In addition to Afghanistan’s geopolitical and geostrategic importance, its lucrative mineral resources — estimated to be worth between $1 and $3 trillion — could be one of the major justifications for the United States to remain in the fragile state.
While the Trump administration continues to debate troop levels in Afghanistan, a rather odd and concerning incident took place last week: a plane carrying Abdul Rashid Dostum, the vice president, was denied permission to land in Mazar-i Sharif. The vice president had recently formed a new political coalition with Governor Ata Mohammad Noor and others who had previously been loyal to the internationally-backed National Unity Government (NUG), headed by President Ashraf Ghani. It appeared that the national government is attempting to undermine this new partnership.
Before he entered the White House, President Trump looked at the American war effort in Iraq and came away with a simple solution: “Take the oil.”
Thankfully, this campaign-trail suggestion has not carried over to his presidency. But it was an early warning sign of Trump's own capacity for grand strategy. He sees everything, including international relations, as a transaction, a quid pro quo arrangement where even the complex legacy of a U.S. invasion in the Middle East can be reduced to a “bad deal” and an argument to plunder another nation's wealth.
In order to prevent the increasingly damaging deadly suicide attacks in the Afghan capital and across the country, reduce the unsustainable battlefield casualties of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), and reverse insurgents’ unprecedented territorial gains, Kabul and Washington must rethink their current strategy and address inherent problems in their approach to building the ANDSF. Time has proven that restricting the U.S.-led foreign troops’ role to training and advising in building a professional ANDSF has failed to produce the desired outcome, and ignoring the need to invest in and revitalize the Afghan intelligence agency – the National Directorate of Security (NDS) – has been a costly mistake.
President Trump has no easy options in Afghanistan. An abrupt United States military exit would probably provoke the collapse of an Afghan state deeply dependent on American backing, while a major reinforcement — a reprise of the Obama administration’s initial approach — would be tough to support given that it didn’t work last time.
It is only a short drive into a side valley just off the busy main road between Jalalabad and Asadabad, the capitals of Afghanistan’s eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. The narrow dusty road passes fields of golden blades of wheat that slightly sway in the light breeze. Beyond the fields and the scattered verdant trees, barren craggy hills frame the valley called Dara-i Mazor in Kunar’s district of Nurgal. Across the small river, some of the traditional mud houses resemble tiny bulky castles, hinting at the fact that Afghanistan’s violent past dates much further back than the U.S. or Soviet-led invasions.
Sixteen years have passed and we are still fighting a war in Afghanistan which is not only the longest in American history (at a cost approaching one trillion and the blood of thousands of brave soldiers), but one which is morally corrupting from which there seems to be no exit with any gratification but shame. It was necessary to invade Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda following 9/11, but once it was defeated we should have departed, leaving behind some residual forces to clean up the mess. Instead, we decided to introduce democracy, a totally alien concept to a land historically governed by tribes, and which no foreign power has ever been able to govern or fully conquer for long.
Here’s a crazy idea floating around Washington these days, outlandish even by today’s outlandish standards: The United States should hire a mercenary army to “fix” Afghanistan, a country where we’ve been at war since 2001, spending billions along the way. The big idea here is that they could extricate U.S. soldiers from this quagmire, and somehow solve it.
Afghanistan has suffered through a harrowing summer, even by the nightmarish standards of a country convulsed by conflict for decades.
On May 31, a truck bomb exploded in Kabul’s heavily fortified diplomatic enclave, killing more than 150 people. On June 2, Afghans, furious about their government’s failure to provide security, took to the streets of Kabul. Security forces cracked down, killing at least five people. One of them was the son of the deputy leader of Afghanistan’s Senate. His funeral the next day, attended by top Afghan political leaders, was rocked by three explosions that killed at least twenty people.
In 2068, some 50 years from now, will American soldiers still be dying in Afghanistan?
“The problem is,” argues Leon Panetta, the former Defense Secretary and CIA Director under President Obama, “you cannot allow Afghanistan to fail and become a safe haven for al-Qaida and for terrorism more broadly to attack our country.”