The Trump administration reportedly is in the throes of concocting a "new" strategy for Afghanistan.
No White House wants to lose a war, especially one that has its provenance in 1980 with the decision to arm the Afghan Mujahedeen against the invading Soviet army and in 2001 with the U.S. invasion into Afghanistan to punish al-Qaida for the attacks of Sept. 11. The war is now in its 16th year with no end in sight.
About this war, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis bluntly observed: "We are not winning."
Nine years earlier, in January 2008, another Marine four-star general and former NATO military commander James Jones signed out a report for the Atlantic Council (in which I participated) that began, "Make no mistake: NATO is losing in Afghanistan." The reaction was so intense that the sentence was softened to read, "The West is not winning."
Why is the diagnosis today as stark as it was nearly a decade ago? The answer in part explains the tragedy engulfing Afghanistan. In simplest terms, no feasible solution to the conditions in Afghanistan ever existed beyond stationing several hundred thousand troops for an indefinite period to "pacify" the country. And history showed that this option never worked. Nor has persuading or coercing Pakistan to alter its policies toward Afghanistan and the Taliban succeeded.
Pashtunwala, that is the Pashtun creed that stresses honor, hospitality and revenge, and the diverse ethnic divisions along with the decentralization of power and authority away from Kabul were never conducive to any regime imposed by outside forces. With corruption a way of life and essential to basic societal functions, including the conduct of business, Western culture and politics were anathema to Afghans, regardless of ethnicity. But the British, Russians, Soviets and today America and NATO failed to understand or ignore how Afghanistan was a graveyard of empires.
The first of the current strategic blunders was George W. Bush's shift of aims from capturing or killing Osama bin Laden in 2001 to what was euphemistically called "nation building." The central idea was that by modernizing Afghanistan, Afghans would be better able to make the country safer, more secure and more stable. A constitution was written as the American Founding Fathers rather than Afghans would have preferred. The noble goal of educating women became vital to this mission.
Unfortunately, a very diverse Afghan society was not prepared to accept westernization. Selecting Hamid Karzai as the first president ensured a dysfunctional government would follow in which corruption flourished. And isolating Iran as part of any solution was foolhardy.
President Barack Obama's "surge" of military forces in 2009 yielded only a temporary respite. But a whole of government beyond over-reliance on military action was desperately needed if there were any chance of ending the conflict successfully. Ashraf Ghani, a Western-educated economist, ascended to a presidency crippled by a political negotiation that made his Tajik rival and adversary Dr. Abdullah Abdulla a co-CEO, a situation that was untenable.
Former Vice President Joe Biden's much earlier recommendation of shifting to a counter-terrorist strategy and reducing the size of the Western commitment might have worked. But Obama made Afghanistan "the good war" and instead reinforced the Bush strategy with the surge of 30,000 forces. Today only two choices exist. And both are not good.
Cutting and running, which is how the United States vacated Vietnam in 1975, is politically unacceptable. Hence, the United States can persist with the current commitment perhaps augmented with a few thousand more troops for, possibly, many more decades. There is precedence: American forces are still deployed in Germany and Japan seven decades after World War II with a profound exception. Both states are at peace.
Second, the United States and its allies can adopt a variant of the Biden strategy, namely a small presence designed to contain the terrorist threat and resurgence of al-Qaida or the growth of the Islamic State. This is not a short-term either. But it would be conducted with far fewer forces and with minimum emphasis on nation building. Training of Afghan security and police forces would continue possibly conducted by civilian contractors to lessen the military profile.
Neither of these choices is appealing and both have enormous flaws and risks. Tragically, after 16 years of committing substantial treasure in blood and money -- possibly in excess of a trillion dollars -- with no end in sight to make Afghanistan safer and more secure, the alternative ranges from bad to worse.
Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is a senior adviser at Washington D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. A former naval person, he commanded a destroyer in the Persian Gulf and led over 150 missions and operations in Vietnam as a swift boat skipper. His next book, "Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Every War It Starts," will be published in the fall. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.