With confirmation from United States officials earlier this week that an additional 4,000 troops will be sent to buttress the training and advisory mission in Afghanistan, one is forced to consider what to make of the state of affairs in that country. Frankly, it’s time the public started asking the hard questions, especially in light of Defence Industry Minister Christopher Pyne’s pledge that “[Australia] will always consider requests from the United States — our most important ally — for assistance”.
So what long-term national security interests are likely to be achieved by the US and its allies in Afghanistan in the future. Is the task to “defeat the Taliban” an impossible mission guided by a skewed sense of what the military can realistically accomplish? Is the current training mission “a bandaid for a bullet wound”, as one US combat advisor described it? A boulder to be rolled uphill by the military for all eternity, with an ever-so-slightly different campaign plan every four years?
According to Defence Secretary Jim Mattis, one of the chief architects of Donald Trump’s “new” strategy, the plan announced earlier this week draws on lessons learnt by the combat advisory teams who deployed alongside the Iraqi Army in the fight against Islamic State. The main takeaway, apparently, is that embedding Western military advisers with forward units is better than leaving them behind at base.
With a “frontline” emphasis for Trump’s campaign plan, you can see similarities to another “new” campaign plan recently outlined by Senator John McCain, who applauded Trump’s speech as a “big step in the right direction”. In his strategy, McCain argued that a “long-term, open-ended counter-terrorism partnership” with the Afghan government and the deployment of military adviser-trainers with the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces at the kandak (battalion) level instead of the higher corps level was the key to victory. What this means is that more troops are wanted to achieve a set of goals that a much larger force in 2011 could not achieve either.
To the uninitiated, a strategy that splits hairs over minutiae in mission structure instead of having a frank discussion about the mission’s fundamental problems might seem a little beside the point, especially when one considers that violence in Afghanistan derives less from non-desirable teacher-student ratios in US-Afghan training camps than it does from complex feuds over tribe and religion.
“The Afghan government will take the support gladly because they would prefer that foreigners do the fighting for them. If you are an Afghan faction this is the game: get some foreigners to fight for you”.
Rather than being dragged into the conflict every time a new feud erupts between the Afghan government and its local enemies, Dr Martin argues, what is needed is simply a “minimum viable force” — the smallest possible training and support mission and a small counter-terrorism force — to keep the government afloat. This would prevent both mission creep and everybody’s worst case scenario — the fall of Kabul.
With such calls for minimalism seemingly sidelined in the President’s new strategy, however, the question that arises is what are an extra 4,000 troops going to do that the 100,000 deployed by President Obama in 2011 could not?
One begins to wonder if the emphasis on numbers and mission structure is a distraction from more basic problems looming in the background. Problems such as, say, the possibility that the Afghan National Security and Defence Forces might not be a viable fighting force without a permanent US military presence to buttress it.
The looming likelihood of a permanent war-footing for America in Afghanistan is worthy of consideration, not least because a core theme of Trump’s speech revolved around the idea that “conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy [from] now on”.
There’s a strong whiff of McMaster and Mattis in this phrasing because it’s indubitably correct that wars do not conform to neat timescales. It’s also true that this rhetoric can be interpreted as an attempt by Trump to distance himself from Mr Obama — a man strongly criticised for announcing his withdrawal timeline and giving the Taliban cause to “wait the US out”.
At the same time, even if Trump is right, that conditions instead of preferred timeframes should dictate decisions, it does nothing to allay the public’s concern that Afghanistan has become a case study in “endless war”.
But this is what makes the way Western governments formulate Afghanistan policy so frustrating. While a vague set of goals are well-known to the public — “disrupting and dismantling the neo-Taliban insurgency” or “denying sanctuary to jihadist groups” for example — never has a single campaign plan shown signs of permanently achieving any of these goals.
Preferred though they may be, they just don’t seem particularly achievable.
If jihadist ideology cannot be wholly eradicated on the Afghan-Pakistan border, is there a point at which we can call its outreach successfully contained? If “the Taliban” cannot be militarily defeated then at what point should other options be explored?
If Trump is good to his word that “perhaps it will be possible to have a political settlement that includes elements of the Taliban”, then what are the conditions in which this settlement could occur? At what point does the US President seek conflict termination over conflict perpetuation?
Trump needs to outline as clearly as possible by what quantifiable metrics his mission would be deemed a success. At present, we have none.
All in all, too many questions remain unanswered. With no tangible goals, no maximum spends and no body count cut-offs provided in Trump’s strategy-free strategy for Afghanistan, the public cannot but keep guessing how, when or even if Western military involvement in the country will come to an end. And that is exactly the problem.