Trump Effect Comes to Afghanistan

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President Donald J. Trump addresses the nation on the South Asia strategy during a press conference at Conmy Hall on Fort Myer, Virginia, Aug. 21, 2017. (Photo Credit: DOD photo by SGT Amber Smith)

Before President Donald Trump’s August 21, 2017, speech on Afghanistan (the ‘new South Asian strategy’), in which the President announced a renewed commitment to ‘win;’ to avoid nation-building; and to stay until conditions allowed for U.S. withdrawal, Afghanistan’s ‘proxy-insurgency’ was a political-military strategy-free zone, intellectually empty, heading to a miscarried future. The war resembled the final scene in any Rocky movie where the two parties just hit each other at the same time over and over. No thoughtful, comprehensive diplomatic-military strategy existed.

The President’s speech also announced a determined commitment to continue the war effort and singled out Pakistan for its malign influence. But the POTUS left for deputies to discern the tools to dissuade Pakistan from supporting the Taliban and the Haqqani Network and the means to suppress the Taliban insurgency, hold re-acquired territory, check malign Russian and Iranian influence, and encourage Taliban leadership to reconcile. Despite the label, the President’s speech was not so much a strategy, but a vision. Presidents do vision; deputies, diplomats, and General Officers devise and implement the whole-of-government strategy. In the near term, the strategy is to fight to change the current conditions on the ground, which are indeed intolerable. The war has received an adrenaline shot of attention and support from the President; whether his deputies can translate that into a coherent political-military strategy to achieve a favorable end state to an enormous insurgency and proxy war is another question entirely.

President Obama, manipulating his campaign promise, did not ‘end’ the war in Afghanistan, but abandoned it. By decreasing U.S. forces in Afghanistan precipitously and to force levels too small to suppress the Taliban, abandoning Village Stabilization Operations to aid the tribes and provincial governments, and by implying to Pakistan, the Taliban, and terrorist groups that the United States was leaving Afghanistan altogether, Obama handed America’s enemies the message they wanted to hear:  just wait – America is leaving.

Once again, our enemies figured out how to defeat the United States through patience, counter-branding, and incremental changes to the strategic environment that do not trigger escalation or adequate policy adjustment from the United States. As President Trump acknowledged, the political-military conditions in Afghanistan at the end of the Obama Administration were inadequate to meet the political goals envisioned and planned for Afghanistan’s future – the result of the precipitous Obama military drawdown. But even with the additional forces President Trump promised, significant diplomatic-military creativity is imperative to translate President Trump’s renewed commitment to success.

Today, with overall lower U.S. force levels stretched thin attempting to repair the other abandoned victory in Iraq, and with the American public having been told by President Obama that the conflict in Afghanistan had ‘ended’ (not to mention NATO buildup in Europe to check Putin’s hybrid warfare and North Korea’sincessant bellicosity), President Trump will have a hard time maintaining the political commitment and intellectual rigor he will need to direct the Afghan war to an acceptable end. And even if he can sustain American commitment, the many enemies of liberal democracy today -- Iran, Russia, and China -- never pass up an opportunity to oppose and tear apart any pro-Western state.

What is the United States Doing in Afghanistan?

President Obama wanted to leave Afghanistan. The insurgency and 21 terrorist groups got in the way. He couldn’t reconcile the dilemma and so attempted – too quickly – Vietnamization of the proxy-insurgency to the Afghan military.

The first problem President Trump must fix is that no one could articulate what the United States was doing strategically in Afghanistan by 2017. President Trump claims now we are in Afghanistan now to ‘win’ -- the principle adversary being The Islamic State of Iraq and ash-Sham - Khorasan (ISIS-K) (not the Taliban). (President Obama had stated the war had ended.) But Trump added that the United States is not nation-building in Afghanistan. But the United States and NATO cannot leave unless the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (‘GIRoA’) can itself successfully suppress ISIS-K, control the Taliban, manage the malign state sponsors of the insurgents (Pakistan, Iran, and Russia), and somehow sustain itself and its military independent of Western financial aid.

