There's No Good Answer In Afghanistan

I don't comment much here on the subjects of geopolitics and foreign policy.  A big reason for that is that much of the information needed to comment intelligently is not available to people outside the government.  On the other hand, just because the government actors have access to far more information than us mere citizens does not necessarily mean that they can come with any good ideas of what to do in difficult situations.  Unfortunately, when there are no obvious good ideas of what to do, the prescriptions of the government actors almost always come down to the same thing, which is "give us more money and more personnel to keep doing what we are doing."  That is certainly a fair description of the Afghanistan situation.  

During the his campaign for President, Donald Trump did not make a big issue out of Afghanistan.  However, when he did address it, both during the campaign and before, he was clear that he thought the right answer was to get out promptly.  From a compilation at CNBC on August 21:

Five years ago to the day Monday, Trump called Afghanistan "a complete waste." He added: "Time to come home!" . . .  In a March 2013 tweet, he said the U.S. "should leave Afghanistan immediately."   "No more wasted lives," Trump tweeted. "If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first."

Seven months later -- and doubtless after having been worked over multiple times by his generals and his foreign policy advisors -- Trump has now agreed to keep on slugging it out for the foreseeable future in that godforsaken country.   Here is the full text of his August 21 speech on the subject.  Basically, he admitted that there is no alternative to continued efforts to suppress terrorist activity in Afghanistan:

A hasty withdrawal would create a vacuum for terrorists, including ISIS and Al Qaeda, would instantly fill just as happened before Sept. 11. And as we know, in 2011, America hastily and mistakenly withdrew from Iraq. As a result, our hard-won gains slipped back into the hands of terrorist enemies. . . .  We cannot repeat in Afghanistan the mistake our leaders made in Iraq. . . .  I [have] concluded that the security threats we face in Afghanistan and the broader region are immense. Today, 20 U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organizations are active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the highest concentration in any region anywhere in the world.

Of course, what Trump didn't do in the speech was to give any real idea of what our ultimate goal is and whether there is any hope of ever actually achieving it and declaring the effort concluded.  It's just as well he didn't address those things, because the answers will not be anything that anyone wants to hear.  Goal?  The best we can hope for is to maintain a highly unsatisfactory status quo, where an official government (more or less entirely on our payroll) keeps a tenuous grip on some of the more important areas of the country, and the Taliban and other terrorist organizations do not completely take over and run the place as a world terrorist training ground.  Cost: $1 trillion and counting.  Hey, since it's now been about 17 years, that's less than $60 billion per year.  A bargain!

Actually, I don't mean to be too critical.  Also, I'm interested in whether readers think they have any better ideas.  A few thoughts:

  • Trump's strategy does at least contain some substantial improvements over Obama's.  Obama's idea of pre-announcing the upcoming withdrawal date was always lunacy.  Of course the adversaries would just lie low and wait him out.  As soon as he was gone they were back bigger than ever.   
  • Those advocating something dramatically different often say something like "go hard or get out." That's easy to say, but what does "go hard" even mean in practice?  This is not a situation where there is some formal army that can be defeated or captured and then the war is over.  Does "go hard" mean killing every single person in the country?
  • And then there's the "get out" part.  Trump is absolutely right in reminding us that the reason we "got in" in the first place was that Afghanistan had been used as the site of the training base for the 9/11 attacks.  Would anyone tolerate allowing that to happen again?

After about 40 years of invasions and civil wars, there is essentially no industry in Afghanistan.  Not that there ever was much, but with constant fighting going on, nobody is going to undertake any project -- like a large factory or a mine -- that involves hundreds of millions of dollars in investment that can then immediately be lost.  So that leaves exactly two sources of real income (other than subsistence farming) in Afghanistan:  working for the Americans or NATO, and opium poppies.  More or less all of our "friends" in that country are on our payroll.  I'm not meaning to say that they are not necessarily sympathetic to our goals.  But when we leave, what do they have to fall back on?  Opium, opium, and opium.

And of course, a little-mentioned aspect of our mission in Afghanistan has been a massive effort to eradicate the production of opium.  Here's a write-up from Common Dreams back in 2014.  At that point, some $7 billion had been spent in the opium-eradication efforts.  The result?:

In a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, Attorney General Eric Holder and US AID head Rajiv Shah, Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) John F. Sopko writes: "Despite spending over $7 billion to combat opium poppy cultivation and to develop the Afghan government’s counternarcotics capacity, opium poppy cultivation levels in Afghanistan hit an all-time high in 2013."  "As of June 30, 2014, the United States has spent approximately $7.6 billion on counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan," the letter states.  "Despite the significant financial expenditure, opium poppy cultivation has far exceeded previous records," he writes, adding that this "calls into question the long-term effectiveness and sustainability of those prior efforts."

Is there any hope of ever making any progress on this effort?:

Though the crop has funded extremist and criminal groups and contributed to a public health crisis, many Afghans see opium poppy cultivation as their only option. A UNODC report issued last year stated that Afghan farmers cited as among the top reasons for their cultivation of opium poppy its high sales price, high income from little land, improving their living conditions, and poverty. 

In other words, no.

So is there any possible better strategy than the one Trump has reluctantly accepted?  The only one I can see involves accepting the opium trade and doing some kind of a deal with the Taliban.  I'm not saying that's a good answer either, but the alternative is $60 billion (and probably much more) per year, thousands of deaths, and a festering status quo.  Anyway, with the opioid crisis exploding back here in the U.S., and Afghanistan as the largest supplier of the non-synthetic part of that market, neither Trump nor any other President was going to accept that alternative at this moment.