Trump flip-flops on Afghanistan, opts for Years-long Quagmire

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –

The 16-years-long Afghanistan War has bedeviled Washington decision-makers since the US invasion of fall, 2001, which came in response to the attacks of September 11.

In his speech on Monday night, Trump was primarily attempting to manipulate American domestic politics. He was trying to look presidential and play the patriotism card after he called Neo-Nazis and KKK members in Charlottesville very fine people. Almost nothing he said about Afghanistan and South Asia made any sense, and of course Trump does not know anything about any of those subjects. His military advisers only know these subjects through the lens of military action, which isn’t very helpful if the problems are cultural.

It is a low-risk strategy. I don’t find the American public interested in Afghanistan in the least. The US media does not much cover that war and announcements of US troop deaths are carried on page 17 of the newspapers. So Trump can shift the focus to foreign policy without risking a backlash.

Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis once said it is fun to shoot Taliban. He is in for a lot of fun.

Trump depicted the radical groups in Afghanistan as dangerous to the United States. This assertion is probably incorrect. It is true that, as Trump said, the 9/11 attacks were planned out by Usama Bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri, Khalid Shaikh Mohammad and other al-Qaeda leaders in Afghanistan. But they were also planned out in Hamburg, where al-Qaeda had the good fortune to recruit some high-powered engineers. They were not planned out by the Taliban, whose leaders probably did not even know about the plans to attack the United States. In the aftermath Taliban angrily denounced Bin Laden as having provoked a foreign occupation of their country.

That al-Qaeda had training bases in Afghanistan was important to their movement, but those bases wouldn’t have been much use if the American airlines did not have shoddy security precautions against hijackings. Jet planes are enormous bombs and it was only a matter of time before someone figured out how to use them as such. Likewise, mistrust between the CIA and the FBI caused two of the hijackers, who had been under surveillance at an al-Qaeda summit in Kuala Lumpur but then entered the US and settled in San Diego, to fall between the cracks.

And, of course, al-Qaeda would not have existed at all if Ronald Reagan had not encouraged a private army of Muslim fundamentalists and tribal forces to attack the Communist government of Afghanistan in the 1980s. And that government wouldn’t have been there, in all likelihood, if Leonid Brezhnev of the Soviet Union had not invaded and occupied the country, which began its long-term destabilization.

In short, the US probably does not need to stay in Afghanistan to ensure that America is not attacked from that country again. The obverse is that being in Afghanistan does not protect the US from attacks hatched elsewhere, including possibly in Europe itself. The main point is that the US needed better security at point of use in dangerous systems such as the airline industry.

Still, for ISIL or al-Qaeda to reestablish training camps in Afghanistan would be a highly negative development. Such camps would be difficult to discover and bomb from the air, if the US withdrew, since it would need to fly missions against them from aircraft carrier battle groups in the Gulf, and would need overflight permission from Pakistan or Iran.

As for why the Taliban in particular have made a comeback and may control a third of the country, there are some basic reasons for this, some of them explained by Sarah Chayes, who knows more about the real Afghanistan than the entire US government.

First, Afghanistan is desperately poor. It is one of the 25 poorest countries in the world. Despite the fake news sometimes put out from DC think tanks, it has virtually no natural resources of any value. Its population is still largely agricultural but much of the country is arid. This poverty contributes to a weak government that does not raise enough in taxes to mount a proper government. If it weren’t for foreign aid, Afghanistan could not afford to pay its tens of thousands of troops and police. Low salaries and salary arrears encourage corruption. Dire poverty does not necessarily turn a country into a failed state. Senegal does better than Afghanistan. But it is a strike against the country and hard to overcome.

Second, its high rates of population growth often outstrip economic growth, so that per capita income is actually declining.

Trump’s determination not to do nation-building differs little from the actual US policy of the past 16 years, which is to put much more money into bombs than into the country’s economic development. Since lack of development is a big driver of the failed state and of guerrilla violence, giving it up won’t be helpful.

