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August 8, 2017

Afghanistan: ‘We Aren’t Winning’

As Donald Trump and James Mattis review our strategy, they need to make a clear case for the war.

That sobering assessment of the United States’ military and diplomatic efforts in Afghanistan has been uttered by both Secretary of Defense James Mattis and President Donald Trump over the last six weeks, and it looks like things aren’t going to change anytime soon.

It’s obvious that President Trump and Secretary Mattis are frustrated with the lack of progress in Afghanistan. Who can blame them? This October will mark the 16th anniversary of U.S. operations and the amount of blood and treasure spent over that timeframe is truly astounding. The United States government, according to the Special Inspector General of Afghanistan Reconstruction, has “obligated an estimated $714 billion for all spending — including war fighting and reconstruction — in Afghanistan over more than 15 years.”

If there has been one defining characteristic of the U.S. experience in Afghanistan, it is that the challenges faced by America’s forces can’t be solved by spending money. Nearly 16 years into the war the Afghan government is in control of only 60% of the districts in its sovereign territory and that is primarily because of the United States, which continues to funnel millions of dollars into the poverty-stricken country.

In addition to the huge pecuniary outlays, the human cost has been considerable as well. With the death of two soldiers last week, the number of U.S. personnel killed in Afghanistan has risen to 2,263. When coupled with the more than 20,000 service members who have been wounded during the conflict, the United States and its coalition partners have paid a steep price for an affair that was once characterized in August 2002 by then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as “a breathtaking accomplishment.”

So, what is the way ahead for the Trump administration? And will he choose to listen to the recommendations given to him by the current chain of command?

According to recent press reports, Trump has expressed his unhappiness with the situation in Afghanistan and his advisers’ inability to craft a winning strategy. Unfortunately, it seems as if no one in Trump’s team, or Trump himself, knows what “winning” in Afghanistan means in 2017.

There are numerous national documents from the previous administration, from the 2015 National Security Strategy to the 2015 National Military Strategy, which discuss threats emanating from Afghanistan, but neither defines what winning means in that part of the world. That’s not surprising coming from Barack Obama. Since taking office, however, Trump hasn’t given any specific guidance to update these documents, which hinders his commanders’ ability to align their intent with overall national objectives.

A closer examination of the U.S. Forces Afghanistan (USFOR-A) and the Resolute Support mission statements shows a focus on kinetic and train-and-assist operations, but it is unclear how these statements are tied to long-term goals of the current administration.

And that is the main problem Donald Trump faces as commander in chief.

The purpose of war is to serve a national-interest objective, but Trump hasn’t defined the goal for the mission in Afghanistan. As one astute military blogger recently commented about the United States’ lack of strategy, “War serves itself when it is unguided or unconstrained by reason and policy, or if the political end is not viable within the means that states are willing to commit based on the perceived value of attaining that end.”

If Trump and his coterie are serious about changing the dynamics in Afghanistan, they need to implement a series of steps to reinforce the conversation about why we are there in the first place. The initial step includes having the moral courage to lay out national policy goals for the region and tying them to our presence in Afghanistan. Explain to the American people why it’s in our best interest to continue spending millions of dollars. The purpose of the Long War is to draw jihadis into fighting our military over there as opposed to terrorizing civilians over here. It’s national defense.

Secondly, Trump needs to work with Congress and update the language in the 15-year-old Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) so that it’s clear what the nation is trying to accomplish in the area of operations.

Trump has a unique opportunity to implement a new strategy for Afghanistan but the window of opportunity is closing fast. He needs to act collaboratively and decisively if he wants to truly implement a winning strategy. If he doesn’t, he will be the third president in a row who failed to fully appreciate problems associated with Afghanistan — and more troops will die in a war that too few understand.

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