Is the US kicking the can down the road in Afghanistan (again)?

Is the US kicking the can down the road in Afghanistan (again)?

By Luke Vargas   
A U.S. Air Force sergeant provides aerial cover during a transport flight over Khost province in eastern Afghanistan. February 24, 2010. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Stephen J. Otero / Khost PRT Public Affairs
A U.S. Air Force sergeant provides aerial cover during a transport flight over Khost province in eastern Afghanistan. February 24, 2010. Courtesy: U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Stephen J. Otero / Khost PRT Public Affairs

“Wake” is a weekly foreign policy broadcast produced by Talk Media News and hosted by Luke Vargas from U.N. Headquarters in New York.

The following is a complete transcript of Episode 12, “Back to Afghanistan.”

Subscribe to weekly episodes of “Wake” on iTunes or Google Play, and follow the broadcast on Twitter @WakeOnAir.


Luke Vargas: The Pentagon is said to be reading plans to send 4,000 new U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan, scaling up American involvement there some 16 years after the Afghan war began.

But conspicuously absent is a public discourse about why the troops are needed. It’s even hard to tell what President Trump thinks – he’s told his generals they’re in charge of setting troop levels.

So what is the mission in Afghanistan, and what can we learn from Trump’s approach to the war?

We’re taking on those questions next, on Wake.


Thanks for joining us. We’re coming to you today from U.N. Headquarters in New York City.

And to get us started on this very complex topic, I’d like to rewind to October 7, 2001, when President George W. Bush addressed the nation from the Treaty Room of the White House and officially announced the beginning of the U.S. fight in Afghanistan.

“On my orders the United States military has begun strikes against al Qaeda terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. These carefully targeted actions are designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.”

“At the same time, the oppressed people of Afghanistan will know the generosity of America and our allies. As we strike military targets, we will also drop food, medicine and supplies to the starving and suffering men and women and children of Afghanistan.”

Fast forward now, really fast forward, past Afghan elections, past nearly 2,400 lost Americans lives, many thousands more civilian casualties, generals Petraeus and McChrystal, a troop surge, a troop withdrawal, and we press play again this month, with Secretary of Defense James Mattis testifying before the Senate on Afghanistan. He couldn’t be more blunt.

“We’re not winning in Afghanistan right now, and we will correct this as soon as possible.”

But what is winning? I know I’m not alone in saying that the end goals for this war in Afghanistan have always felt a bit slippery.

Mattis says he’ll have a new strategy for the U.S. in Afghanistan by mid-July. So, is the mission going to change and become more clear?

To help us take on that daunting question we’ve brought together two experts today.

And we start in Denmark, with Peter Viggo Jakobsen, Associate Professor in the Department of Strategy at the Royal Danish Defence College. He’s written extensively on NATO, on the mission in Afghanistan and the importance of the US president articulating the U.S. mission in the country. Peter, welcome to the show.

Peter Viggo Jakobsen: Thank you very much.

And from Washington today, we’re joined Rebecca Zimmerman, a policy researcher at the RAND Corporation where she focuses on national security, terrorism and special operations. She’s spent the last decade in and out of Afghanistan, helping U.S. efforts there to improve the Afghan security forces and [address] governance issues.

Rebecca Zimmerman: Thanks for having me.

Peter, the first question to you. With the prospect of 4,000 new US troops heading to Afghanistan, I’d imagine the security situation there has seen better days. What does the Afghan security landscape look like now?

Peter Viggo Jakobsen: As was mentioned in the audio clip we heard, the United States is not winning in Afghanistan at the moment, and it’s to try and at least stalemate the situation that the troops are being sent to Afghanistan.

If we look at the situation, the way it has evolved since most of the U.S. troops and also most of the NATO troops were withdrawn back gradually until 2014, what we’ve seen is a deterioration of the security situation. We have more civilians getting killed, we have more Afghan soldiers getting killed, and we are also seeing the Taliban reestablishing itself in the rural areas in the Pashtun South.

And if we are looking at the proportion of the Afghan territory that is currently controlled by the Afghan government, it’s gradually shrunk to about 60 percent. It’s been stable for most of the past year, but we are not really seeing any progress.

