The drawn out war in Afghanistan seems to be headed toward two decades of misguided intervention. With President Trump’s re-engagement in the remote, mountainous country, America is repeating the same mistake it made in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq. As in those conflicts, America’s battlefield enemies in Afghanistan find safe haven in neighboring countries, namely Pakistan. Author and analyst Mark Perry writes at The American Conservative that President Obama attempted to fix the Pakistan problem with a drone war, but it didn’t work.
Obama agreed with Riedel’s sobering assessment and, on March 27, 2009, he announced his decision to the American people. “The future of Afghanistan is inextricably linked to the future of its neighbor Pakistan,” Obama said in a nationally televised address. “In the nearly eight years since 9/11, al-Qaeda and its extremist allies have moved across the border to the remote areas of the Pakistani frontier.” Put more simply (though Obama did not mention it), the same problem that the U.S. had faced in Korea, and again in Vietnam and Iraq—its failure to destroy the sanctuaries where its enemies could be reinforced and resupplied—it was now facing in Afghanistan. To deal with that problem, Obama appointed super-diplomat Richard Holbrooke to serve as a special envoy to the region (and to work with Centcom commander David Petraeus “to integrate our civilian and military efforts”), launched a drone war against Taliban and al-Qaeda bases in Pakistan, urged Congress to pass a $1.5 billion aid package to Pakistan that would make American strikes more palatable and then, the following May, replaced General David McKiernan, the U.S. commander in Afghanistan, with Stanley McChrystal.
It didn’t work.
In 2012, reporter and author Rajiv Chandrasekaran (whose book Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan remains the authoritative source on the Obama plan) concluded that while the Taliban was “pushed out of large stretches of southern Afghanistan,” and the “influx of U.S. resources accelerated the development of the Afghan security forces” the surge did not achieve its objectives. In effect, the Obama administration threw good money after bad: Afghan president Hamid Karzai never bought into the strategy, the Pakistanis failed to “meaningfully pursue” the Taliban and the Afghan army hung back—allowing the U.S. to do the fighting. What the U.S. should have done, Chandrasekaran wrote, was “go long.” Afghanistan is not a sprint, he concluded, but a marathon—and America “got winded too quickly.”
James Mattis and H.R. McMaster have digested these lessons, a senior Pentagon official told me just hours before Trump’s national address, and “have spent the last weeks trying to convince the president that the ‘three yards and a cloud of dust’ approach,” as he termed it, will work. Roughly translated, what that means is that in adopting a more modest increase in American troops, as McMaster and Mattis told Trump, the president would be signaling that while the U.S. was willing to help the Afghan government fight the Taliban, the numbers would not be significant enough to defeat them—that would have to be done by the Afghan Army. In truth, the McMaster-Mattis approach (what one senior Pentagon officer described as “doubling down on a war that is going nowhere”) has some support in the U.S. diplomatic community, and particularly among those civilians who have spent years working in the country.
Merry concludes that the Trump/Mattis plan doesn’t seem much different than what Obama tried. He quotes a Pentagon source that says “This Trump plan, at least so far as I understand it, sounds a lot like the kind of plan we’ve come up with again and again since the end of World War Two. We’re going to surge troops, reform the government we support and put pressure on our allies. In this building [the Pentagon] there’s a hell of a lot of skepticism. And that’s because we all know what this new strategy really means – and what it means that the only way we can get out of Afghanistan is to get further in. You know, it seems to me that if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that that doesn’t work.”
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