Donald Trump surprised international audiences with his announcement that he plans to expand the US military intervention in Afghanistan, without setting an end date. This is a turnaround from Trump’s own campaign rhetoric and Barack Obama’s previous goal of dialling back the US’s military campaign – but on a more fundamental level, it’s a return to business as usual.
One Pakistani journalist described Trump’s move as the start of a “third American-Afghan war”. This marks the US’s third major attempt since September 11, 2001 to deploy the armed forces as their main tool in Afghanistan. Trump’s plan amounts to yet another surge in the American war against the Taliban, and it’s just as likely to face the same pitfalls as previous ones.
Rooting out the Taliban and other local resistance factions has proven almost impossible since 2001, both militarily and otherwise. And more soberingly still, this has been the norm in Afghanistan for decades. The country arguably has been consistently at war since 1978, when a Marxist revolution set off a nightmarish chain of events: the Soviet invasion of 1979, ten years of gruelling Afghan-Soviet conflict, and a descent into civil war that effectively lasted until 2001.
Foreign intervention has never established a stable Afghan government, nor has it strengthened the nation. Like the Soviets before them, US forces failed to anticipate that Afghans themselves might not just reject Western-oriented nation-building policies, but resist them. Innovations such as the now-abandoned Human Terrain System, which embedded anthropologists in US operations, also failed to help build up crucial local knowledge.
In contrast, foreign intervention has provided ample financial and military support for parties who want to undermine anything resembling a stable Afghan state. After all, the decade-long resistance against the Soviets was armed and supported by the CIA and Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. The Taliban emerged from this resistance, using the training it received when resisting the Soviets in the 1980s to combat the Americans in the 2000s.
Trump says this time will be different: “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” But the challenge remains the same as ever. However many “terrorists” are killed, Afghanistan needs some sort of functioning state that can deal with militant threats and earn legitimacy among Afghans themselves. Military intervention cannot guarantee this. It’s actually more likely to undermine the government’s legitimacy and to poison the US’s reputation in the process.
Drawing the line
Meanwhile, like its predecessors, the Trump administration is trying to offload some measure of responsibility onto Afghanistan’s southern neighbour, Pakistan.
Time and again, US policymakers have agreed that the Taliban can’t be rooted out until Pakistan stops lending it a safe haven along its Afghan border. Trump has pledged to do what Bush and Obama could not: force Pakistan to take a tougher stand against not just the Taliban, but other anti-Western groups hiding in its largely autonomous and tribal northwest, among them the militant Haqqani network.
The core of the problem is that Afghanistan refuses to recognise its border with Pakistan. This has dominated regional relations ever since Pakistan’s independence in 1947. The border is effectively fluid, and does little to stop the cross-border movement of terrorist networks.
During the Obama administration, this region was seen as a crucial front in the “War on Terror” and is still seen as a key to the stability of the area. Pakistan in particular worries that without a secure border, it will be vulnerable to the machinations of an axis of Indian allies, the US and Afghanistan included.
Rather than involving India, as Trump suggests, tackling the border dispute head-on could create space for proper dialogue about expelling terror networks while strengthening the region and its governments. Yet in its more than 60-year relationship with Afghanistan and Pakistan, the US has never sought a border agreement. Until one is reached, terrorist groups will never be fully expelled.
But before that can happen, Afghanistan and Pakistan both need governments whose legitimacy is acknowledged and upheld at home and abroad. And that in turn demands the Trump administration to rethink its attitude to what some might indeed call nation-building.