And it’s because the Afghan security forces are under increasing pressure that there’s now consideration to send more troops to Afghanistan in order to stabilize the situation and also to prevent the kind of collapse that we witnessed in Iraq when the Islamic State entered Iraq in 2014.

A natural landscape in Bamyan Province west of Kabul. Courtesy: U.S. Embassy Kabul
A natural landscape in Bamyan Province west of Kabul. Courtesy: U.S. Embassy Kabul

Luke Vargas: Peter, I want to follow up on that.

I think there’s been a long-running assumption in the U.S. that the barbarity of groups like the Taliban is so severe that if an outside power just showed up and said it was willing to fight, that whatever tribal divisions might exist in Afghan society and politics would be put aside and everyone would join in on the good fight. That of course, didn’t exactly happen.

Now that the Islamic State is in Afghanistan, I wonder if that logic making its way back into American decision making, and on the Afghan side, if Afghans are responding differently to the Islamic State than the Taliban or Al-Qaeda before them.

Peter Viggo Jakobsen: Well the thing is, if we start with the Taliban. If you look at the polls that you still get, than you see that the majority of the Afghan people do not want the Taliban back.

But at the same time, they are also hugely disappointed in their own government, and if you look at the polling there, you see that the support for the Afghan government in Kabul has simply just continued to drop since the main American forces left in 2014.

So to the average Afghan it does not make that much a difference whether you’re basically under the thump of the Taliban or a government that does not really do anything for you. And that’s probably also why we see that the Taliban is capable of establishing itself in the Pashtun areas where they used to have the greatest amount of support.

And then if we look at the Islamic State, they get a lot of airtime in the media, but they’re not a real threat to Afghan stability. They’re a minor player in a very violent society where you have a lot of armed groups fighting amongst each other over drugs and all sorts of other things.

So we haven’t really seen this coming together of the various groups in order to sort of fight external threats as you would think that they might.

And one of the reasons is also that the threats simply have not been big enough. And that is still the case, even with the advances that the Taliban has made in recent years. They’re still not capable of conquering and holding major population centers. Whenever they try to take territory or populated areas that are considered important from the point of view of the Afghan government, then the Afghan security forces are capable of taking it back.

So one could also that without U.S. support, you might have had more of a reaction toward the return of the Taliban, but I think that the calculation basically is: as long as the international society, as long as the Americans are there to support the Afghan government and their security forces, than the Taliban is not that much of a threat.

Afghan police look on during a 2010 drug burn hosted by the Interior Ministry for Counter Narcotics. Courtesy: U.S. State Department
Afghan police look on during a 2010 drug burn hosted by the Interior Ministry for Counter Narcotics. Courtesy: U.S. State Department

Luke Vargas: Peter, you’re saying the Afghans have become too reliant on the U.S.?

Peter Viggo Jakobsen: Even though I know it sounds sort of paradoxical, the Afghan groups that are scrabbling among themselves over how the government should be run, they’re not sufficiently concerned to work together collectively to ward off the threat that the Taliban poses, simply because they expect the Americans to help them out before it gets really serious.

In that way you can basically compare the way the Afghans are approaching this situation with the way that the Europeans are approaching the rising threat and concern that’s created by Russia after they annexed the Crimea and also destabilized eastern Ukraine.

Most Europeans are not really worried, because we still expect the U.S. to bail us out as they have on each and every occasion when we’ve had a military problem since World War II. So in that sense you could say that the U.S. presence, and also continued support, has created what you could call a culture of dependency.

So the U.S. is sort of between a rock and a hard place that, in a sense, if they withdraw all their forces, then the Afghan government would probably collapse and create a situation that is in nobody’s interest. But it’s really hard to find that balance where you withdraw so much support that you really force the Afghans to come together and cooperate more effectively.

The threat of complete withdrawal has simply not been credible, and that’s probably one reason why they have not really had the effect that you would sort of expect.

Luke Vargas: Rebecca, Peter just mentioned that Afghan security forces may need the threat of the Taliban or the Islamic State to be very higher – higher than it may be now –  to really take the fight to these groups.

You’ve talked to Afghan police and Afghan troops. Have you found it difficult to convince them that the threats that the U.S. sees as top priorities are ones they should be taking just as seriously?

