Donald Trump kept us guessing about Afghanistan. Never during his campaign, nor in the first seven months of his presidency, did he give us an inkling of what he thought should be our policy goal in America’s longest-lasting war.
With his August 21 speech, the president charted a path forward. It is now President Trump’s war, whether he wants it or not. The speech, written more from the standpoint of his advisors than his own, made several pronouncements to which the world — especially our adversaries and enemies — will pay great attention.
The president said that we must seek an “honorable and enduring” ending to the war worthy of the sacrifices our soldiers have made.
To achieve that result, he said, we will use all the instruments of American power. He said that we would no longer tolerate Pakistan’s harboring of the terrorist networks we are fighting. He spoke of the billions of dollars we’ve paid Pakistan billions for its supposed alliance with us, implying that we will cut off the funds if their government doesn’t cooperate in the destruction of the terrorists.
Trump also said that we want India to make greater contributions to economic assistance and development of Afghanistan.
Most pointedly, the president said we were stopping the practice of nation-building but rather we were in the business of killing terrorists.
At first glance, it all sounds pretty good. But once you scratch the surface, it’s clear that the president’s path forward in Afghanistan leads to defeat at the end of many more years of war there.
Nowhere in the speech did Trump label the enemy “Islamic terrorists.” Nowhere in the speech did he say we will fight and defeat the ideology of Islamism, which is the principal propellant of all the terrorist networks. He had called the terrorists by their proper name and promised to defeat their ideology all through the campaign.
By now anyone who isn’t willfully blind will admit that the Islamist ideology must be defeated if any enduring result benefitting America in this war can be achieved. The Taliban — or whatever Islamist terror network may arise to succeed them — will never stop fighting until Afghanistan returns to its pre-9/11 status of harboring terrorists and enabling them to attack us.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster — who insists there is no connection between Islam and terrorism — has captured the president’s mind.
Afghanistan is an area, not a nation. As Michael Yon and others who have lived in the combat zones for years write, there are so many sub-nationalities, tribes, languages and cultures within Afghanistan that there is no nation to call by that name. In that respect it is like Iraq. Regardless of the similarity, the fact that Afghanistan isn’t a nation is a primary reason why the President of Afghanistan, Ashraf Ghani, is properly derided as the “mayor of Kabul,” as was his predecessor, Mohammed Karzai.
In those many cultures, the only permissible rulers — tribal and in small regions — are Islamic. To understand that compels the uncomplicated conclusion that no one has ever reached, not in the Pentagon, the White House or Congress.
That conclusion is that we are the insurgents, not the Taliban, not ISIS, not al-Qaeda or the other eighteen or so terror networks operating in Afghanistan and Pakistan. An insurgency cannot succeed without the support of the populace, which we will never have until the Islamist ideology is defeated and the people of the region have something more attractive to which to attach themselves.
While ignoring the necessity for ideological war, the president also passed over crucial facts that will prevent his “new” strategy from succeeding. Principal among them is CPEC: the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor by which China has established itself in Pakistan — and derivatively Afghanistan — as one of America’s enemies there.
CPEC is ambitious in scope and involves the Chinese in almost every part of Pakistan’s economy and military. For example, the Chinese are building a large naval base near the port city of Gwadar. As reported by the Pakistani newspaper, Dawn, a “national fiber optic backbone” will be built for internet traffic. A “full system” of monitoring and surveillance will be built in cities from Peshawar to Karachi. Thousands of acres of agricultural land are being leased to the Chinese who will work with Pakistani farmers to grow crops for export to China.
Under CPEC, China will build roads, railroads, and other infrastructure. The costs of CPEC will be paid by China and will cost tens of billions of dollars. It is a bargain for the Chinese. From CPEC they gain more in Pakistan than they could have by conquering it.
Thus, Trump’s plan to induce Pakistan’s government to help fight terrorist networks by reducing or cutting off aid to Pakistan is risible. Any funds we cut off will be matched by added Chinese funding.
Another factor overlooked in Trump’s plan is the timing of CPEC. Pakistan’s former prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, was removed from office in early August by the courts. Pakistan’s new prime minister, Shahid Abbasi, has been in office only for weeks. The instability of Pakistani politics means China’s venture into Pakistan is timed to take advantage of it.
Abbasi’s new defense minister, Khuram Dastgir, was appointed to appease the coup-prone Pakistani military. He is their ally, and will have a considerable voice in Abbasi’s decisions. The military, in turn, is dominated by ISI, the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence agency. ISI, of course, is a state-within-a-state. It is ISI that gives safe haven, money, and intelligence to the terrorist networks. China is perfectly comfortable with that arrangement. It couldn’t be otherwise and still be making CPEC’s huge investments in Pakistan.
China has already warned us to respect Pakistani sovereignty. If Trump were serious about ridding Pakistan of the terrorist operations there — many of their locations are well-known to U.S. intelligence — we would have to strike at them with cruise missiles and other long-range weapons we have. To make those strikes would be tantamount to declaring war on Pakistan. It would also risk killing Chinese workers — mostly if not all members of the Chinese military — who are embedding in Pakistan’s government functions.
To say that the Afghan government is corrupt is a masterful understatement. Many, if not all, of the senior ministers and sub-ministers are on the Pakistani payroll. China’s entry into the Pakistani government means that they will also be under China’s influence.
President Trump’s awareness of these facts and their implications isn’t obvious. His speech, though full of bluster, ignored them. The speech was followed by Secretary of State Tillerson stating an objective of negotiations with the Taliban to reach some sort of peace. If Tillerson believes that any negotiation with the Taliban can resolve anything to America’s benefit, he is as deluded as his predecessor, John Kerry, was in attempting to force a peace agreement on Israel and the Palestinians.
Though the president denies we are continuing with nation-building, his overture to India for more assistance in developing Afghanistan proves otherwise. Moreover, any further injection of India in Afghanistan is an enormous reason for Pakistan to continue its support of terrorists there.
India has been Pakistan’s sworn enemy since the British partitioned India and created Pakistan. The two nations think of little besides Kashmir, the province that is mostly Muslim but still controlled by India. Afghanistan borders Pakistan on the north and India is to Pakistan’s south. The greater India’s involvement in Afghanistan, the greater Pakistan’s insecurity about being surrounded. If the president were thinking clearly, he’d see that.
Trump’s advisers are evidently ignoring all the important facts on the ground: Islamic ideology, the nature of Afghanistan, China’s growing presence and influence, and all the rest. The new mini-surge of four thousand troops into Afghanistan — a nation about the size of Texas — can’t do more than chase terrorist bands and kill some who will be replaced about as rapidly as they die.
The president has chosen a strategy that will fail as resoundingly as the one it replaces. The Afghanistan war will grind on, costing more lives and treasure, until we withdraw entirely. There are no options for him to remove China from Pakistan, or — at this point — to change Pakistan’s conduct.
It would have been far better to withdraw our forces except for intelligence, special operations, and air and naval long-range strike forces and use all of them to kill terrorists in Afghanistan whenever two or more of them gather there.