U.S. forces are in Afghanistan today primarily to ‘Train, Advise and Assist’ the Afghan National Defense and Security Force (ANDSF) (i.e., nation-building). But the ANDSF lost 35 percent of the countryside (about 30-35 percent of the population) to the Taliban during the last four years of the Obama Administration. The GIRoA was assessed by the U.S. military to control or influence just 59.7 percent of Afghanistan's 407 districts as of February 2017, a nearly 11 percentage-point decrease from the same time in 2016, according to data released by the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.[i] The Taliban claims it controls 34 of 400 known districts, contests another 167, and is competing in another 52. At least 13, and perhaps as many as 21, separate and distinct terrorist groups now have a physical presence inside Afghan territory.[ii] [iii] [iv] [v] The Taliban have now military suppliers from the Governments of Pakistan, Iran, and Russia and also resupply itself by hitting exposed and un-reinforced ANDSF outposts and stealing the weapons and vehicles the United States bought for the Afghan Army (known as ‘resupply by raid’). Afghan villagers are visited by Taliban forces at night and are terrorized with night letters, threats, and select assassinations. Trump claims he wishes to avoid the money pit of nation-building, but there is a Catch-22 he cannot avoid:  the United States and NATO cannot leave until the insurgency is quelled, the Afghans themselves can handle the violence, and the Government of Afghanistan can pay for its enormous defense needs -- but the nation cannot possibly pay for its defense needs unless and until the insurgency is quelled and an economy can grow.[vi]

U.S. strategy calls for U.S./NATO Coalition assistance to help Afghan forces retake the country from the Taliban and these 13-21 terrorist groups. No one believes this is likely without substantial U.S. help or many more years of ANDSF growth. Although the President implied the opposite, former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson stated that the new U.S. strategy is to maneuver the relationship into some condition where the Taliban feel so frustrated that they agree to reconcile with the Kabul government.[vii] As for the 13-21 terrorist groups, there is no strategy to keep these groups out of Afghanistan other than to find and kill them whenever they are discovered.

The first challenge with the ‘reconciliation strategy’ is that the Taliban currently occupy more Afghanistan territory than they have since they were deposed in 2002. They just had their best military year in 2016. Their leaders were, before Trump, emboldened and as radicalized as they have been in recent years. There was no sign that they were interested in a compromise or that they were politically or organizationally mature enough to work as part of any government. (Nor are they intellectually sophisticated enough to negotiate any compromise.) They also likely have read numerous U.S. strategy pundits who argued that there is no U.S. military solution for Afghanistan (and the current U.S. Secretary of State seems to have said the same thing). And unlike insurgencies in Colombia, the Philippines, or Thailand, the insurgency in Afghanistan touches almost every province in the country. In short, right or wrong, the Taliban feel they are in a strong position.

U.S. and Afghan leadership argue that the Taliban are incapable of taking Afghanistan back militarily by defeating the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces. Maybe. But the Taliban strategy is likely to so attrite Afghan forces and so frustrate the Kabul government’s effort to take the countryside back that they are content to bleed the national government over time to get what they wanted. The Taliban thought the U.S. was leaving and that time was on their side. Today, however, with Trump as President, they are not so sure.

Meanwhile, these 13-21 terrorist groups make a bad situation miserable. They preoccupy Afghan and Coalition time and forces, work to shake confidence in the central government through the al Qaida technique of city car bombings and are fantastically nihilist -- so nihilistic that often the Taliban will fight them. But overall, they serve the Taliban’s goal of weakening the government and so, despite their anti-tribal and anti-Taliban goals, the Taliban, at the moment, allow a percentage of ISIS-K to co-exist in the countryside. But worse, the Taliban do nothing about the other terrorist groups in Afghanistan, most especially al Qaida and its affiliates.

Of particular note, and almost entirely under-reported, al Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) released a “code of conduct” in June 2017 emphasizing allegiance to the Taliban. It stated that its members are fighting “shoulder-to-shoulder with the mujahideen” of the Taliban and calls on Muslims throughout the subcontinent to join or support the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.”[viii]

“… the Jama’ah (‘group,’ ‘majority’ or ‘gathering’) considers strengthening the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and defending it to be one of its basic objectives … the global devils of infidelity are fighting against Islam under America’s patronage; … the Army of al-Rahman, in form of the Islamic Emirate, is striving against these enemies of Shari’a. The mujahedeen associated with the Jama’ah too are present on the ground under the emirate’s flag and are actively participating in battles against the enemies of Shari’a … the defeat of America and its agents would result in victory for the religious forces in their entire region.”[ix]

AQIS is in Afghanistan to strengthen the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The organization pledges to engage the enemies of the ‘Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan’ ‘outside’ of Afghanistan and take part in battles ‘shoulder to shoulder ‘inside Afghanistan.[x] Debates over how to defeat or reconcile with the Taliban almost entirely overlook this alliance with this al Qaida affiliate.

