Don’t look for the Trump administration to pull out of Afghanistan any time soon.
In fact, expect just the opposite, as ill-advised as it is to continue pursuing a military solution to protect a US-installed corrupt government that is teetering on the brink of its own destruction.
The US has entered its 17th year in the Afghan war trying to prop up a government that is fundamentally flawed, corrupt to the core with a security force that still cannot defeat the Taliban on its own. In fact, corruption within the government has actually empowered the Taliban not only to stay the course but has increased its influence after it was all but defeated in 2001.
That defeat came after the Taliban government at the time refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, whom the US had determined had orchestrated the terrorist attacks on New York city and Washington on 9/11, an event which bin Laden later claimed responsibility for. While bin Laden was a guest of the Taliban government at the time, the Taliban asked for negotiations and proof of his involvement. The US refused any negotiation and began a bombing campaign that resulted in the fall of the Taliban government.
Once a US-imposed government was installed, there was a totally ill-advised shift in US policy. The then Bush administration turned its attention to regime change in Iraq, taking its eye off the ball of working with that government to make it representative of the Afghan people.
Ever since its installment, those who have run the government there have displayed a level of corruption and self-promotion of personal wealth that have made the function of government there untenable, prompting increasing support for the return of the Taliban.
“Afghans do not consider the Taliban nearly as much a problem as government corruption,” said Charles Tiefer in a recent Forbes article.
“To put it differently, popular support for the Taliban, compared to support for the Afghan government, has grown despite all of America’s efforts in the war since 2001, including the two large Obama troop surges. Why? Because the Afghan population will not support a government they find as corrupt as the one led by Ashraf Ghani in Kabul.”
Tiefer is not a stranger to the level of corruption in Afghanistan.
“When I was Commissioner on Wartime Contracting in Iraq and Afghanistan, I took a mission to Kabul and Kandahar in 2011. I was shown a slice of particularly galling Afghan corruption.
“The Afghan government not only taxed its own people for money that got diverted, it taxed materials brought in for American reconstruction efforts,” he said.
“That money was not kept in any kind of special fund. In other words, in this way the Afghans taxed you and me. We paid into the general government funds that so consistently got siphoned off.”
Over the past 17 years, the US still has been unable to get whatever government that is in place to handle corruption which has become an ingrained cultural trait in Afghanistan. Yet, the US has spent more than a trillion dollars over these past 17 years, not to mention billions of US dollars in money meant for reconstruction that has disappeared altogether. The US also has seen some 2,000 of its finest troops killed, including the deaths of more than 100,000 Afghan civilians.
US and NATO forces there also continue to experience increasing “green on blue” attacks of Afghan soldiers killing mainly US military personnel.
Nevertheless, the Taliban and now the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) militants have been increasingly successful in launching attacks in the heart of Kabul, the Afghan capital, while the Taliban continues to occupy some 52 percent of the provinces today, even though it had been virtually eliminated in 2001.
Some 15 million people, or half of the Afghan population, now live in areas either controlled by the Taliban or where they are openly present and are able to mount effective military attacks, according to a recent BBC study.
And all this comes even though the Trump administration continues to pour in troops for training and assisting of Afghan security forces. Today, they number some 14,000, even though at one point during the Obama administration there were about 100,000 combat US and NATO forces in the country, and still the Taliban couldn’t be defeated.
This raises the question as to why the Trump administration continues this strategy, knowing that the massive presence of American troops hasn’t worked. The Trump administration is even thinking about dusting off a proposal by Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater.
He has proposed using Private Military Contractors, or PMCs, as a substitute for US troops, similar to what he has done in Yemen after being hired by Prince Muhammad bin Majid of the United Arab Emirates. Prince’s PMCs, however, got their butts kicked there.
So, what’s the US imperative of pursuing a military solution, and is there an alternative approach?
The imperative seems to be to maintain an influence in the area, probably conceding that it can’t defeat the Taliban but will continue trying to train Afghan security forces, even resorting to the use of PMCs, as Prince suggested but Trump had turned down until now.
In attempting to maintain that presence, the Trump administration sees that, by leaving Afghanistan, it will create a political and military vacuum which Iran will quickly fill, just as it did when US forces left Iraq at the end of 2011.
This may be the reason why the US has turned down repeated offers by Russia to be part of a standing working group of neighboring countries on Afghanistan to explore what ultimately must be a political solution to this seemingly endless war. Well, Washington’s relations with Moscow aren’t very good, and any political resolution to the turmoil in Afghanistan will need to include the regional players of Iran, Russia, China, Pakistan and India – all countries with which the US has contentious issues.
Yet, it’s going to take a political solution by the countries in the region, but that can’t be achieved without US participation. The Russians admitted to this with this writer in a recent interview. So, it looks like the Afghan war will go on and, as long as it continues, the Taliban, given their gains over the past few years, will just wait out the US and continue fighting, launching attacks into its capital, as it has been doing.
Consequently, the Taliban sees little value in negotiating with the US to be included in the US-installed government in Kabul.
This is the Taliban position as long as the US occupies Afghanistan. As one US intelligence official recently told this writer, however, the Kabul government would fall within a week if the US were to pull out of Afghanistan without a viable political solution.