Rebecca Zimmerman: Most Afghans – whether in the security forces or out – see this at this point as our war that they’re helping with.

Now, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a tremendous anti-Taliban sentiment among some of the security forces, but by and large in the research I’ve done, it’s not the lack of a potent enough threat that is the problem. It is a government that they don’t feel is worth risking their lives for.

When I talk to soldiers it’s not unusual to hear them describe their government as a mafia, as something corrupt and not in their eyes legitimate.

That’s much harder to fix than saying, if the threat were more existential they would band together. I don’t see that as quite as proximate an issue.

A view of old town Herat, Afghanistan's third-largest city. Courtesy: UNAMA / Fraidoon Poya.
A view of old town Herat, Afghanistan’s third-largest city. Courtesy: UNAMA / Fraidoon Poya.

Peter Viggo Jakobsen: I would agree with that, because what I was actually thinking about was at the level of the political leadership.

As soon as you go down the chain of command and you get to the actual commanders and the actual soldiers and police forces that are out there trying to fend for themselves and do operations, then I would agree entirely with what Rebecca said.

I also think it’s a problem of dysfunctional political leadership, and the fact that the political leaders are not taking this seriously enough. There are still too many problems with corruption and what have you, and they are not devoting their attention to actually supporting the troops and commanding with a proper civilian strategy that you’d find in a more well-functioning country.

And that’s really the heart of the problem. Because if you look at the actual forces that they have in Afghanistan, they actually equip themselves quite well. The problem is sort of the more senior command, logistics and that sort of stuff, that they really haven’t got around to organizing properly yet.

But if you look at the average fighting man, they’re doing quite well considering the circumstances they find themselves in.

Rebecca Zimmerman: Precisely.

Luke Vargas: Rebecca, let’s shift to political goals, which I would imagine figure into the new Pentagon plans, at least to a degree. What are the political challenges in Afghanistan, what political goals would you expect the U.S. to articulate here?

Rebecca Zimmerman: Sure, so the government of Afghanistan is a pretty complex government. Afghanistan has a very complicated political landscape, as a multi-ethnic country that hasn’t always fit together terribly well.

And so it’s government is really designed to be a big tent and to include representatives from all of these different factions and ethnicities inside the country.

But after the last presidential election about three years ago, there was a dispute over which of the two leading candidates won the election – Ashraf Ghani or [Dr. Abdullah Abdullah]. And the U.S. stepped in to broker a solution, a political solution to that – it’s called the National Unity Government.

Courtesy: U.S. Embassy Kabul

And the trouble with the unity government is that it’’s been very fragile and very dysfunctional, and they’ve had a very hard time actually pushing for any kind of policies and making change inside the country. And so a lot of Afghans are very dissatisfied with the state of the government right now.

There are issues with keeping a cabinet. The parliament at this point is essentially an illegal parliament, they don’t have an official quorum because they’re so far past the time when they were supposed to have another election. And the U.S., as part of the unity agreement, promised that they were going to help fix this by helping Afghanistan to enact reforms.

Those reforms haven’t happened. And so there’s a possibility that we’re nearing a crisis point, although of course, everyone’s been saying that for years.

But the government continues to be incredible fragile. And that’s really, if you ask me, the biggest threat to Afghanistan. The Taliban is a serious security threat, you’ve got ISIS, you’ve got Al-Qaeda, you’ve got Haqqani,which is sort of this parasitic group that fits inside the Taliban, but is yet more extreme.

But I think if the government falls, then it essential clears the path for all of these groups or any other groups, or for civil strife, for multi-party civil war. There’s a whole lot of potential there.

So from that standpoint, the U.S. has a really tall order in terms of trying to help Afghanistan maintain some level of stability.

Luke Vargas: Rebecca, an array of steep challenges there. Does the U.S. have the tools now to address any of that?

Rebecca Zimmerman: Unfortunately, this current plan is being formulated really inside the Pentagon, and now more than ever that policy is now being handed to over the Pentagon. The White House has sort of said we’re going to take the shackles off of the military, which in some cases may be good, but in any case runs the risk of making this a sort of military-only plan.