Worse, Afghan security forces are indeed attrited at an alarming rate.[xi] And the Taliban have been able to simply re-supply itself from Pakistan – including Pakistani bodies:  naïve, radicalized, red meat from across the border, willing to ‘fight’ for what they have been brainwashed into believing about Afghanistan. Afghan forces, of course, can recruit only from Afghanistan.

In absolute terms, Afghan soldiers are dying at a higher rate than in the past – over 5000 in 2016 (surpassing the 5000 killed in 2015).[xii] [xiii] And the tragic 2016 figure is likely to be similar in 2017. Civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2016 were the highest recorded by the United Nations, the world body said, with nearly 11,500 non-combatants killed or wounded. Civilian casualties occurred at an even higher rate in the first half of 2017,[xiv] continuing an almost unbroken trend of nearly a decade of rising casualties.[xv]

Fighting between Afghan security forces and armed groups, especially in populated areas, remained “the leading cause of civilian casualties” more than two years after NATO's combat mission supposedly ‘ended,’ said the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA), which began documenting civilian casualties in 2009. A total of 3,498 civilians were killed, and 7,920 were wounded in 2016, a combined increase of three percent over the previous year, according to the annual report for 2016.[xvi]

The Commander of USFOR-Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, described the situation in Afghanistan in 2016 as a ‘stalemate.’ But ‘stalemate’ is intolerable to the Afghan and Coalition Governments and is likely the strategic goal of Afghanistan’s adversaries:  attrition over the long term. From the perspective of the Afghan people, ‘stalemate’ is also intolerable given that the cities suffer frequent acts of terrorism and much of the countryside is governed by the Taliban. The strategic situation is not exactly a ‘tie.’

Worse, the strategic situation is and remains perilous and susceptible to a strategic shock, such as the loss of strategic cities or a successful bombing of the central government leadership, which could lead to a collapse of the unity, pro-Western government. The current Afghan Government is especially politically fragile, the result of a contested Presidential election in 2014.

Further still, outside actors have not generally succeeded in broadening loyalty away from the tribe-based construct of Afghanistan’s nationhood. Among the many obstacles are illiteracy, difficulties in transportation networks and communication, and an overall lack of revenue. Worse is research that found that military intervention usually promotes stability when those intervening seek to reinstate a deposed ruler; however, when outside actors overthrow an existing leader and impose an entirely new government, the likelihood of civil war more than triples.[xvii]

The current Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, summarized Afghanistan most succinctly in June 2017:  “We are not winning in Afghanistan right now.”[xviii] In short, no one liked to talk or think about Afghanistan because no one wanted, or was willing (or knew how) to fix it.

Afghanistan:  Insurgency or Proxy War?

Both and more. This is the second problem Trump must fix. Afghanistan today is an insurgency but was generated and is sustained by state sponsors, each with their own state-centric reasons for their involvement in Afghanistan. Although most insurgencies have one state sponsor, Afghan insurgent groups have three. In addition, the 13-21 terrorist groups inside Afghanistan take advantage of local power vacuums to establish small footholds inside the nation to create someday an Islamic Caliphate.

Historically, insurgencies are never successfully suppressed as long as an outside state sponsor continues to re-supply the insurgency. The three state sponsors of the Taliban surround the country and are geographically contiguous to Afghanistan – a landlocked country. The proxy war waged by Afghanistan’s neighbors stymie all attempts to create stability and overall progress. In short, unless U.S. policy and strategy can discern a means to deter or dissuade all three state sponsors from supplying the insurgents, it is unlikely that the Taliban insurgency will be suppressed successfully.

