Experts take on new Afghanistan strategy: war’s end nowhere in sight

A patrolling U.S. armored vehicle is reflected in the mirror of a car in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017. In a national address Monday night, U.S. President Donald Trump reversed his past calls for a speedy exit and recommitted the United States to the 16-year-old conflict, saying U.S. troops must “fight to win.” (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)
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A patrolling U.S. armored vehicle is reflected in the mirror of a car in Kabul, Afghanistan, Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017. In a national address Monday night, U.S. President Donald Trump reversed his past calls for a speedy exit and recommitted the United States to the 16-year-old conflict, saying U.S. troops must “fight to win.” (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

No one is quite sure how to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table.

By adjusting U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, President Donald Trump is trying to stave off defeat in that war-ravaged nation as opposed to gaining the quick victory many expected 16 years ago when a barrage of U.S. and British cruise missiles were launched against terrorist camps in the region.

In a nationally televised speech last Monday, Trump signaled the United States will likely remain in Afghanistan for years, opening the door to sending more American soldiers to assist Afghan troops in their fight against Taliban insurgents while simultaneously refusing to set a timetable for their removal.

FILE — Eastern Shura fighters watch as U.S. B-52’s carpet bomb an area of the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan, Dec. 9, 2001. B-52s were scheduled for retirement years ago, but they are expected to keep flying until at least 2040. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)
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FILE — Eastern Shura fighters watch as U.S. B-52’s carpet bomb an area of the Tora Bora mountains in Afghanistan, Dec. 9, 2001. B-52s were scheduled for retirement years ago, but they are expected to keep flying until at least 2040. (Stephen Crowley/The New York Times)

Credit: STEPHEN CROWLEY

Credit: STEPHEN CROWLEY

Reaction has ranged from support to deep skepticism, with no one too sure how America’s longest war can be brought to a satisfactory conclusion.

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“The Taliban did not come to the table for real negotiations when we had 100,000 troops there, so it seems like wishful thinking that 10,000, 12,000 or 15,000 today will convince them to negotiate,” said Michael Fuchs, a deputy assistant secretary of State for East Asian Affairs in the Obama administration.

In his speech, Trump called for a tougher line against nuclear-armed Pakistan and used phrases such “obliterating ISIS” and “crushing al-Qaeda” when describing the revised strategy. But despite the talk of killing terrorists, the effort appears to be aimed at forcing the Taliban to negotiate a peace with the pro-western Kabul government — an alliance that would lead Islamic State militants and al-Qaeda terrorists to vacate Afghanistan.

No one expects that to happen anytime soon.

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“I agree with the president that this is going to be much a longer war than anyone had envisioned,” said retired Army Col. Peter Mansoor, now the General Raymond E. Mason chair of military history at Ohio State University. “But he clearly laid out why it is necessary for the national security of the United States to remain engaged.”

FILE — An Afghan women is rushed from the scene of a suicide car bomb in Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 15, 2013. America’s war in Afghanistan has now stretched into its 16th year, preoccupying three American presidencies and outlasting a dozen American military commanders. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)
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FILE — An Afghan women is rushed from the scene of a suicide car bomb in Kabul, Afghanistan, Dec. 15, 2013. America’s war in Afghanistan has now stretched into its 16th year, preoccupying three American presidencies and outlasting a dozen American military commanders. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)

“Remaining engaged is going to cost the nation in terms of blood and treasure, but it is the only way to eventually see an outcome in Afghanistan we can live with,” said Mansoor, who served as executive officer to General David Petraeus in Iraq.

‘No good options’

Skeptics counter that Trump’s approach is a minor correction as opposed to a sweeping new strategy. Until the United States, Pakistan, Iran and Russia all agree to pressure the Taliban insurgents and Afghan government to end the conflict, they say, there is little hope of any outcome that could eliminate Afghanistan as a terrorist base.

“There are no good options in Afghanistan, but … time and again it’s been proven a military solution alone will not end this conflict,” said Fuchs, now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress in Washington. “The one thing that unites many of these countries together is their abhorrence of instability in Afghanistan and that can bring together those countries with wildly different viewpoints.”

