President Trump’s policy differs from the one he inherited only in the addition of 4,000 more troops. Trump vows to eschew nation-building, emphasize counterterrorism, end corruption in Afghanistan and hold Pakistan accountable. President Barack Obama promised the same things. “It is time to focus on nation-building here at home,” Obama said in 2011, explaining his shift in approach from President George W. Bush’s strategy.
Trump’s remarks on Pakistan were seen by many as a strong break from the previous administration, but people appear to have forgotten the unusually blunt testimony that Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, gave to Congress in 2011. He called the Haqqani network, one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in Afghanistan, “a veritable arm of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency.” That same year, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-CIA Director David Petraeus both went to Pakistan to, in Clinton’s words, “push the Pakistanis very hard” to end their support for militant groups in Afghanistan. That was one in a series of actions that outraged the Pakistanis, causing them to shut down supply routes to U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan for seven months.
In expressing support for Trump’s open-ended commitment, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) used the tired old saying that the United States has the watches, but the Taliban has the time. “If they believe that we have some end date, some timetable, then they will wait us out,” he said. But this fundamentally misunderstands the nature of this type of overseas struggle. The Taliban will wait us out for a very simple reason: They live there.
Harry Summers, a wise army officer in the Vietnam War who went on to write a definitive book on that conflict’s military lessons, “On Strategy,” opened the book by recounting an exchange he had with a North Vietnamese officer in 1975, just before Saigon fell. “You know you never defeated us on the battlefield,” Summers said. The officer replied, “That may be so, but it is also irrelevant.” Every local force knows one thing in its bones: Eventually, the foreigners have to go home.
Why is the Taliban gaining ground in Afghanistan? I asked the New Yorker’s Dexter Filkins, one of the keenest reporters who has covered that war. “Ordinary Afghans don’t like the Taliban. But they dislike the Afghan government even more. We say we don’t want to do nation-building, but you can’t build an army without first building a state. People don’t die for an army; they die for a country. And who wants to die for the current Afghan government?”
The American military on the ground knows the problem well, which is why it refers to the Afghan government as a collection of corrupt networks that extend across the country. In true military fashion, there is an acronym for it: VICE — vertically integrated criminal enterprise.
A leading expert on Afghanistan policy, Barnett Rubin, who has advised the United Nations and the U.S. government, explains the problem as he sees it. “The Afghan state cannot exist without outside help,” he told me. “It cannot pay its bills without the U.S. government. It cannot have a stable society without Pakistan’s help. It cannot grow economically without trade and transit with Iran.” Referring to reports that Afghanistan is endowed with nearly $1 trillion in mineral resources, he observed, “I’m sure the moon has even more mineral wealth, but you need a way to get it out to markets. And for that, you need friendly neighbors.” Rubin believes that Trump’s approach is doomed because it seems utterly unilateral, willfully oblivious to the interests of the other powers in the region, especially Russia, China and Iran.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has doubled down on more of the same. More money, bombs, troops, pressure on Pakistan and tough love for the Afghans. It is a tactical approach, designed by generals, to ensure that they do not lose. But it does not even pretend to contain a strategy to win. In other words, half a century later, at a lower human cost, the United States has replicated its strategy in Vietnam. Call it quagmire-lite.