Afghanistan Today:  Three Wars Being Fought Simultaneously

Currently, there are three distinct military efforts going on simultaneously in Afghanistan, all three of which involve U.S. forces: 

  1. Counterterrorism operations under Operation FREEDOM’S SENTINEL authorities to defeat the insurgency by the Taliban and Haqqani Network, plus the identification, interdiction, and suppression of 13-21 terrorist groups in Afghanistan (and most especially ISIS-K);
  2. The RESOLUTE SUPPORT Mission to Train, Advise, and Assist mission supporting Afghan security force development, sustainment, and operations;
  3. The prevention of high profile attacks across the theater, in particular in Kabul City, designed to foment chaos and undermine popular support for the central government that has the potential to fracture the Afghan National Unity Government, as well as fracture the international coalition providing economic assistance.

All three have distinct intelligence and military requirements. U.S., NATO-Coalition, and Afghan Government military forces are fighting all three efforts at the same time. Failure to succeed in any one of these three lines of effort emboldens the enemies in the others.

Another challenge is that the current Afghanistan campaign is deeply U.S. intelligence-driven. The effort is dependent on U.S. intelligence to discern adversary strategies and defeat them. In fact, like in many other policy areas, although everyone loves to claim intelligence is insufficient, the reality is U.S. intelligence is far ahead of policy and strategy in Afghanistan. In fact, U.S. intelligence likely allowed policymakers and strategists to muddle through the policy and strategy vacuum that was Afghanistan the last eight years.

A Form of Stalemate is the Goal

Given that the United States and NATO will send at most a few thousands more troops to aid the Afghans for its ‘Train, Advise and Assist’ efforts, U.S. 'strategy' is now likely to keep the Taliban in the countryside and frustrated, so that someday they will agree to a political compromise (as the SECSTATE stated). Although there is lip service to train the Afghans to the point where they will suppress the Taliban by themselves, the strategy is more likely ‘muddle through’ until the Taliban get exhausted – for as long as necessary. As for the terrorist groups in Afghanistan, the strategy is to conduct whack a mole by U.S. Special Forces indefinitely – a mission that the United States does well and can do almost indefinitely.

The weakness with this strategy, however, is that by signaling to the Taliban that U.S. strategy has changed from defeating the Taliban to merely frustrating them, the United States has once again suggested to its enemy how to defeat U.S. strategy:  just endure the frustration – assuming there is a limit to Trump’s tenacity. More importantly, Pakistan, Iran, and Russia have just been told the same thing. However, the Trump Effect’s most potent element is its clear dissimilarity with President Obama’s Effect:  President Obama was anxious to leave Afghanistan as soon as possible. Only the complete collapse of Iraq, as a result of the other Obama retreat, stopped President Obama’s determined plan to leave Afghanistan by 2016. Trump projects a message of truculence – precisely what Obama lacked and precisely what is needed in Afghanistan to change the attitude of the state sponsors and cause fissures within the generationally-divided Taliban.

An additional danger, of course, is that the ANDSF have a finite number of military-aged males. If they are killed per year at a rate that is unsustainable, or told that the NATO support is waning, or are asked to risk their lives in order to simply ‘frustrate’ the Taliban, the ‘just frustrate the Taliban strategy’ may fall apart. At a minimum, U.S. strategy must keep that death rate from going beyond that tipping point, during its ‘frustrating’ strategy.

The Elements of Trump’s New South Asia Strategy

The tenants of the Trump Effect in Afghanistan:

  • A ‘conditions-based approach,’ i.e., no timetable. Strategy is guided by the conditions on the ground, not an arbitrary timetable. The ‘conditions’ for success is a stable, self-sustaining Afghanistan that can secure its own territory so that these 21 terrorist groups cannot use Afghan soil to attack the U.S. and allied interests.
  • A regional strategy (i.e., that involves Pakistan and perhaps Iran and Russia too) that better combines military with diplomatic and economic elements of power. The U.S. military has been successfully re-engaged; whether the State Department can match the renewed commitment with successful diplomacy is unclear.
  • A ‘the Taliban Will Never Win’ military attitude for U.S. and NATO forces. The Taliban may control part of the countryside but will never control large parts of the Afghan population – standing traditional counter-insurgency on its head. The plan: insurgents will be stuck in an endless OODA loop of frustration. Concurrently, GIRoA Information Operations will emphasize that the Taliban ought not fight as proxies for neighboring states – especially given the fact that these states do not want the Taliban to win. Further, precision strikes by U.S. and NATO forces mean that the Taliban will likely kill more civilians every year than Government or Coalition forces – undermining Taliban legitimacy as fighting continues indefinitely. As long as the ANDSF can manage its attrition rates, the U.S./NATO strategy is sustainable indefinitely. The Taliban’s best choice, therefore, if they want any part of Afghanistan’s future, is to reconcile with the Government, like the Afghan insurgent group Hezb-e-Islami Gulbuddin did in 2016.[xix]
  • A tenacious, relentless, year-round assault against ISIS-K in Afghanistan from U.S. and Afghan forces. ISIS-K will be unable to establish any form of foothold or sanctuary; they will be unable to conduct external operations; they will lack freedom of movement; they will remain pariahs in a nation that does not want them.