We know that Secretary Mattis and Chairman Dunford are both folks with long experience in Afghanistan, phenomenal military leaders, both of whom are committed to a whole of government, inter-agency approach. So it’s clear that they will want to consult their non-military counterparts on this.

But it’s complicated by the fact that there is no Senate-confirmed U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan, and the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan seems essentially to be closing. The Special Representative who had been in office resigned after the inauguration, and there’s been an acting in his place, and she actually just resigned. Her last day was Friday.

So that means that now we’re really facing a crisis of civilian-side leadership on these issues. This isn’t to say that the folks that are standing in and doing the work aren’t doing a great job, but there is a difference between someone who has been Senate-confirmed for the position who knows they’re going to be in the position for years, and someone who is acting until someone else comes in.

So we’re in a bit of jam now. It takes extra effort to make sure that we’re taking into account these issues of governance and diplomacy.

Traffic in the Afghan capital of Kabul during 2017 Eid celebrations. Kabul traffic gets busier during the day as families shop for special food and other goods to mark the festive occasion. Courtesy: UNAMA / Fardin Waezi
Traffic in the Afghan capital of Kabul during 2017 Eid celebrations. Kabul traffic gets busier during the day as families shop for special food and other goods to mark the festive occasion. Courtesy: UNAMA / Fardin Waezi

Luke Vargas: Peter, you’ve written recently about the importance about the U.S. president articulating a clear Afghan strategy, as a way of determining the staying power the U.S. might have there. Given that Trump is letting the generals take the lead on the Afghan strategy, can you mount an effective military campaign in a country without making a public case to the American people?

Peter Viggo Jakobsen: Convention wisdom would certainly say that, no you cannot do that. But I think that in this particular case, when we look at the way that the Afghan war has evolved and the complete lack of public interest that there was in the later stages of this war, then I think that he might actually be able to get away with it.

When you look at the major decisions that Obama took when he decided to increase the military presence back in 2009/2010, at that point in time there was very little media coverage of those quite significant decisions. The U.S. presence was surged with some [30,000] personnel, and if we look at the media coverage in 2009 and 2010, it was only about four or five percent of the news stories that were actually focused on Afghanistan. And that even applies in 2010 when there was more than 100,000 U.S. troops there, and at a point in time when they took significant casualties.

And I think that that just goes to show that the U.S. public does not really care all that much about Afghanistan. If you look at the opinion polls, and if you ask the U.S. population whether they support the war in Afghanistan, the majority of them would say no.

But it’s clearly not high on their list of priorities. So it’s not something that they’re going to go into the streets and protest about. So I don’t really think that the public, as paradoxical may sound, I don’t think that the public is that important.

Luke Vargas: If public support isn’t necessary, what about building what we’d call an “elite consensus” in Washington?

Peter Viggo Jakobsen: I think what is important is whether the Trump Administration can get support in Congress to get the troop increase and to get the budgets that they request. As long as they can do that – and with very little debate, because there has been very little debate about that in Congress as well – then I think they can probably get away with continuing to enhance their military presence in Afghanistan, and also doing it without really articulating a strategy.

Because as Rebecca rightly said before, we don’t really know what the political objectives are right now. We understand that the U.S. is going to increase the number of military personnel because the Pentagon has said they need that to avoid defeat.

So they get a little more troops sent to Afghanistan, but we don’t know how they’re going to tackle all the civilian issues that are there. We’ve heard about a very fragile political situation, but there are also some problems with the civilian administration. Most of the Afghan population do not really think that they get much out of their government.

And all of these very important issues are of course crucial if we want to create a lasting stability in Afghanistan. So all you can basically do by increasing the troops numbers as we’re now talking about, is you can buy some more time.

You can probably keep the Taliban at bay. You can perhaps deny them the possibility of taking more territory, but if you do not do something to address the more fundamental political problems, then it’s really not going to work.

So I think that you can probably get away with what Trump is currently doing for another year or two, as long as the military situation does not deteriorate drastically. Because then he can keep it under the radar. But at one point in time there will be more voices than is currently the case in Congress saying, why are we here? What are we achieving? How come the General Accounting Office and the Special Inspector for Afghanistan keep saying we’re not getting anywhere?

