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The Strategic Truth About The War In Afghanistan
By Lawrence Sellin, Retired Colonel, U.S. Army Reserve
The U.S. is actually fighting Pakistan in Afghanistan and, ultimately, the outcome will be determined by the Chinese.
The so-called U.S. “alliance” with Pakistan in the fight against radical Islam is a farce because, long ago, Pakistan decided to use radical Islam as one pillar of its security policy, the others being nuclear weapons and China as its chief geopolitical patron.
The Taliban are simply Pashtun cannon fodder that Pakistan uses to maintain Afghanistan as a client state. President Trump’s 4,000-man troop increase is matched by a greater number of potential Jihadis currently being brainwashed in Pakistani-sponsored Deobandi madrasas and awaiting deployment to Afghanistan.
Pakistan not only controls the battle tempo in Afghanistan, it controls the supply of our troops. In the past, when pressure was exerted by the U.S. on Pakistan for its support of the Taliban and other terrorist groups like the Haqqani network, those supplies were interrupted or convoys were attacked by Pakistani-sponsored terrorist groups operating inside of Pakistan.
That is, the strategic conditions in South Asia make the success of President Trump’s Afghanistan policy, which is, more or less, a continuation of the policy pursued over the last sixteen years, virtually impossible.
In any case, the President’s policy will unlikely affect the direction of events in South Asia, only delay them, while U.S. withdrawal would hasten the inevitable.
Islam, especially its radical manifestation, is the “glue” that holds Pakistan together, an otherwise artificial state composed of ethnic groups that never interacted in any significant way. Since the late 1970s Pakistan pursued a policy of “Islamization” with the proliferation of religious schools and religious political parties. Ethnic separatism was suppressed and Islamic fighters were found to be useful proxies for the Pakistani military and its intelligence service, the ISI, particularly against India and Afghanistan.
But Pakistan has lost control of its “Islamization” process. Ever more extreme and intolerant Salafist groups are increasing and expanding their influence, fueled by Arab Wahhabi money and transnational Jihadi ideologies like ISIS.
The trajectory is, not just a pre-9/11 Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, but a much larger radical Sunni entity that spans the Afghan-Pakistan border, completing the encirclement of Iran and creating a Sunni-Shia powder keg.
It is China, which has made a huge strategic investment in Pakistan, that has the most to lose from regional instability and which also has the greatest influence in Islamabad.
The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), which is part of China’s larger Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), aims to connect Asia through land-based and maritime economic zones. CPEC is an infrastructure project, the backbone of which is a transportation network connecting China to the Pakistani seaports of Gwadar and Karachi located on the Arabian Sea. China is expanding the port of Gwadar and its international airport, perhaps as preludes to the establishment of Chinese military bases near the entrance of the Persian Gulf.
In those respects, the traditionally secular Balochistan, Pakistan’s southwestern province bordering Afghanistan and Iran, has become a strategic center of gravity both because of the increase of radical Sunni groups there and its economic and military importance to China.
There is leverage — potential pain points — that U.S. strategists should consider exploiting.
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Dereliction of Duty II: The Afghanistan Years
Former CIA Chief of Station
There has been a lot of writing lately on Afghanistan as the new administration struggles with what do to there, just as the previous administration struggled mightily to define both the mission and the end game. In the absence of any good ideas, or any solutions, the last administration tragically kicked the can down the road for eight years, pursuing the status quo of a policy pretty much everyone knows has failed.
Obama’s advisors told him he faced two broad choices: 1) stay the course, which would cost $50 billion a year and probably continue to go sideways, or 2) pull out of Afghanistan and see it almost immediately dissolve into a problematic festering petri dish of terrorists, like the disaster which is Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, many of President Trump’s current advisors are the same unimaginative military guys who have been suggesting the status quo for 16 years.
The bottom line is that there are no easy choices in Afghanistan.
There are no silver bullets but to keep kicking the can down the road, spending about $50 billion a year on the effort and accomplishing little to nothing, cannot be high on President Trump’s list of things he wants to do. The President is desperately looking for some alternatives and his military-centric cabinet seems incapable of coming up with anything other than to keep doing the same thing and to maybe surge another 4,000 troops to Afghanistan. Really? 4,000 more troops are going to turn this around? The “troop surge” is a common military strategy when things are going bad, but it’s not too creative.
Mikhail Gorbachev tried it when things were going bad for the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It didn’t work well for him, either. The Soviets withdrew completely on 15 February 1989.