Trump inscrutability is, perhaps, the most potent element of the new strategy. Whereas Obama had no fight in him for anything, Trumpism involves the risk of U.S. vertical escalation (greater and more lethality); of horizontal escalation (hurting state sponsors elsewhere in the world for their intransigence in Afghanistan); and plain stubbornness. If the state sponsors conclude Trump is in the fight for eight years, their perception of their interests fundamentally change.

Challenges to the Trump Effect


FILE - In this May 27, 2016 file photo, Taliban fighters react to a speech by their senior leader in the Shindand district of Herat province, Afghanistan. After operating out of Pakistan for more than a decade, the leaders of Afghanistan's Taliban movement may have moved back to their homeland to try to build on this year' gains in the war and to establish a permanent presence. (AP Photos/Allauddin Khan, File)

The single impediment to defeat the Taliban proxy-insurgency is Pakistan’s unending support to Afghan insurgent and terrorist groups out of a fear that Afghanistan will become closer to India, competitive, and threatening to Pakistan. Involvement with these groups is Pakistan’s means, it believes, to control them. A reluctance to violate Pakistani sovereignty or inflict significant diplomatic, economic or other punishments (or identify meaningful inducements or compromises) meant that the Pakistan safehaven for the Taliban and Haqqani Network was likely to continue. Diplomatic efforts to persuade or compel Pakistan to stop its support for the Taliban and suppress elements within its borders were feeble, unsuccessful, and uncreative under Obama (promises of money or threats to denounce Pakistan’s support). Secretary Tillerson must make sure diplomacy now involves better deterrents and inducements for Pakistan, coupled with a convincing message that the U.S. is not leaving Afghanistan to suffer Iraq’s fate.


Iran’s Shia clerical regime is forming a relationship with Afghanistan’s Sunni Taliban.[xx] At the same time, Iran operates a brigade of Shia Afghans in Syria -- the Liwa Fatemiyoun -- recruited from Afghan migrants and refugees in Iran, as well as poor Shia in Afghanistan. The initial recruits to the Fatemiyoun Division were initially Shiite Hazara Afghans, who settled in Iran after the Soviet occupation, after the civil war in the early 1990s and subsequent Taliban rule. Their recruitment has echoes of how Pakistan recruited the Sunni Pashtun Afghan refugees and their children to form the Taliban in the mid-1990s.[xxi] Beginning as a small brigade of three thousand to guard the shrines particularly holy to Shia Muslims, the Liwa Fatemiyoun (trained by both the Revolutionary Guards and Hezbollah veterans) is estimated at 8,000 to and 14,000 men [xxii] [xxiii] and perhaps as many as 20,000. The Liwa Fatemiyoun has played a frontline role in battles in Aleppo, Homs, Palmyra, and elsewhere in Syria. And in March 2018, Reuters reported that Tehran sent Afghan specialists from the Liwa Fatemiyoun to advise and train the Houthis in Yemen.[xxiv]

Is Afghanistan next for this Afghan Shia militia? What happens if Iran inserts the Liwa Fatemiyoun into western Afghanistan? What happens if the Liwa Fatemiyoun form an alliance with the Sunni Taliban? Like with Pakistan, dissuading Iran from supporting the Taliban must somehow address Iranian core interests. Former Secretary of State Tillerson must convince Iran that turning Afghanistan into Yemen will only assure a failed state emerges on the Iranian border and that the U.S. will not allow Afghanistan to fail.

