No good choices in 'ungrateful volcano' of Afghanistan

By Harlan Ullman, Arnaud de Borchgrave Distinguished Columnist  |  Aug. 28, 2017 at 7:53 AM
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Five years less than a century ago, when Winston Churchill headed Britain's Colonial Office, what is now called the Middle East was in as much turmoil as it is today. Churchill, confronted with a losing war in Mesopotamia, turned the campaign in Iraq over to the Royal Flying Corps, arguing that it should use mustard and other poison gas as the best means to defeat the enemy. In a letter to then- Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, Churchill declared Iraq an "ungrateful volcano" that was costing Her Majesty's Government millions with nothing in return.

Afghanistan may be today's "ungrateful volcano," although that appellation is not uncontested. In outlining his new strategy for Afghanistan, President Donald Trump no doubt was very much influenced by his secretary of defense and national security adviser, both with extensive experience in that country. The president declared that the United States will remain "as long as it takes" to win and has authorized the deployment of 4,000-5,000 additional American forces in conjunction with more troops from NATO allies.

Whatever one thinks about this president, Afghanistan offers no good choices. Least worst is perhaps the better metric. Clearly, as promised in the campaign, the United States could withdraw. Withdrawal does not mean that some residual forces could not remain to train the Afghan army and police and conduct selective counter-terrorism operations. But in this case, Afghanistan's future would reside solely on the ability of its government to govern all its people.

The second bad choice was not merely to remain but to deploy more forces. The arguments for this choice were clear. American withdrawal would lead to the collapse of the Kabul government and a victory for the Taliban probably further destabilizing the region. Afghanistan could serve as a sanctuary for al-Qaida and other terrorist groups in attacking the West. Unfortunately, despite moving to a "conditions-based" framework for assessing future U.S. policy and calling for Afghanistan (and Pakistan) to do more, to succeed whatever that means, this commitment will take decades.

The aim of any strategy must be diplomatic negotiations between the government and Taliban forces that lead to a political settlement. The White House believes this strategy will achieve this outcome. And while a withdrawal that incurs much higher risk might also produce a diplomatic solution sooner, both Republicans and Democrats would berate any president for cutting and running.

The harsh reality is that no strategy other than an even larger buildup and a commitment of three or four decades will work. And I doubt that solution would be effective. Sixteen years of errors and mistakes cannot be overcome by military means. And nation building likewise is a false promise. Afghanistan will succeed or fail based on its politics, culture, society and actions. History, dating back to Alexander the Great and subsequent military campaigns by Britain, Russia and then the Soviet Union cannot be ignored. Those defeats were not accidental.

The exclusion of Iran; a constitution modeled on Western democracies that attempted to centralize power in Kabul in a country that had existed on a decentralized political basis; corruption; drugs; the absence of a unified legal and justice system; and the unworkable sharing of power between President Ashraf Ghani and his rival and competitor, Chief Executive Officer Abdullah Abdullah, are some of the reasons that explain why Afghanistan is an "ungrateful volcano."

Assuming Western casualties remain low and the expense does not become a drain on tight budgets, this war will continue for years. The most optimistic hope, and it is a hope, is that the warring parties will become exhausted. Then some form of compromise might be reached.

Still, this is an active volcano whose lava will spill over. The demarche to Pakistan by the administration is regarded in Islamabad as a de facto declaration of war. The lever of a U.S. tilt to India will exacerbate and not calm Pakistan's paranoia about its giant neighbor. Iran, Russia and China will follow their own interests in Afghanistan. Indeed, Russia will draw a certain ironic pleasure in supporting the Taliban as the United States did for the mujahedin.

At some stage, the United States will withdraw. The fear that Afghanistan is the preferred training ground for jihadis to attack the West will prove superficial. Africa, the Middle East and sadly Europe are riper and more fertile places where al-Qaida and the Islamic State can operate. And the ungrateful volcano will continue to erupt.

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 has Lost Every War it Starts," will be published in the fall. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.

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