My Turn: Confronting our forgotten war in Afghanistan

For the Monitor
Friday, May 12, 2017

The Trump administration is in the final stages of reviewing a plan for deploying between 3,000 and 5,000 additional troops to Afghanistan while significantly increasing the military’s authority over how and where to engage the Taliban, ISIS and other militants.

Recent news coverage indicates that President Trump will make a decision on this plan prior to departing for a May 25 NATO summit in Brussels. Our long-term national interests would be best served by the president rejecting this plan and instead, demanding that Congress debate an Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) to govern our operations in Afghanistan. We have avoided this debate for far too long and it would be a disservice to our men and women in uniform, and their families, to ask them to once again shoulder the entire burden for a conflict where there is no clear strategy for securing peace.

The plan for expanded military operations in Afghanistan, which would have Americans take a more active role in fighting the Taliban and other militants, reflects the best thinking of General Mattis (now retired and serving as Secretary of Defense), General McMaster (National Security Advisor), and General Nicholson (the top American commander in Afghanistan). These are seasoned professionals who know first-hand the terrible costs of war and who would not advocate a new strategy unless they felt the potential gains in security outweighed the additional risks to American personnel. The generals must feel that the plan that they have put forth is what is necessary to advance their military objectives – defeating the Taliban, ISIS and other militants.

Unfortunately, it is an axiom of military strategy that all military objectives must be in service to a political objective, as only a political resolution can address the underlying issues driving the conflict (something the generals are well aware of) and this is where the plan falls apart.

In Afghanistan, the realistic political objective is a peace agreement where the Taliban agrees to put down their weapons and join the Afghan government as a political entity. Yet the generals’ plan currently under review does not call for any larger strategic effort to secure such a political objective. There is no call for a new strategy for engaging Pakistan so that we can close the safe havens along the Afghan-Pakistani border where the Taliban acts with impunity; there is no new strategy contemplated to build the capacity of the Afghan government to stem the tide of desertions in the Afghan military and persuade Afghan villagers to remain loyal to the government (many villagers submit to Taliban rule because, relative to the Afghan government, the Taliban is often less corrupt and more efficient in the administration of justice); and no serious discussion of a diplomatic campaign to secure the support of NATO and our other allies (which could be unusually challenging given how President Trump dismissed NATO’s relevance when campaigning in 2016).

These are just the most serious components that seem to be neglected in the generals’ plan, but their absence speaks volumes by illuminating the larger truth – that we have no real strategy to secure an end to the conflict in Afghanistan and there is little political will to develop one.

The generals’ plan does not address any larger strategy because by doing so it would require our political leaders to wrestle with difficult questions and face hard truths about our efforts in Afghanistan, things that are unfortunately considered political non-starters. As proof of how much our political leaders want to avoid talking about Afghanistan, let us remember that the word Afghanistan was only uttered once in the presidential debates in 2016 (between Clinton and Trump) and in an indirect fashion. Yet there are questions and realities that we must face; for instance, Pakistan provides vital support to many of our most important counter-terrorism efforts, but it is also actively de-stabilizing the Afghan government and contributing to American casualties. So, is Pakistan an ally? How do we exert influence on Pakistan in a way that will not undermine our own security? Similarly, the Afghan government has made significant improvements in terms of human rights and education, especially with respect to Afghan women, yet it is also incredibly corrupt and remains riddled with internal conflicts that undermine its ability to govern. How do we envision building capacity and at what cost? Are we ready to commit to a new Marshall Plan for Afghanistan? Finally, there are many brave Afghans (men and women) who have fought and continue to fight for a vision of their country that is inclusive, democratic, and at peace with its neighbors – what is our obligation to them?

My unit deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 to train the Afghan police and army as part of President’s Obama’s surge and so I know the depth of patriotism, valor, and selflessness that is in the hearts of many Afghans. This is not a consideration we can take lightly.

The honorable and responsible thing to do would be for Congress and the president to tackle these questions head-on and debate an AUMF. This is how in a democracy we explore ideas and struggle with difficult choices. The AUMF debate would force us to examine whether there is a viable strategy to secure the realistic political outcome needed to end the conflict. And if there is such a strategy, are we willing to dedicate all the resources necessary to succeed? The Constitution reserves the right to declare war (and AUMFs are the closest approximation to a declaration of war in this age of terrorism) to Congress because, in part, declaring war is the ultimate expression of our nation’s values and character – we are those things which we are willing to fight, and if necessary, die for. Such a momentous decision cannot be made in the bowels of the Pentagon or even alone in the Oval Office – it must come from the hall of the people.

The irresponsible course of action would be to avoid any debate, either by authorizing the generals’ plan or by rejecting it but doing nothing further. This would continue to place the entire burden of sacrifice on our military and their families. On the ground, our men and women in uniform would continue to perform heroically – the recent raid that eliminated the ISIS leader in Afghanistan underscores the exceptional tactical abilities and bravery of the American military.

But it is our obligation to match their heroism with our own political will, and ensure that our military fights in service of a strategy that has a clear political objective, the resources necessary to secure victory, and the broad support of the American people.

A cynic would say that nothing honorable is possible in Washington anymore. But when it comes to decisions that could send Americans to war, this is not a choice. We must demand that our political leaders undertake a serious debate about our strategy in Afghanistan.

(Dan Vallone is a West Point graduate who served six years on active duty as an infantry officer. He lives in Concord.)