We Assume Escalation Will Not Happen

KABUL, Afghanistan (May 9, 2018) -- Lt. Gen. Bismillah Waziri, Afghan National Army Corps Commander addresses Afghanistan's newest Commandos at a graduation ceremony in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 9, 2018. Waziri charged them with the responsibility for safeguarding Afghans and Afghanistan against anti-government factions, stating "You are the best Afghanistan has to offer against dark forces like the Taliban and ISIS-K." (NATO photo by MSgt Felix Figeroa)

One of the principal shortcomings of the new South Asia strategy is that it assumes that, as the ANDSF attempts more offense against the insurgency and successfully defeats any Taliban maneuver, the sponsors of the Taliban (Pakistan, Russia, and Iran), will simply resign themselves to ANDSF’s success. Why wouldn’t Pakistan, for instance, allow the Taliban to withdraw into Pakistan again (like they did under President Bush and under the Obama surge) or resupply the Taliban with new forces or, worse, begin to escalate the conflict with more capable weapons, such as surface to air missiles? What happens the day an ANDSF helicopter is shot down by a Taliban member with an SA-7 (surface-to-air missile)? Does the United States rush back in? Does the ANDSF re-double their efforts? Do the sides begin an arms race?

With a smaller military footprint, the United States today is less prepared to handle the introduction of Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortars (IRAMs), surface-to-air missiles, or more advanced Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). At any time, Pakistan, Russia, and Iran could introduce more advanced weaponry to the Taliban to attempt to shift the strategic situation on the ground.

Again, the state sponsors of the insurgents in Afghanistan worked previously on the assumption that the United States was leaving. Temporary retreats into Pakistan or modest escalation of tactics made sense to push the United States away faster. But if the Trump Effect succeeds, the state sponsors of the insurgents may become leery of escalation, fearing greater, not lesser, involvement of U.S. forces.

Taliban ‘Reconciliation’

President Ghani has invited the Taliban to begin peace discussions and has even offered to open a Taliban office in Kabul. The Taliban have yet to engage in any meaningful peace talks. There is serious doubt that the Taliban are organized enough, or coherent enough, to discern what they want and negotiate some form of reconciliation. They complain about ‘foreign forces’ in Afghanistan, but beyond that, no one knows what they envision to agree to form a compromise government. Likewise, it is unclear what the Kabul Government would accept as a compromise, inclusive government. The GIRoA has invited the Taliban to run candidates in the 2018 regional elections, but no one thinks the Taliban would fall for such a trick. No proposed compromise government has been envisioned by either side.

We Forget -- It’s an Insurgency

Overall, the conflict is focused on the military (kinetic) dimension. There is insufficient integration by the U.S. or NATO forces of information operations, counter-narratives, social media, de-radicalization, pressure on Pakistan, counter Taliban-radio, counter cyber, the Afghan tribal construct, supply interdiction, terrorism finance, pressure on radical madrassas, or on the Pakistani families who sacrifice their young males, even though these issues are integral, if not centers of gravity, for the insurgency. There is equally insufficient attention to the larger proxy fight by the state sponsors that fuels the insurgency -- Afghanistan being both an insurgency and a proxy war (plus terrorism). These key elements are afterthoughts, if that, to the current strategy.

The ‘What Ifs’

The additional forces President Trump has approved will no doubt improve the military situation in Afghanistan and will be used to attempt to break the current stalemate. But a number of intuitive counter moves to the future conflict could complicate what may appear as a static, conventional fight:

  • Pakistan could force the return of tens or hundreds of thousands of Afghan refugees back into Afghanistan to distract the Government of Afghanistan and drain its resources and attention.
  • Pakistan could close the airbridge (the airspace it allows U.S. forces to fly over to get into Afghanistan airspace; Afghanistan is a completely land-locked state).[xxv]
  • A successful attack on the current Afghan Government might collapse the government and precipitate political upheaval.
  • The Taliban and Haqqani Network could flee to Pakistan and/or Iran and wait out the U.S. offensive (like it did under President Bush and the Obama surge).
  • The offensive may encourage the 13-21 terrorist groups to converge or coordinate attacks against the Afghan Government or Afghan or U.S. forces.

A Political-Military Solution Must Be Comprehensive and Address the State Sponsors’ Strategic Fears

Afghanistan’s solution is likely a menu of interrelated issues, all required in concert to effect change:  an outreach to Pakistan, including both confidence building measures and punishments; an invitation to China, Iran, and Russia to effect more influence on their respective Afghan border provinces in exchange for their influence over the Taliban to force reconciliation and a mutual commitment to purge ISIS-K and al Qaida elements in such provinces; a withdrawal of U.S. forces to Bagram Air Base in exchange, with the stipulation that it reserves the right to attack ISIS-K and all al Qaida groups attempting external operational planning against the United States; a Kabul Government concession of authority to provincial leaders who would integrate Taliban forces into local, provincial militias, which would likely include greater Taliban influence over certain provinces.