The idea that the addition of 4,000 new troops in Afghanistan on top of the 8,500 already there is going to make a difference is absurd. We had about 100,000 troops in the country previously and we couldn’t “win.” The whole idea of the troop surge – more of the status quo – is nonsensical. This is as if you found yourself in charge of running a big black and white TV factory that was doing poorly because the market for black and white TVs had evaporated, but instead of making any changes to the product line, your management consultant’s advice was to double down on black and white TVs by starting to run a second shift of workers at the plant.
It’s like that old line, “We don’t know where we are and we don’t know where we are going, but we’re making really good time…”
In his book “Dereliction of Duty,” now current National Security Advisor LTG H.R. McMaster excoriated a whole generation of U.S. military leadership for not speaking truth to power and for not articulating their objections to the strategy then being used in Vietnam at the behest of Washington politicians. McMaster faulted the military leadership for not having developed good alternatives for policy-makers to what the military leadership knew in their hearts was a failed strategy and one that could not win. McMaster called it an abdication of the Generals’ professional and civic responsibilities.
What about Afghanistan today? Are we winning? What exactly is “victory” in Afghanistan? Are we just going to be in Afghanistan forever spending $50 billion a year? Are we going to be doing the “nation building” role forever, lest Afghanistan slip back into being a hot bed of terrorism? Does anyone have any plan other than to keep doing what we have been doing for the last 16 years, spending untold billions in blood and treasure every year because no one can articulate anything else we might do instead?
The real tragedy is that these bad decisions on the war in Afghanistan have real and lasting consequences. Thousands of young men and women are being sent into harm’s way in Afghanistan every year with an ill defined mission, in non-combat operations, just waiting to get shot at. The vast majority of our soldiers in Afghanistan never even leave the U.S. base.
There has to be a better way. There has recently been some talk about getting the big U.S. military footprint out of Afghanistan, saving tens of billions of dollars a year, and doing more work with private contractors in conjunction with Afghan forces. Is it a perfect plan? No, but you’re not going to find a “perfect” plan for Afghanistan because if there was one, we would already be doing it. But, I have been surprised at how quick some pundits are to poke holes in the idea while offering zero ideas of their own about what we should do other than the same status quo of the last 16 years. We had better start thinking more broadly about our options in Afghanistan and what the end game there might look like, otherwise some young smart colonel in the war college will be writing a sequel to McMaster’s book in a few short years titled, “Dereliction of Duty II: The Afghanistan Years.”
“Creating A 12 To 24-Month Policy Bridge For A New Afghanistan Strategy”
By Lawrence J. Sellin, Colonel, United States Army (ret.)
Up until now his advisors have offered President Trump two choices for failure in Afghanistan, one quick, withdrawal, and one slow, a continuation of the failed strategy of the last sixteen years.
By now it should be apparent to all knowledgeable people that U.S. objectives cannot be achieved in land-locked Afghanistan where Pakistan, whose Afghanistan objectives differ from ours, controls the supply of our troops and the battle tempo through its support of the Taliban and Haqqani network.
An alternative is to provide the President with a 12 to 24-month plan that bridges the gap between the present untenable strategy to a longer term solution.
That is, rather than tweak the current strategy, begin to address the core problem, a strategic environment that has made success of the current strategy impossible.
Within the next two years, the Trump Administration should formulate a strategy that exploits Pakistan’s pain points, one which carves out roles for the Department of Defense, Department of State and Congress.
While preventing a further deterioration in the security situation in Afghanistan, different permutations and degrees of the following actions should be pursued, both as short term leverage against Pakistan and, ideally, to create a regional strategic environment more conducive to U.S. interests. That is, it is not the Taliban and the Haqqani network that need to be brought to the negotiating table, but Pakistan.
A longer term solution for Afghanistan was described previously in the Daily Caller, one based on counterterrorism rather than counterinsurgency, providing a cost-effective, flexible and “conditions-based” strategy advocated by retired U.S. Army Major General Paul Vallely in a Diana West article.
“Such a strategy, Vallely explained, relies on ‘the maximum use of unconventional forces,’ such as Navy SEALS and other special forces, who can be deployed as needed from what are known in military parlance as ‘lily pads’ — outposts or jumping-off points in friendly countries (Israel, Northern Kurdistan, India, Philippines, Italy, Djibouti … ) and from U.S. aircraft carrier strike groups. Such strike groups generally include eight to 10 vessels ‘with more fire power,’ the general noted, ‘than most nations.’ These lily pads become ‘bases we can launch from any time we want to,’ eliminating the need for massive land bases such as Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, by now a small city of 20,000 American personnel who continuously need to be supplied and secured at enormous expense.”
In terms of Afghanistan strategy, it is time to build a bridge to somewhere.