impossible to think of a way that could have a more negative impact, quite aside from the question of how on Earth a contractor is going to do this effectively, or any more cheaply, than the U.S. military.

TCB: What’s in danger of being overlooked as the White House reevaluates its strategy?

Cordesman: You get a lot of pushback here from within the government and in the military – that you fought a long time, people have emotional commitments, and strong feelings of friendship and concern for the Afghan people or Afghans they worked with. But is it worth staying? Do you really have a credible enough chance of coming out of this with some kind of settlement in-state that will achieve the kind of goals that justify financing a war? That’s a very hard question to answer.

One real question is: is it too late to use air power, a realistic train and assist effort, and combat support to create an effective Afghan military capability? I think the answer is no, it’s not too late, but anybody who says they can promise this is perhaps being a little unrealistic.

Do you have a credible probability of creating a combined civil-military strategy that will produce a stable, meaningful outcome worth its cost?

The Author is Anthony Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at CSIS. During his time at CSIS, Cordesman has been director of the Gulf Net Assessment Project and the Gulf in Transition Study, as well as principal investigator of the CSIS Homeland Defense Project. He has led studies on national missile defense, asymmetric warfare and weapons of mass destruction, and critical infrastructure protection. He directed the CSIS Middle East Net Assessment Project and codirected the CSIS... Read More

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