The task now is identifying an appropriate, more comprehensive counterinsurgency/counter proxy strategy, specific to Afghanistan, and a solution that meets U.S. objectives but cleverly does not precipitate escalation by the neighboring (Taliban-sponsoring) states, but instead meets their strategic goals and involves them appropriately with Afghanistan’s stability and economic growth. The focus must be on addressing the state sponsor’s perceptions of their core interests. If not, U.S. strategy will continue to address the symptoms but never the ongoing cause of the insurgency.

The problem is that too many see the conflict as zero-sum. The conflict is not zero-sum:









Reconciliation with Taliban





Weak Afghanistan





U.S. Out





U.S. Out





Reconciliation with Taliban





U.S. Out









Safe Haven

U.S. Out



(*GIRoA:  The Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan)

The primary U.S./NATO goal is to keep ISIS-K and al Qaida from creating safe havens in Afghanistan from which they could direct or sponsor terrorist attacks against NATO countries. The U.S./NATO would also like to see Afghanistan emerge as friendly toward the west, free from its insurgency with the Taliban, and economically independent.

The primary goal of Pakistan, Russia, and Iran is to keep ISIS-K out as well (and ought to be to oppose al Qaida and its affiliates too). The state sponsors of the Taliban support GIRoA economic growth and do not support GIRoA’s collapse. U.S. strategy, therefore, should not make the states sponsors out as the enemy of Afghanistan but instead invest them with Afghanistan’s success (or, if necessary, pit them against each other).

The Afghanistan insurgency is unique in that the state sponsors of the insurgency do not want the insurgents to win. In fact, the goal ought to be to make Afghanistan the responsibility of the (neighboring) state sponsors of the Taliban and the terrorist groups in Afghanistan. Should the U.S./NATO effort attempt to keep the conflict’s focus on kinetics only (violently confronting the Taliban and their supporters), and attempt to isolate and deny the involvement of Pakistan, Russia, and Iran in Afghanistan’s future, the U.S.-led effort will likely be resisted by these state sponsors, which will ultimately risk overall U.S./NATO failure. At the moment, the state sponsors, Pakistan, Russia, and Iran, support the Taliban, which harbors al Qaida, al Qaida affiliate groups, and even ISIS-K to some degree – the very enemies of these state sponsors. None of the state sponsors wants to see Afghanistan turn into a failed state or a safe haven for terrorist groups that target them. They do not want the Taliban to defeat GIRoA; they merely want to be involved with whoever wins, especially when the United States leaves Afghanistan. But if the Trump Effect implies that the United States is staying to win, their support to the Taliban will likely diminish; they want to side with the winner. All the state sponsors of the Taliban had assumed the United States was leaving; today, they are not so sure.

The terrorist groups in Afghanistan oppose Pakistan, Russia, and Iran as much as they do the United States. The state sponsors of the Taliban assumed U.S. strategy and commitment would wain and fail.

The new President has reasserted U.S. commitment to Afghanistan with a ‘conditions-based’ approach (i.e., the United States will depart only when conditions are favorable); the U.S. military is appropriately motivated. That is the good news. However, the strategy includes a public shaming of Pakistan for its malign contribution to the incessant war in Afghanistan but without any recognition of Pakistani core concerns. That was a mistake – though one that can be fixed. However unjustified, the United States ought to address Pakistani concerns over Afghanistan via confidence-building measures, limits on Afghan power projection, Afghan-Pakistani military exchanges, and limits on Indian support.

The primary strategic goals in Afghanistan for all the parties involved are not zero-sum. The Taliban wants the U.S. out (but don’t want to share governance with ISIS-K); the Iranians and Russians want the U.S. out too (but don’t want ISIS-K to be able to establish a foothold); the Pakistanis want a weak Afghanistan (and no ISIS-K). A U.S./NATO re-deployment to Bagram in exchange for a shift of counter-ISIS-K responsibility to Iran and Russia may not be a bad or impossible outcome.