Third, as noted above, its government is extremely corrupt. Officials prey on people, steal land and other resources from them, and generally act like a plague on the land. Warlord rule is common, i.e. rule by what are essentially violent mobsters. This extreme corruption drives some of the population into the arms of the Taliban, who are fanatical puritans and who do lay levies on people, but are for the most part not personally corrupt.

Fourth, Afghanistan has some deep ethnic divides. Some 40% of the population is Pushtun. They speak Pashto and practice a relatively strict form of Sunni Islam. They are the potential constituency for the Taliban. Another 22% or so is Hazara Shiites, who speak Dari Persian and have the same form of Islam as neighboring Iran. Ten percent are Uzbeks, who speak a Turkic language and practice Sunni Islam, though many of them are secular-minded as a result of the influence of neighboring Uzbekistan. Most of the rest are some form of Tajik, Sunni Muslims who speak Dari Persian. Tajiks are disproportionately urban and literate and often fill government offices, to the annoyance of the rural and tribal Pushtuns.

As Sarah Chayes has pointed out, deep ethnic divides and hatred exacerbate public reaction against corruption. If a Tajik governor of a province is stealing from Pushtuns, the latter may well turn to the Taliban for protection.

The Western Pushtuns have never bought into the US-established government in Kabul, which has all along had a strong element of the Northern Alliance (Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks) who had fought the Taliban in the 1990s. Last I knew, 2% of the army is from Helmand and Qandahar provinces, Pushtun strongholds.

Sixth, outside powers also play on the ethnic divides. Many Tajik politicians have strong relationships with India. Most Pushtun are pro-Pakistani. Pakistan is regularly accused of promoting the Taliban and Muslim fundamentalism as a way of asserting Pakistani influence and countering Indian inroads. Pakistani generals consider Afghanistan their “strategic depth” with regard to India. (I don’t think they understand the concept properly; you want your strategic depth between you and the enemy, not behind you.) Hazaras have not been as close to Iran as you might imagine, but some of their leaders do have links to Tehran.

The ordinary troops of the army are reluctant to risk their lives fighting for a corrupt government. There are high desertion rates and high rates of drug use in the army. While in some battles some units have fought bravely, despite its training, size and equipment it is regularly successfully challenged by smaller bands of Taliban.

If Trump had pulled the US out of Afghanistan, as he threatened to during the campaign, my guess is that Kabul would have fallen to the Taliban within a year. The US no longer does much active war-fighting in this country, but special forces and US fighter jets can intervene to stop a Taliban offensive.

The country, in short, is in a stalemate, and the best the US can likely do is to be like the little boy who stuck his finger in the dike to stop a flood. You kind of have to keep your finger in the dike forever.

Trump’s demand that India invest in Afghanistan was overly dramatic. India already invests in Afghanistan. But I don’t know what he expects. It is a desperately poor country with few natural resources. Although the Indian middle class has greatly expanded, much of India is still mired in rural poverty and those villagers are a much bigger constituency for the BJP government than are the villagers of Afghanistan.

Trump’s slam of Pakistan as giving safe haven to terrorists and extremists is the sort of thing it is better to say privately. You say it publicly, Pakistan’s urban elites are likely to tell Washington to jump in a lake. They consider Afghan fundamentalists as a vector of their soft power in a neighboring country. Already, Pakistan is being deeply embedded in China’s economic expansion westward, and Islamabad could easily turn to Beijing as its major foreign patron. And, by the way, the Pakistani military has fought some hard campaigns against extremists inside the country, and lost many troops to these battles.

In the end, Trump just kicked the can down the road. The fawning over him by some tele-journalists for doing so (and seeming decisive and “presidential”) was truly disgusting. If Afghanistan’s curses are corruption, fanatical identity politics and a hatred of globalization, its more problematic organizations resemble most of all . . . Trump’s base.