Senator John McCain meets with U.S. service members during a January 2010 visit to Afghanistan. Courtesy: U.S. Embassy Kabul
Senator John McCain meets with U.S. service members during a January 2010 visit to Afghanistan. Courtesy: U.S. Embassy Kabul

Luke Vargas: Peter you mention some of the critical voices that might emerge if this new Afghan strategy doesn’t show results relatively soon. I want to bring one such voice into the conversation, a clip from 2012.

“Afghanistan is a total and complete disaster. What are we doing? We have all of these horrible events taking place there. We can’t even run our own country. We don’t build our schools, we don’t build our highways, we don’t build anything anymore. What’s wrong with us? What’s wrong with our leadership?”

“And now we have Afghanistan. What is going on? Money should be spent in our country. We should rebuild our country.”

Donald Trump in 2012 there, articulating the folly of overseas nation-building. Now, Trump was voicing arguments like this pretty deep into his presidential campaign until the point when he brought on formal foreign policy advisors.

Rebecca, why is that? Do you simply not hear these “pull out now, no more American adventurism!” lines in foreign policy circles? What explains Trump’s change of heart there?

Rebecca Zimmerman: So in the U.S. foreign policy community you have a fairly strong consensus that it’s in the U.S. interest to have some form of involvement in Afghanistan that is higher than what you’d have in the average country and, generally speaking, that has a military component to it. And that’s not orthodoxy, but it’s close to it.

You do hear a few people who say that the U.S. should completely get out of Afghanistan and have simply the normal diplomatic relations with the country And those people generally say it’s because we can’t fix the problems in Afghanistan. And I think that’s certainly true. We alone, unilaterally can’t solve Afghanistan’s problems for it.

But the reason why so many people, and I think probably now the president as well, have come around to this view that some form of involvement is in U.S. interests, is because Afghanistan itself, to the average American and probably to the president at the time in 2012, Afghanistan is a far away place, we don’t have a huge economic relationship with them. Why on earth do we care? We went and did what we originally sought to do and Osama Bin Laden is no longer a threat, so why are we still there?

But when you look at it in greater detail you see that Afghanistan, while on it’s own may not be the home of many U.S. security interests, it physically touches the majority of U.S. critical national security interests, what Chairman Dunford calls the 4+1 framework. That is: Russia, China, Iran, North Korea and then the threat of global terrorism.

And Russia is actively involved in Afghanistan – and if you recall General Nicholson, the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, his recent congressional testimony – being increasingly involved in the fight in Afghanistan.

China is exerting a lot more foreign policy effort in Afghanistan, to include a great deal of economic effort. Iran obviously borders the country.

And then you’ve got the threat of global terrorism, which still exists in Afghanistan in the Af-Pak border region. Again, if the Afghan government were to be seriously destabilized and they couldn’t really oversee their country, there’s the risk that that would dramatically increase.

So that’s why very few foreign policy experts advocate fully leaving Afghanistan.

U.S. Marines on patrol in Kajaki, Helmand Province. March 9, 2013. Courtesy: Musadeq Sadeq / U.S. State Department
U.S. Marines on patrol in Kajaki, Helmand Province. March 9, 2013. Courtesy: Musadeq Sadeq / U.S. State Department

Luke Vargas: Rebecca, you just mentioned China, which has bet beg on Afghanistan, pouring billions of dollars into contracts to extract minerals and develop infrastructure. That’s all well and good, and maybe economic development is what Afghanistan really needs, but doesn’t the success of those sorts of projects hinge on someone, perhaps the United States, playing an active role in security?

Rebecca Zimmerman: Certainly right now the U.S. is providing the security base, along with NATO allies and the Afghan government, that allows economic development and large-scale economic activity to take place. So that’s absolutely true.

In fact, China has some serious security concerns when it comes to Afghanistan. There’s a fear that terrorism will somehow spread through the tiny little geographic, it looks like a finger poking Afghanistan, the very tiny border that they share, that terrorism could spread up and into China.

And so, not only does China benefit from the U.S. security relationship, but it also provides sort of an interesting area of overlap.

So yes, the U.S. should focus more on some of these economic issues, in particular because I think China has not got a great global reputation for economic development that actually is fair and benefits the nations where they are conducting those activities. But also it’s an area where the U.S. and China actually have a surprising number of common interest.

