Gayle Lemmon: Military leaders prevailed against skeptics in Afghan policy review
She says US troops to bolster Afghans invests in stability of a nation that wants to be more
Editor’s Note: Gayle Tzemach Lemmon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is the author of “Ashley’s War: The Untold Story of a Team of Women Soldiers on the Special Ops Battlefield.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
America is trying to learn the lessons of its post-9/11 wars. And in his speech to the nation Monday evening, Donald Trump, the third US President to grapple with the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, promised not nation-building, but terror-pursuing.
Most importantly to those in Afghanistan and those in Washington who long argued for America’s sustained involvement in the country, he also announced a longer-term commitment to the war-scarred nation, shaped not by timelines in Washington but facts on the ground in Afghanistan.
This was the kind of speech that Afghan officials I have spoken with over the last decade have long hoped for – and one that Afghan hands at the State Department had long hoped their president would give. Now, the challenge comes in the form of the execution – the what’s next – and whether the details will be the bolstering or the undoing of this next iteration of policy in America’s longest war.
The Afghanistan War, which began after terrorists struck the United States on September 11, 2001 – way back when many now entering the US military and potentially heading to Afghanistan were barely toddlers – long ago became background noise: military wallpaper for a nation that had largely forgotten it was still underway.
But for less than 1% of this nation, which has fought 100% of its wars, the Afghanistan battlefield became the land of multiple deployments, a place where their lives changed while their nation barely noticed.
The politics of the conflict have long been driven by facts on the ground in Washington: the pendulum swung from a full engagement in the Afghanistan War at the outset, just after 9/11, to an Iraq-driven diversion in which assets and attention headed to Baghdad and beyond.
Then came the Obama administration, its months-long policy review riddled with media leaks and a timeline-focused mission in which the United States and NATO hustled to score as many victories as they could in search of meeting an ill-defined goal. In 2011, President Barack Obama said the “tide of war” was receding when it came to Afghanistan, but those words came even as American forces landed in Kandahar and Kabul and Jalalabad.
The idea was to withdraw all US forces come 2014. But 2014 became 2015 – as ISIS rose in the Middle East and different groups in Afghanistan began carrying the black flag – and then 2016 and now more than 8,000 forces remain in the nation, split between advising and assisting Afghan forces and a special operations-focused counterterror mission. This last one, battling terror groups, has morphed into an ISIS fight of late. And it is claiming US lives.
The Trump review included those with years of Afghanistan experience – national security adviser H.R. McMaster, Defense Secretary James Mattis, Joint Chiefs Chairman Joseph Dunford – and a Pentagon-led group filled with those who had spent time in Afghanistan and, in some ways, been shaped by it.
They faced a cast of policy players filled with deep skepticism concerning further Afghanistan involvement, including the now-departed Steve Bannon and even, to some extent, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and the President himself. As national security team members told me in July, we don’t feel we have good options here.
But having few good options does not change the facts. And the reality is that Afghan forces have been defending their changing nation – a country whose young generation is increasingly congregating in cities, increasingly connected to the outside world and increasingly hungry for education and a better, more peaceful future for their country – and losing soldiers at an alarmingly high rate in the process. In one year Afghan security forces lost nearly as many soldiers as the United States military has lost in both the Afghanistan and Iraq wars since 9/11. This is not to minimize those losses for even a moment, but to show that far from being a force that is unwilling to die for its nation, many already have.
Afghanistan is far from a perfect nation: Women and girls face unspeakable violence. Child marriage is a reality. Tradition trumps the nation’s laws. Corruption is widespread. And the national unity government is rickety at best. But this is the same nation that has two women governors. That has produced an all-girls robotics team. That is home to a thriving media. That has millions of children in school. And is on the front lines of the fight against extremism in an incredibly tough geopolitical neighborhood.
It is both too easy and too simple to dismiss the entire effort in Afghanistan as a waste from which America should walk away when there is a local military in place that is shedding blood in the fight against extremism. Sending the “few thousand” US troops to bolster Afghan forces that Gen. John Nicholson said in February he wanted is an investment in the stability of a nation that wants to be more and needs more security to do so. And it is a far less costly option than sending US ground forces back in the tens of thousands – something no one on any side wants to see in his or her lifetime.
A third American president is now battling with his Afghan War legacy. And while the options have gotten little better in the intervening 17 years, the chances of making a difference in helping a struggling nation fight its own wars has.