There Is No Military Path to Victory in Afghanistan

5 minute read
Dempsey, who was a Senior Advisor in the State Department from 2010 to 2016, is a Fellow with New America’s International Security Program.

If President Trump’s finally unveiled Afghanistan strategy was meant to distract us from perhaps his worst week as President, it succeeded, for a day. If it was designed to outline a successful U.S. plan in Afghanistan, it made some good points. It also raised a number of serious questions.

Trump claims that his strategy represents a dramatic shift from President Obama’s approach. Certainly, the arbitrary deadlines for U.S. military engagement that Obama set were a mistake, and Trump’s shift from a time-based approach to one where conditions on the ground determine the duration and level of U.S. involvement is welcome.

But just what are the conditions he’ll be examining? Trump’s affinity for secrecy in war — not signaling specific decisions on troop numbers, rules of engagement or battle plans — is designed to catch the enemy off-guard, increased civilian casualties be damned. A reluctance to define victory, however, allows for a constant shifting of invisible goal posts — which could lead to a costly, decades-long U.S. presence in the country.

The Trump Administration needs to be clear about what the end-goal is — “we will win” is insufficient. The President announced some tactical changes like ending micromanagement from Washington, giving our military members the tools they need and expanding their authorities to obliterate the enemy. So is the definition of victory the killing of all terrorists in the region? Even if that were possible, what conditions need to be in place so that once we leave, new terror groups don’t spring up? And how will we achieve our new military objectives with a few thousand more troops (up from 8,400 now) when we couldn’t “win” with a combined 140,000-strong U.S. and NATO force just a few years ago?

Trump was right to declare that the consequences of a hasty exit from Afghanistan are both predictable and unacceptable. So, too, are the consequences of a strategy that focuses overwhelmingly and disproportionately on increasing firepower and killing terrorists. He claimed that a fundamental pillar of this new strategy is the integration of American economic, diplomatic and military power toward a successful outcome. He then ignored diplomacy and economics, focusing almost entirely on crushing our enemies—and threatening Pakistan.

The President did acknowledge that “someday” a political settlement with some elements of the Taliban may be possible — but only after an “effective” military approach. He then immediately went on to express skepticism over prospects for reconciliation. He’s right to be skeptical – any serious analyst should be skeptical of any proposed solution. What’s worrying is Trump’s certainty that there is a military path to victory in the country. There isn’t one.

A sustainable peace in Afghanistan will only come through a negotiated settlement among the major parties to the conflict. America’s military has a significant role to play in shaping conditions that will allow for a peace process to make progress. But the U.S. military efforts should aim to facilitate rather than substitute for political negotiations.

Success in Afghanistan also requires a reasonably popular and effective Afghan government. Ultimately, there will not be peace and stability in Afghanistan unless and until there is a government that Afghans from all walks of life accept, even reluctantly.

Yet today — despite sincere efforts of President Ashraf Ghani to improve rule of law — government corruption is higher than ever. Ordinary Afghans have little faith in their institutions to deliver even basic services. Allegations of nepotism and favoritism toward certain ethnic groups and tribes have alienated many others. Crime is on the rise. And a recent increase in spectacular terror attacks and lost ground to the Taliban around the country are compounding frustrations with a government many view as increasingly incompetent.

National Security Advisor General H.R. McMaster understands this better than anyone. I worked closely with General McMaster in 2010-11 when he was running an anti-corruption task force in Kabul. He regularly cited the two main drivers of the conflict in Afghanistan as (1) Taliban sanctuary in Pakistan and (2) the endemic corruption and predatory governance that turns Afghans away from their own officials and institutions. He developed a comprehensive plan to help the Afghans improve government capacity, instill rule of law and tackle widespread graft — all key elements of “nation-building” that President Trump disavowed last night. While the McMaster plan was overly ambitious and barely implemented, his diagnosis of the problem was accurate — and it’s become more acute today.

With Trump’s clear disdain for soft power, is addressing the governance problem now off the table? Are we going to halt capacity building in Afghan institutions? Stop paying for Afghan elections? Trump noted that we’re going to stop trying to construct democracies in our own image (a view probably welcomed globally these days). He also said his strategy is not a blank check and that the American people expect to see “real reforms.”

By reforms, he presumably means things like a reduction in official corruption, a professionalized security sector and better overall governance. But how do we achieve that without traditional “nation-building”? Perhaps Trump intends to encourage allies to focus on the soft power efforts while Team America lobs bombs. Maybe Trump thinks the Afghans need to figure it out for themselves.

With consequential presidential elections only two years away, the Afghans are going to need significant civilian assistance to ensure those polls are reasonably fair and result in a legitimate and effective new government. Only a capable and popular government will be able to provide the law and order needed to prevent the country from again being a safe haven for terrorists.

Let’s hope McMaster convinces Trump of that.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at

TIME Ideas hosts the world's leading voices, providing commentary on events in news, society, and culture. We welcome outside contributions. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of TIME editors.