Luke Vargas: Peter, you’re in Denmark. Denmark is a NATO nation and sent hundreds of troops to Afghanistan over the last decade and a half – more troops per capita, in fact, than almost any other NATO nation.

America’s allies joined us on the battlefield in Afghanistan before, are they going to do that again this time? Or will the Trump administration find this to be a tough sell?

Peter Viggo Jakobsen: No I don’t think so. And that again of course depends on how much the United States demands of its NATO allies.

We have this obligation in NATO that we agreed to uphold after the Russian annexation of Crimea to increase our defense spending up to two percent of GDP. And most European nations are not even close to spending two percent. So at the moment there’s huge pressure from the United States on the European nations to increase their defense spending, but also to do more to participate in the fight against terrorism in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq and Syria.

So at the moment that nations that aren’t spending enough on defense, one way for them to signal to the United States that they’re paying attention and still want the United States to be engaged in Europe is to continue to support the operation in Afghanistan.

And if we take my own country, Denmark, we just agreed to increase our presence. I think we will end up having about 110 personnel out in Afghanistan. We have about 50 at the moment. So we just decided to double our presence in order to accommodate the request from the United States.

President Trump accompanies NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and other member nation heads of state during a walk-through of the new NATO Headquarters in Brussels. May 25, 2017. Courtesy: NATO
President Trump accompanies NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and other member nation heads of state during a walk-through of the new NATO Headquarters in Brussels. May 25, 2017. Courtesy: NATO

And I think that that’s the picture that you’re going to see across Europe. So I don’t think the United States will have any difficulty getting the Europeans to send more troops to Afghanistan.

But in comparison to what the U.S. is sending it will still be a small proportion, and there will not be an expectation that they have to do combat. Instead, they’ll be insisting that they’re only doing training or advisory missions, or perhaps providing aircraft, so they do not have to do combat themselves.

So as long as it’s presented in that way I don’t think that the NATO countries will have any difficulty meeting the force levels that the Americans have just asked for.  

Luke Vargas: We’re up against the clock, so a question to both of you quickly. I’ll start with you, Rebecca. What’s the one thing you’ll be watching as the Pentagon unveils its new Afghan strategy?

Rebecca Zimmerman: I think I’ll be looking most of all to see if there’s any kind of strong governance-related or diplomatic component to the new strategy.

Luke Vargas: Peter?

Peter Viggo Jakobsen: Well I actually don’t expect there to be much of that. The Afghanistan strategy will probably resemble what we are currently seeing in Iraq and Syria, where they are trying simply to, let’s put it this way, fix the military situation to try and reach short-term military goals, and then they leave the more difficult political goals for later.

So they will basically be kicking the can down the road. I think that’s what we’re going to see in the July strategy that comes out, because I don’t think that anybody really has a clear idea about how we’re going to address the big political problems that also need to be addressed. And I think they were described quite well by Rebecca.

But I think it’s really hard to see how we can get a handle on them. So therefore I would expect them to simply provide the troops and the air power that will serve as a stopgap measure and buy the American administration, but also the Afghans, more time.

And then they’ll try to tackle the problems as they emerge, one by one.

Afghan students walk home from school in Kabul. Courtesy: UNAMA / Fardin Waezi
Afghan students walk home from school in Kabul. Courtesy: UNAMA / Fardin Waezi

Rebecca Zimmerman: I would agree with that. I think the U.S. is very good at scaling up or scaling down our involvement. We’re not good in Afghanistan changing the essential nature of what that involvement is.

Luke Vargas: Rebecca Zimmerman, policy researcher at the Rand corporation. Thank you so much for being with us.

Rebecca Zimmerman: Thanks for having me.

Luke Vargas: And Peter Viggo Jakobsen, associate professor in the Department of Strategy at the Royal Danish Defense College, on the line tonight from Denmark. Peter, thank you so much as well.

Peter Viggo Jakobsen: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Luke Vargas: If you like what you just heard leave us a review on iTunes or follow the program on Twitter @WakeOnAir.

I’m Luke Vargas, signing off. Join us again next week on Wake.

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