Tonight the President will address the nation on our commitment to Afghanistan, by any reckoning I imagine that he will continue to posture U.S. forces in line with his national security adviser McMaster, who has advocated a mini-surge of U.S. ground forces with new rules of engagement. Ironically, it was McMaster’s own publications on dysfunctional civil-military relations throughout our Vietnam commitment that underwrote American policy after Kennedy, shaping both Johnson and Nixon’s commitments. It is my view that McMaster’s insights will be outlined tonight.
We should expect about 8.5k troops, with 3k special operators to remain embedded with the Afghan national forces; to in effect strengthen the extraordinary weak culture that has hamstrung the Afghan national army in its engagement with Pashtun Taliban proxies supported by neighboring Islamabad.
Here’s what you won’t see tonight: any talk of grand strategy. It is my view that President Trump is waiting to see if he can buy time to strengthen his geopolitical hand in Southwest Asia tonight. Why is this the case? Fixing Kabul means hurting Islamabad, and Pakistan remains a nominally ally; we have no other land base to use in support of our policy throughout Afghanistan. We’re stuck with ‘the Citadel‘ and its own permanently dysfunctional civil-military platform. Pakistan isn’t a Republic anymore; Pakistan isn’t a country anymore. Pakistan is an army with a country! Fixing Kabul means addressing policies that aren’t war aims. This is the heart of our failure in Afghanistan and it cannot be fixed using instruments of war. This has probably been taught ad nauseum to Trump.
If the U.S. had to field instruments to secure Kabul it would have strong civil, diplomatic and economic institutions at its hand. It doesn’t. Winning in Afghanistan means deploying deft statecraft that would heat up the northwest frontier. It would strengthen Indian policy of normalizing its relations with Islamabad. It would also mean acknowledging an exceedingly high pain threshold that Pakistan has, that the west doesn’t.
To win in Afghanistan, you must mortally threaten Pashtun culture on both sides of Durand. It means weaponizing U.S. civilian led policy, an instrument we don’t have in our contemporary configuration at Pentagon or Defense. If you make the Muslims inside Durand compete, they’ll fold; but it would mean providing extraordinary support and pressure to Pakistan that remains easily enveloped. Enveloping or entrapping Islamabad is exceedingly risky and would probably push its new patrons in Beijing to counter U.S. policy. The fact is, we’re out of time in our Afghan commitment, especially given what the Obama administration accomplished over eight years of adverse risk counter-terror policy.
We’re stuck gaming a region that’s gaming us.