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Time for a (Different Kind of) Change in Afghanistan

Erik Goepner and A. Trevor Thrall

With the dust still settling from Wednesday’s horrific car
bombing in Kabul, the plan for America’s
new strategy in Afghanistan
now sits on Trump’s desk. The
National Security Council has
proposed a plan
that calls for more troops, who will operate
with fewer restrictions, accompanied by an expanded drone campaign
and increased support for Afghanistan’s police and military
forces. The goals for the new strategy include driving the Taliban
to the
negotiating table
,
eliminating the terror threat
and getting America to
start
winning
” again.

Unfortunately, the past 16 years strongly suggest these changes
will fail to accomplish any of the administration’s goals.

From August 2009 through August 2013
, the U.S. had between
60,000 and 100,000 service members fighting in Afghanistan as part
of President Obama’s “surge.”

Unfortunately, the surge neither defeated the Taliban nor led to
a peace deal.
Exploratory
peace talks in 2013 soon stalled.
In 2015
, Afghan and Pakistani officials said Taliban leadership
had “signaled they were willing to open peace talks with
Kabul.” In late 2016, “informal
talks
” reportedly took place.

Continued intervention
will not achieve U.S. goals, and it may actually slow the
development of Afghanistan’s capacity to manage its own
affairs.

Moreover, despite U.S. efforts, the security situation in
Afghanistan has become even bleaker. As of this past February, the
Afghan government controlled or influenced
60 percent
of all districts, down from 72 percent a year and a
half earlier. This deterioration occurred despite the Afghan
National Army and Police reportedly totaling
330,000
troops, a level they have
sustained
since 2012. Meanwhile,
the Taliban
only numbers approximately 25,000, although their
end-strength has apparently quadrupled over the past decade.

Today, with only
9,000
U.S. troops in Afghanistan, American citizens may soon be
told that an additional five to ten thousand will be sufficient to
coerce the Taliban to the negotiation table. But given the failure
of the previous surge and the situation on the ground, there is
simply no reason to think additional troops will drive the Taliban
to the negotiating table.

Nor will a few thousand more troops materially reduce the terror
threat. Some observers argue that continued effort in Afghanistan
is necessary to eliminate possible terrorist safe havens, but the
reality is that the majority of ISIS, al Qaeda, and fighters from
its affiliates operate in Iraq, Syria,
Pakistan
,
Yemen
, and other nations in North Africa and the Middle
East.

As energetically as the Taliban have fought the United States
and the Afghan government, the United States has not labeled the
group a terrorist organization. And although the threat of
terrorism does exist in Afghanistan, illustrated by the
recent killing
of an ISIS leader there, Department of State
testimony in September 2016 indicated that only the “remnants
of al Qaeda and its affiliates are still operating in
Afghanistan.

There is also little evidence to suggest that military
operations are the right tool for confronting terrorism. Since the
U.S. initiated the war on terror, the threat posed by Islamist
terror groups has risen substantially. The number of groups, based
on the Department of State’s Country Reports on Terrorism,
has more than tripled. Additionally, the number of fighters
comprising those groups has spiked from 32,000 to nearly 110,000.
Over the past 16 years, America has invaded two countries, toppled
three regimes, and conducted military operations in seven nations,
yet the Islamist-inspired global terror situation has worsened.

Clearly, Afghanistan is not going to be a quick win for the
Trump administration.

But debate over American plans to save Afghanistan miss a larger
point: Only Afghans can assure enduring change in their country.
For 16 years, U.S. officials have acknowledged that point while
simultaneously arguing that Afghans need just a little more outside
assistance before becoming self-sufficient. But the data again
point to the inadequacy of such arguments. Last year Transparency
International ranked the Afghan government as
more corrupt than 96 percent of all other countries
.

That assessment has actually worsened from the first rating,
done in 2005, when the government ranked as more corrupt than 74
percent of other nations. Additionally, the Afghan defense and
security forces continue to be incapable (or unwilling) to secure
the population despite being 13 times larger, better equipped and
better trained than the Taliban.

Well-intentioned American efforts since 2001 have failed to
produce peace and stability. Continued intervention will not
achieve U.S. goals, and it may actually slow the development of
Afghanistan’s capacity to manage its own affairs. It is time
for Afghans to take responsibility for their own future.

Erik Goepner commanded units in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is
currently a doctoral candidate at the Schar School of Policy and
Government at George Mason University. Trevor Thrall is a
senior fellow in defense and foreign policy at the Cato Institute
and associate professor at the Schar School of Policy and
Government at George Mason University.