Related video added by Juan Cole:

Donald Trump Takes Ownership Of Afghanistan War With New Announcement | Rachel Maddow | MSNBC

20 Responses

  1. If anyone has any glimmer of hope this will work out well you must watch a VICE video from a few years back “This Is What Victory Looks Like” showing the frustration of US military advisers who work with Afghan militias and Afghan army units.

    Spoiler alert….The Afghan soldiers are more interested in young boys than fighting the Taliban.

    Have an adult beverage standing by.

    link to

    • Iran benefits from GIRoA and the ANSF defeating the Taliban. Iran will likely allow and encourage shipments of ANSF, Afghan civilian, and Indian lethal goods through Iran. Some other members of the coalition might be able to use the Iranian supply line as well. In fact, if asked, Iran might be willing to provide substantial material assistance to GIRoA and the ANSF against the Taliban.

      With respect to the US using the Iranian supply line; I see no indication that Pres Trump is open to using an Iranian supply line.

      Currently Resolute Force supplies itself through the Northern Supply Route. The Northern Supply Route was able to supply 150,000 ISAF + ANSF + civilian Afghan imports for some time back in the 2010 and 2011 time frame; when Pakistan cut all transit shipments.

      The Northern Supply Route can easily accommodate all Afghan and coalition needs for the foreseeable future.

  2. For an elitist fat old man who has never sacrificed anything in his life much less serve in the military to lecture young troops about death and sacrifice, national graveyards and duty to justify a continuation of a war with no attainable objective has to be met with disbelief.

    Winning at any cost including killing and maiming more loyal and trusting troops and spending more billions to glorify Trump’s maladministration must not be funded by Congress.

  3. 9/11 terrorists were from Saudi Arabia (15) 2 from UAE, and one each from Egypt and Lebanon. None from Afghanistan.
    It is time to face reality, the Afghan people does not have any thing to do with this ordeal. It is sad not to recognize that we are killing and hurting inoccent people, while we do let enter our country people from the countries that did damage us in 9/11

    • Al-Qaeda was the 55th Brigade of the Taliban and tightly integrated into its military, political and marriage structures.

      • ” the Afghan people does not have any thing to do with this ordeal.”

        Afghanis didn’t want anything to do with the Taliban. Just like the Syrians want nothing to do with Jaysh al-Islam and Nusrah Front and other extremist groups. Unfortunately, the Taliban and precursors to AQ received financing and munitions support from Saudi Arabia, which trumps the will of Afghanis. In the same capacity, ordinary Syrians are sick of both the Baathist government and extremist groups that overrun sections of Syria, but Saudi Arabia supports these extremist groups to the hilt.

  4. If anyone in Washington in 2001 had known anything about Pashtunwali, the Taliban could have been successfully negotiated with and Bin Laden could have been handed over or expelled (to a place where he could have been picked up), al-Qaeda could have been broken up, and this whole bloody, futile, endless mess could have been avoided. And STILL American leadership is clueless and heartless.

    I can’t tell if Afghan policy is dictated by mere stubborness and stupidity, or something more insidious and deceitful. Harder and harder to tell the difference these days.

    • The Taliban would never have turned on al-Qaeda, which was their 55th Brigade and with whom they had marriage and other alliances. The Afghan clerics on the other hand did urge that Bin Laden be turned over.

      • I see. Thanks for the clarifications! I’m not entirely convinced that an arrangement couldn’t have been made, according to what I’ve read from other Afghan and regional experts; but no one pursued anything other than invade, break the state, STILL fail to corral Bin Laden or his main leadership, then wonder what to do next.

  5. I keep hearing the claim that Afghanistan has a trillion dollars worth of minerals. It is a large country with lots of geology, so that doesn’t sound incredulous to me. Of course most minerals require large mining operations, which require decent levels of security, so I don’t expect much of this to be tapped in any foreseeable future..

    • A trillion dollars is 1/18 of the annual GDP of the US, but the Afghans just have it once, if it is that. Nothing to write home about.

