The Trump administration’s options for Afghanistan

Brian M Downing

Armies have come and gone from Afghanistan over the centuries. Alexander came through, saw no reason to stay, then wheeled south into the Indus valley, which he mistook for the Nile. A British army under WGK Elphinstone was annihilated in 1842 as it retreated from Kabul toward the Khyber Pass. Mikhail Gorbachev saw no point to continue the Soviet Union’s long war begun in 1979, and withdrew in 1988-89. It was a defeat but the exit was more dignified than Elphinstone’s.

The US plunged into Afghanistan in the vengeful and incautious days after the 9/11 attacks. The administration promised to bring a modern economy and democracy. Sixteen years, over two thousand dead, and a few trillion dollars later, the promises sound foolish. The Kabul government is irremediably corrupt and the economy remains backward and tied to opium.

President Trump is infuriated by many things of late, Afghanistan not the least of them. He may see proposed troop increases as more bad investments with no returns in sight. A pullout is being considered, but cooler heads may prevail. The president’s mind changes on short notice and his foreign policy team comprises many generals whose minds are shaped by an institution that loathes the word “failure”.

What will happen if Trump orders a pullout, as Gorbachev did almost thirty years ago? What options are there?

Rapid withdrawal  

The president could order all US military and civilian personnel engaged in the war to leave, say, within a year. This would end American air support to the Afghan National Army (ANA) and other indigenous forces. Training and advisory cadres would also leave. The process would take at least a year.

The situation would deteriorate swiftly. Americans provide important support to forces hobbled by corruption in the officer corps and ethnic mistrust in the rank and file. Airpower isn’t always accurate but it can devastate troop concentrations. This year’s marked increase in sorties has likely limited the Taliban’s offensive.

Large swathes of the country would fall, including cities such as Lashkar Gah, Kandahar, perhaps even Kabul. However, the Taliban could not seize the entire country. Even at the Taliban’s high-water mark, they could never take the north and west. Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazzara peoples fought them off and could again.

Northern leaders, ever wary of Kabul’s ineptitude, have retained large armed retinues in case of sudden collapse. They would be bolstered by remnants of the ANA which would flee to home districts in the north and west. The war against the Taliban would continue, probably with the help of regional powers.

Negotiated withdrawal

The president can apprise Iran, Russia, Pakistan, and China that Afghanistan is far more important to their national interests than it is to America’s. The five countries could then negotiate a schedule of American withdrawals and the other states’ assumption of responsibilities.

Iran has long ties, both cultural and military, with northern peoples. Tehran supported them against the Soviet Union in the eighties and during the war with the Taliban too. When American rangers contacted northern commanders after 9/11, they found that IRGC counterparts had been there for years. Iranian aid flows into the north and west where it hopes to establish commerce and a defensive glacis.

Iran has a measure of influence with the Taliban. It has delivered some arms to them and trained fighters at an IRGC base near Zahedan. Support is not out of fondness for the Taliban, which to Iran is a rabid Sunni band that massacres Shia and killed a handful of its diplomats in the north. Iran wants only to irk the US and hint at broader support in the event of a US attack on Iran.

Pakistan’s military has long supported the Taliban and a host of jihadi groups ensconced in eastern Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden wasn’t found in a cave high in the mountains. He was living comfortably a stone’s throw from a Pakistani army base.

The army needs to counter these groups as Islamist terrorism is plaguing Pakistan. Stability in Afghanistan, especially if accompanied by an American withdrawal, will aid that effort. It will provide the opportunity for greater influence in the Pashtun south and perhaps even the region’s detachment from Afghanistan.

Russia is fearful of Islamist militancy spreading further into its southern periphery and into Muslim areas of Russia itself. Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan already have small Islamist movements that learn the violent trade while in Taliban ranks. Further, ISIL is forming units in Afghanistan, some of which openly proclaim a desire to avenge the deaths of brethren killed by Russian airstrikes in Syria.

Like Iran, Russia has delivered arms to the Taliban – to irk the US and gain influence with the Taliban and divert their attention onto ISIL. Russia has also been courting Afghan warlords who would be instrumental in holding the north.

China has much to gain from a stable Afghanistan. It controls much of the county’s oil, iron, copper, and rare earth deposits and has built export routes running north, south, and west. Afghanistan can be a hub for the country’s domination of Central Asia. China shares Russia’s concern with the spread of Islamist militancy in Central Asia which is attracting recruits from China’s restive Uighur population.

The US could hand over Afghanistan to these four regional powers. They in turn can use their combined influence to settle the war. Should diplomacy fail, an incursion by Iranian and Pakistani troops into Taliban territory in the south may cause the Taliban to see the costs of further war and the attractions of cooperation.

At the very least, the four powers – at least three of which are US enemies – would be burdened with the problem for years to come, possibly sixteen or more. A move worth pondering.

Partial withdrawal

A third option is to cede most of the south and east to the Taliban and concentrate American and ANA forces in the north and west. The Taliban has only limited support in the north, mainly in Kunduz province where a Pashtun population dwells. This would reduce casualties in the ANA and allow it to reconstitute itself and develop greater effectiveness in less hostile territory.

Aid programs would concentrate in the north, leaving the Taliban to govern an impoverished, war-ravaged south in need of economic assistance. Meaningful negotiations may ensue.

(The third option was advanced long ago in my “Plan B for AfghanistanAsia Times, 29 July 2010.)

Copyright 2017 Brian M Downing

Brian M Downing is a national security analyst who has written for outlets across the political spectrum. He studied at Georgetown University and the University of Chicago, and did post-graduate work at Harvard’s Center for International Affairs. Thanks to Susan Ganosellis.