WASHINGTON — President Trump, due to unveil his new strategy for fighting the war in Afghanistan, faces what some aides are calling a “victory problem” — how to define success in America’s longest war and sell the war-weary U.S. public on the possibility of sending a few thousand more troops into the nearly 16-year-old conflict.
In recent days, White House officials have declined to say whether the new approach will roll out by mid-July — in keeping with a timetable Defense Secretary Jim Mattis laid out weeks ago. And they won’t say what role the commander in chief might play in selling the plan, including a potentially open-ended commitment, to Americans.
“We have a ‘victory problem,’” a senior administration official recently told Yahoo News, speaking on condition of anonymity to describe internal debates.
“Not everyone agrees on how to define it, and definitely not everyone agrees on how to pursue it. We don’t completely agree on ends, and we definitely don’t completely agree on means. And we won’t, even after a strategy rolls out.”
The question of how to define victory in Afghanistan bedeviled both of Trump’s predecessors. And now, a decade and a half after the first U.S. bombs fell there, it falls to the former real estate developer with a penchant for short declarations on even the most complex issues.
“Now, we never win a war. We never win. And we don’t fight to win. We don’t fight to win,” Trump complained to the National Governors Association in late February. “So we either got to win or don’t fight it at all.”
Since George W. Bush unleashed U.S. military might against the Taliban on Oct. 7, 2001, some 2,400 Americans have died in the conflict and more than 20,000 have been wounded. Barack Obama surged tens of thousands of troops into Afghanistan in 2009 but later drew frequent criticisms from Republicans, who accused him of focusing on withdrawing U.S. forces rather than defeating the Taliban. Obama aides said their main goal was making local security forces self-sustaining in order to extricate the United States from a seemingly intractable conflict.
Inside the Trump administration and among outside experts, there’s a general consensus that America’s foremost national security goal is to prevent Afghanistan from slipping back into its pre-9/11 state as a safe haven for extremists plotting to strike at America or its allies.
After that, though, things get murky. How many U.S. troops are needed? How many will stay for how long? How many are NATO allies willing to send, and to play what role? How much responsibility does America bear to build or shore up Afghan institutions, a process that candidate Trump (and his most fervent supporters) would likely have rejected as wasteful “nation-building”?
“Success is defeating the ISIS and al-Qaida in Afghanistan, and secondly an Afghan government that does not melt down, does not collapse, and is able to control its territory enough so that it does not become a safe haven for terrorists who threaten the U.S. and its allies,” Stephen Hadley, who served as George W. Bush’s national security adviser, told Yahoo News.
“We want the Afghan people to build a healthy, prosperous democracy — it is key to long-term peace and prosperity in Afghanistan, and we should certainly support that effort,” Hadley said. “But that’s primarily their job, their responsibility and will take a long time.”
Leon Panetta, who served as defense secretary and CIA director under Obama, said the United States must help the Afghan government and security forces.
“The problem is, you cannot allow Afghanistan to fail and become a safe haven for al-Qaida and for terrorism more broadly to attack our country,” Panetta told Yahoo News.
“If you cannot allow it to fail, then the question then becomes what do you do?” Panetta asked. “In the short term, you probably have increased personnel and support from the United States for the government in Kabul. And probably have a long-term presence similar to our presence in South Korea.”
At a mid-June hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker, R.-Miss., pressed Mattis to define victory.
Mattis replied, “The Afghan government — with international help — will be able to handle the violence and drive it down to a level that local security forces can handle.”
Mattis also noted that it would “probably require a residual force” training Afghan troops and carrying out missions against extremists so that they remain “at a level of threat that the local government and the local security forces can handle.”
That’s the kind of open-ended prospect that makes Trump’s populist advisers, led by Steven Bannon, recoil, the senior administration official told Yahoo News. Bannon worries that Trump would get sucked into a doomed nation-building project, the official said.
There is, however, broad consensus that the United States is not currently on a course for victory.
“We’re not winning in Afghanistan. And we will correct this as soon as possible,” Mattis told that same Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “I believe by mid-July we will be able to brief you in detail.”
The Pentagon has made clear it wants “thousands” of additional troops, on top of the roughly 8,400 U.S. forces and about another 7,000 from NATO allies.
In that hearing, Sen. John McCain, the panel’s chairman, warned Mattis sharply that lawmakers’ patience with the Trump administration’s handling of Afghanistan was not infinite and that a plan was overdue.
“I was confident that within the first 30 to 60 days we would have a strategy from which to start working,” McCain said, adding, “Unless we get a strategy from you, you’re going to get a strategy from us.”
Hadley said success would include a political component — an effort to encourage an Afghan-led process to reach a political settlement among all Afghan parties, including the Taliban, but without making Washington responsible for the outcome of that process. And the United States should provide aid to the Afghan government to battle corruption and help provide jobs.
But Panetta warned that the United States needs to set realistic goals. “We used to talk about building a 21st-century society there, a modern economy. I just think we’ve overshot the mark, time and time again.”
But for at least one expert, the debate over what, and how much, to commit to Afghanistan is beside the point.
“What to do about Afghanistan is not the most important question for the Trump administration to address,” said Andrew Bacevich, a Boston University professor of international relations and history whose only son, an Army lieutenant, was killed in Iraq in 2007.
“The core issue is: What is the nature of this conflict we are in with Islamism? We’ve been at this now for decades,” Bacevich told Yahoo News. “It’s brought us to the longest war in our history — a war with no end in sight.”
Bacevich has long argued for a complete reassessment of America’s posture in the Middle East and against Islamists — a shift away from military solutions and towards more responsibility on local governments and local forces.
“The United States needs to cut its losses and try something else, other than the ‘war on terror,’” he said. Afghanistan is “quite literally the forever war,” in which different strategies with different troop levels have still left America in the quandary it faces in 2017.
“Where’s the evidence of progress?” he asked. “I don’t see any evidence.”
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