Insurgencies are messy, ugly conflicts; solutions are often imperfect, ambiguous, and reflect the conditions of the theater. We should make sure that vision statements do not become the obstacle to intellectual coherence and comprehensiveness and, ultimately, success in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a Rubric’s cube, where everything must be aligned correctly on all sides. To date, we have been paying attention to one side at a time.

James R. Van de Velde is an adjunct faculty member at Johns Hopkins, Georgetown, and the National Intelligence University. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


[i] Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali, “Trump gives U.S. military authority to set Afghan troop levels: U.S. official,” Reuters, 14 June 2017,

[ii] Susan Jones, “U.S. Commander: 12 Terrorist or 'Extremist' Groups Now Operating in Afghanistan,”, July 29, 2016,

[iii] Mohammad Asif Ahmadzai, “30 terrorist groups operating in Afghanistan: Ghani,” Pajhwok Afghan News, November 30, 2016,

[iv] Abdul Wali Arian, “20 Terrorist Groups Fighting Against Afghan Government,” Tolo News, February 26, 2017,

[v] Glenn Kessler, “Trump’s incorrect claim that 20 ‘U.S.-designated’ terrorist groups operate in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” The Washington Post, 22 August 2017.

[vi] Bill Roggio and Alexandra Gutowski, “LWJ Map Assessment: Taliban controls or contests 45% of Afghan districts,” The Long War Journal, September 26, 2017.

[vii] Daniel Brown, “Rex Tillerson appeared to undermine Trump's message on Afghanistan,” Business Insider, August 22, 2017.

[viii] Thomas Jocelyn, “AQIS emphasizes allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, Taliban in new ‘code of conduct’,” The Long War Journal, June 26, 2017.

[ix] AQIS ‘Code of Conduct.’ See Thomas Jocelyn, “AQIS emphasizes allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, Taliban in new ‘code of conduct’,” The Long War Journal, June 26, 2017.

[x] Thomas Jocelyn, “AQIS emphasizes allegiance to Ayman al Zawahiri, Taliban in new ‘code of conduct’,” The Long War Journal, June 26, 2017.

[xi] U.S. General: We Are Very Concerned' About Afghan Security Forces' Casualty Rate, NBC News, October 24, 2016,

[xii] Russ Read, “More Than 5,000 Afghan Troops Killed This Year As Obama’s War In Afghanistan Continues To Fall Apart,” The Daily Caller, 30 October 2016,

[xiii] Stancati, Margherita. “Afghan Troop Casualties are Rising.” Wall Street Journal. October 22, 2014. Accessed at:

[xiv] Amir Shah, “UN reports rise in Afghan war deaths, blames insurgents,” AP, 17 July 2017,

[xv] Sune Engel Rasmussen, “Afghanistan: civilian deaths at record high in 16-year war, says UN,” The Guardian, 17 July 2017,

[xvi] “Afghan civilian casualties at record high in 2016: UN,” Aljazeera,

[xvii] Alexander B. Downes, Alexander B., “Forced to Be Free?: Why Foreign-Imposed Regime Change Rarely Leads to Democratization”, International Security, Vol. 37, No. 4 (Spring 2013).

[xviii] Sandra Erwin, “Mattis Under Pressure to Deliver "Winning" War Plan,” Real Clear Defense, 14 June 2017,

[xix] “Afghan warlord shrugs off violent past in bid to rebrand,” UK Daily Mail, online, 15 November 2016.

[xx] Hekmatullah Azamy, “Iran’s Budding Alliance With The Taliban,” Gandhara, 30 March 2017,

[xxi] Ali M. Latifi, “How Iran Recruited Afghan Refugees to Fight Assad’s War,” The New York Times, 30 June 2017,

[xxii] Ali M. Latifi, “How Iran Recruited Afghan Refugees to Fight Assad’s War,” The New York Times, 30 June 2017,

[xxiii] Fariba Sahraeiv, “Syria war: The Afghans sent by Iran to fight for Assad,” BBC, 15 April 2016,

[xxiv] Arif Rafiq, “Can Trump Come Up with a Comprehensive Strategy to Save Afghanistan?,” The National Interest, 2 June 2017,

[xxv] Shams Momand, “Pakistan stops NATO supplies after deadly raid,” Reuters, November 26, 2011.

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