Trump Will Inherit a Losing War in Afghanistan
He didn’t break it, but he needs to decide to either buy it or return it
by MATTHEW GAULT
For almost two decades, American military forces have fought against the Taliban, Al Qaeda and other militant groups in Afghanistan. The war goes on and more than 8,400 U.S. troops remain in the country to fight it.
Pres. Barack Obama promised to withdraw American forces from the country within 16 months of his taking office. That didn’t happen.
Instead, he allowed the United States to languish in a land that has long been the graveyard of empires. After a troop surge in the early days of his presidency, Obama and his administration paid little attention to Afghanistan.
They kept the cash and troops flowing, but did little to resolve any of the bigger problems. This is the hard truth president-elect Trump faces when takes office next week — if America wants to stay in Afghanistan it must double down on its troop presence, aid output and seek diplomatic solutions to the current conflict.
Yes, that means a peace deal with the Taliban. It’s either that or abandon America’s longest war and admit the United States lost.
If we do pull out, the Taliban will quickly overwhelm the remaining Afghan national army, corruption will flourish until the Taliban takes power again and millions of Afghans will be no better off than they were when America first invaded.
These things are certain. Should America stay, there are no guarantees.
Afghanistan is complicated and it’s easy to toss up our hands, say “who cares” and walk away from the whole mess. That’s an option, but it betrays a level of ignorance about what’s going on in the country that’s not justified.
The truth is, U.S. military leaders on the ground and outside observers know what’s going right and what’s going wrong in Afghanistan. The problem in Afghanistan is not a lack of intelligence or a lack of understanding, but a lack of will on the part of American politicians to either cut and run or stay and fight.
America’s existing policy of slowly allowing the situation to play out without a clear, communicated goal or end-game for the American and Afghan people isn’t sustainable.
On Jan. 11, 2016, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies — a Washington, D.C. think tank — Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Spoko made the case for staying in Afghanistan. He appealed to president-elect Trump and begged Americans not to forget about a war began more than 15 years ago.
Sopko’s speech was succinct and pragmatic. He laid out eight different problem areas facing Afghanistan and used clear language to drive home their importance.
“The most basic challenge that bedevils Afghanistan today is continued insecurity,” he said. Right now, Afghanistan can’t provide security for it’s own people nor can it pay for that security.
America is doing both.
Afghanistan’s 320,000 man security forces defended the country’s major population centers from the Taliban, but failed to bring the Islamists to heel. “It is basically playing whack-a-mole,” Sopko explained.
The next critical issue is bad leaders. The Afghan military has 1,000 generals.
For comparison, America has a just under 900 generals and admirals combined. That’s a lot of cooks in the kitchen and they’re bad at managing their troops, holding them to account and even paying them. Seventy-five percent of Afghan troop losses are from soldiers going AWOL.
Corruption drove a lot of that bad leadership. To be clear, corruption was part of Afghan culture long before America invaded, but it exacerbated the problem by “dumping too much money, too fast, into too small an economy, with too little oversight,” Sopko pointed out.
Leaders claim pay for soldiers who don’t exist, politicians skim cash off the top and hundreds of local and foreign defense contractors quote high rates for half-assed work. It’s a rot that eats at the heart of Kabul.
The opium trade walks hand in hand with that corruption. America spent billions to eradicate the poppy in Afghanistan and failed big.
Now the Taliban — once the nemesis of the addictive crop — is bank rolling its resistance with drug money. According to the intelligence on the ground, the Taliban makes 60 percent of its budget off the drug trade.
“Policy-makers should ask themselves, if we are worried about illicit oil sales funding ISIS terrorists in Syria and Iraq, why we are not more concerned about this key source of funding for the Taliban — funding which is only serving to prolong America’s longest war?” Sopko said, using a common acronym for the terrorist group Islamic State.
But wars against drugs are impossible to fight and the Taliban has made peace with the illicit trade precisely because America struggles to eliminate it. Opium is a cash crop and the plant flourishes in Afghanistan.
It’s the most profitable plant for local farmers. Both American and the Taliban knows this, but it seems the Taliban has learned to capitalize on it.
Sustainability is the next problem. The Afghan economy just can’t support the government and the security forces. Without clear and sustained corruption reform and peace with the poppy, it’s hard to know if it ever will.
“The Defense Department estimates that Afghanistan will not be able to pay for even its security forces on its own until 2024 — and many think that optimistic,” Sopko said. “In addition, Afghan government revenues only cover just over 50 percent of government expenditures.”
Again, we won’t know if Kabul can actually support itself until it gets hold of its corruption problem. Too often America dumps cash into Afghanistan and loses track of it.
We simply don’t know if the money is going into an officials pocket or to the program it’s meant for. This has the dual effect of weakening the government and providing a reason for the common people to turn to the Taliban.
“Should it be any surprise that we continually hear about the palatial mansions of Afghan ministers and civil servants as well as the specter of ghost teachers, doctors, soldiers and police?” Sopko said. “And with every report, Afghan citizens lose more patience with their own government, tempting some to join or support the insurgency.”
It’s not all doom and gloom. Sopko pointed out that Kabul established the Anti-Corruption Justice Center and began prosecuting high-profile corruption cases in 2016.
Afghan Pres. Ashraf Ghani supports the effort, works with NATO troops and helps authorities track down corruption in Afghanistan. It’s working.
“For example, SIGAR uncovered a major fuel contract fraud case that led president Ghani to cancel the contract and save roughly $200 million in U.S. taxpayer money from being wasted,” Sopko said.
He also pointed to a bid-rigging scheme aimed at defrauding Kabul of millions to build roads. SIGAR showed Ghani the evidence and the president shut down the scheme.
It’s a good sign, but it’s not enough. If America wants to do right by Afghanistan and accomplish the goals it had from day one of the invasion, it’s going to have to stay and hold Kabul’s hands for years to come — we might be there for decades.
The incoming administration must take a long hard look at the region, weight the pros and cons of permanent occupation — let’s be honest, that’s what it is — and decide whether to double down or leave forever.