FILE — Wounded soldiers in Kunar Province in Afghanistan, Jan. 27, 2007. America?s war in Afghanistan has now stretched into its 16th year, preoccupying three American presidencies and outlasting a dozen American military commanders. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)
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FILE — Wounded soldiers in Kunar Province in Afghanistan, Jan. 27, 2007. America?s war in Afghanistan has now stretched into its 16th year, preoccupying three American presidencies and outlasting a dozen American military commanders. (Lynsey Addario/The New York Times)

Loren Thompson, chief executive officer of the Lexington Institute, a non-profit defense organization in suburban Washington, said he was “afraid this strategy is a prescription for being in Afghanistan forever. The place is not fixable especially if we are not in the business of nation building.”

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Trump entered office with a well-documented series of objections to the U.S. war in Afghanistan, which began a month after al-Qaeda terrorists based in Afghanistan used hijacked airplanes to destroy the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and damage the Pentagon in suburban Washington.

But in his Monday speech at Fort Myer across the Potomac River from Washington, Trump explained his reversal by saying, “Decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office,” adding “we must stop the resurgence of safe havens in Afghanistan” which could threaten Americans.

ARLINGTON, VA - AUGUST 21:  U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on Americas military involvement in Afghanistan at the Fort Myer military base on August 21, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia. Trump was expected to announce a modest increase in troop levels in Afghanistan, the result of a growing concern by the Pentagon over setbacks on the battlefield for the Afghan military against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces.  (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***
Caption
ARLINGTON, VA - AUGUST 21: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers remarks on Americas military involvement in Afghanistan at the Fort Myer military base on August 21, 2017 in Arlington, Virginia. Trump was expected to announce a modest increase in troop levels in Afghanistan, the result of a growing concern by the Pentagon over setbacks on the battlefield for the Afghan military against Taliban and al-Qaeda forces. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images) *** BESTPIX ***

Credit: Mark Wilson

Credit: Mark Wilson

Trump, for the moment, appears to be heeding the advice of his national security team: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, White House National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, and General John W. Nicholson, commander of the U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

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“In Secretary Mattis, General Nicholson and H.R. McMaster we have three highly competent and experienced officers in place who understand Afghanistan from on-the-ground experience as well as from a broader study of history,” said Mansoor, a classmate of Nicholson’s at West Point.

In a conference call with reporters last week, retired Marine Gen. John R. Allen said pulling out of Afghanistan “was the worst of all options,” a sentiment shared by many others with deep experience in the region. But Vanda Felbab-Brown, an Afghanistan expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington, warned against setting expectations too high.

The president’s strategy “is not a strategy for victory,” she said. “It’s a strategy for buying hope.”

Pakistan possible key

Most analysts have welcomed Trump’s blunt message to Pakistan, with retired U.S. Army Col. Robert Killebrew saying, “We’re never going to solve the puzzle until the Paks support us” by sealing their border with Afghanistan and scaling back their support for Islamic insurgents.

A 2015 report by the Congressional Research Service concluded “Pakistan’s security services are seen by many independent analysts to be too willing to make distinctions between what they consider to be ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Islamist extremist groups, maintaining supportive relations with Afghan insurgent and anti-India militant groups operating from Pakistani territory.”

The United States is not without leverage. The U.S. is Pakistan’s largest trading partner. Between 2001 and 2015, the U.S. provided Pakistan with $20 billion in military and economic assistance while Pakistan spent $5.4 billion during the last decade on U.S. military equipment, including state-of-the-art F-16 jets.

President Barack Obama scaled back Pakistani assistance, but U.S. officials have feared greater pressure on Islamabad could push Pakistan closer to China or perhaps lead to Pakistan’s collapse.

“Honestly, I don’t think we’ve tested the proposition yet whether we can truly compel Pakistan to change its behavior,” Fuchs said.

Although analysts say Afghanistan cannot be compared to Vietnam where 55,000 Americans died, they say the U.S. will need patience to prevail. Since 2001, more than 2,300 American soldiers have died in Afghanistan and taxpayers have spent $714 billion for combat operations and reconstruction efforts in the country.

“It’s quite possible the sons and daughters of the American advisers there now will be over there (years from now) advising the Afghans,” Killebrew said.

Staff Writer Barrie Barber contributed to this report.