Trump at war: Troops first, strategy later

Our view: Success in America’s longest war has proved elusive for years; that won’t change if we don’t even know what we’re trying to accomplish

Sixteen years after a U.S.-led coalition overthrew the Taliban, Afghanistan is still a dangerous, chaotic place.

This month alone, three American soldiers, including Sgt. Eric M. Houck, 25, of Baltimore, were killed and eight others were wounded in attacks by supposedly allied Afghan forces. A massive truck bomb exploded in the capital of Kabul, killing 150 and wounding more than 400. Islamic State forces captured Tora Bora, the mountain fortress that once served as Osama bin Laden’s headquarters. Taliban forces are advancing on a number of provincial capitals, and the Afghan government is reportedly helping some splinter factions of that group as they turn on each other.

President Donald Trump, who used to question America’s mission in Afghanistan, has given free reign to the military in fighting the war there, most dramatically with the use of the so-called “mother of all bombs” on another Taliban mountain base, and now with his delegation to the Pentagon of authority to determine troop levels there. The military is now expected to send a few thousand more troops to the approximately 14,000 U.S. and allied forces now there. That raises real questions about our strategies and goals for prosecuting America’s longest war.

American forces are now serving mainly as advisers on major bases and not going into the field with the Afghan army. A few thousand additional troops could enable them to coordinate attacks, call in artillery and air strikes and otherwise serve in something closer to the role American forces now perform in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq. But it’s far from clear that the Afghan military, despite all our years of effort, is anything close to a reliable partner.

Deaths like Sergeant Houck’s are a reminder that the Taliban can easily infiltrate even its supposedly elite units; indeed, so-called green on blue deaths continue to play an outsized role in American and allied casualties in Afghanistan. Beyond that, the Afghan military remains a force of questionable effectiveness. It has no air force to speak of and is steadily losing ground to both the Taliban and ISIS. A more direct role from a relative handful of American troops may make a tactical difference in one battle or another, but there is little chance it will change Afghanistan’s overall trajectory.

Former President Barack Obama had pinned his hopes on achieving a level of stability in Afghanistan that would allow him to remove all troops before he left office, but he eventually conceded that to be impossible. Even the more limited vision he adopted of a chronic conflict in which American forces would play a more or less permanent role looks questionable.

The persistent corruption, tribalism and weak civil institutions that made the government of former President Hamid Karzai an unreliable partner for the United States seem unchanged under the country’s new president, Ashraf Ghani. While he was viewed as a more western-friendly leader than his predecessor, it appears doubtful that he can be any more successful at transforming his country into anything resembling a stable democracy.

Afghanistan remains deeply divided on ethnic lines, and the government Mr. Ghani heads — a messy coalition constructed under American influence after a deeply disputed election — has done nothing to narrow those divides.

Protests against the government erupted in the wake of the Kabul truck bombing, with authorities eventually opening fire on the crowd. The funeral of one of those killed became, itself, the scene of a suicide bombing, killing 20 more. This is not a situation a few thousand U.S. troops are going to fix.

And then there’s the problem of Pakistan. Mr. Ghani accuses his neighbor’s military of tolerating, if not outright supporting, elements of the Taliban in an “undeclared war of aggression.”

U.S. officials believe Pakistan is at least harboring some Taliban elements and possibly also providing them with arms. That’s a problem that can only be resolved through diplomacy (if even then), not with more Americans on the ground on the Afghan side of the border.

Afghanistan didn’t figure into the Trump campaign, and the president has said little about it since taking office. Yet it remains central to our strategic interests. The possibility that it could once again become a safe haven for terrorists to plot attacks on the West remains all too real. There are clearly divisions within the Trump administration about how to proceed, with the “America first,” isolationist crowd debating another faction that seeks greater involvement. That’s nothing new; the Obama administration displayed similar dynamics. What is new is a president sending more troops into harm’s way without articulating his goals for doing so. We may never be able to declare victory and walk away from Afghanistan, but we’ll get no kind of victory at all if we don’t even know what we’re trying to accomplish.

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