  6. Trump now owns this. It seems we have dumped trillions of dollars, killed hundreds of thousands of innocent people, smashed this nation to smithereens, lost many of our kids, and the Taliban still thrives over there.
    It is unfortunate that the US never learns from the mistakes of others, and keeps doing the same thing over and over and expects different (and better) results.
    Our leaders could have given our entire nation free health care, if we did not attack this country.

  7. Pakistani generals consider Afghanistan their “strategic depth” with regard to India. (I don’t think they understand the concept properly; you want your strategic depth between you and the enemy, not behind you.)

    The concept actually still applies. Pakistan is genuinely paranoid of any Indian influence or action coming from behind through Afghanistan, which is basically an encirclement of sorts. They do not want to be caught fighting two fronts. And Pakistan is spiteful enough to see Afghanistan burn rather than prosper if it meant that India would benefit. It’s why Pakistan liked the Taliban. They were anti-India too, sympathetic to Kashmir jihad, besides seemingly the right type of ‘pious Muslims’ from a familiar ethnicity, who were winners and better to work with compared to other despicable Afghan warlords. Their treatment of women or violence against other religious or ethnic minority groups were non-issues.

    Not going to judge whether it was right or wrong for any US official to condemn Pakistan, which is really more a frenemy than an ally, for harbouring Afghan and other pro-Pak Sunni Islamist militants or having an insane double-game policy all these years (though the US really should’ve known who they were dealing with in Pakistan and their anti-India world view and interests). Pakistan, especially it’s army, really does need to be called out for it’s extremist friendly policies that literally prolonged this and other conflicts, and was the cause for blowback on Pakistan’s people.

    However, giving a nod to India in public to help you out with Afghanistan was a bad mistake. Not only would this signal a threat to Pakistan and justify their fears and paranoia (that includes everything like the US wants to steal our nukes), but even China would take issue, who seem to be on a collision course with both India and the US for dominance in the region.

  8. “Trump’s determination not to do nation-building differs little from the actual US policy of the past 16 years, which is to put much more money into bombs than into the country’s economic development. Since lack of development is a big driver of the failed state and of guerrilla violence, giving it up won’t be helpful.”

    This paragraph is illogical. How can you give up something that was never there in the first place? That’s the only conclusion I can draw from the writing. The first sentence suggests nation-building was hardly or never pursued by the past two administrations, the second sentence suggests that Trump is giving it up.

    Given that we have not pursued nation-building in any Near East country in any meaningful capacity (besides the empty words), why should we expect our elected leaders to engage in nation-building in the Near East sometime in the near future. They don’t invest in the most basic nation-building activities at home: just what makes us think that they’ll invest in nation-building in countries in the Near East.

    What the people of the Near East want is to get on with their lives without having the threat of invasion by global hegemons.

  9. Bannon got one thing correct . . .

    THERE IS NO MILITARY solution to Afghanistan.

    EVERY group that has attacked Afghanistan has left after humiliating defeat. Heck the Brits tried it three times and suffered humiliating defeat three times.

    The size of the USA forces in Afghanistan are too small to do anything but try to keep each other alive and run up huge costs for taxpayers. To actually conquer the 35 million Afghanistan population (sort of) would require two to five million USA soldiers with the USA suffering a 10% to 20% death rate. These numbers are based on the USA Army insurgency manual which you can get here:

    link to

    There is no way for the USA to WIN in Afghanistan, PERIOD.

    At this point it is all about ego. No president wants to be the one that “lost Afghanistan,” especially super-inflated ego trump.

    • Correct. Many loyal and trusting troops will die and be maimed, billions will be spent for the GLORIFICATION OF TRUMP!!

  10. Cole: “The Western Pushtuns have never bought into the US-established government in Kabul …” But according to Trump (mirroring Assad) there are no freedom fighters in Afghanistan because they’re all “terrorists.”

    Cole: “… the Pakistani military has fought some hard campaigns against extremists inside the country, and lost many troops to these battles.” So the combined US, Nato and sundry allies can’t defeat the Pashtun in Afghanistan but Pakistan is supposed to defeat them over the border by themselves.

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