The View From Olympus: Strategic Idiocy–and an Alternative

In a column in the May 3¬†Cleveland Plain Dealer Eli Lake reported that the Trump administration has decided to redouble our efforts in Afghanistan. We are to send in more troops–5000 initially is the figure I’m hearing–and commit ourselves once again to nation building based on the corrupt and ineffectual government of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani. This was all decided in a White House meeting where the principle voice for stronger intervention came from the new national security advisor, General H.R. McMaster.

Once again, we see everything Trump promised during the campaign go out the window as typical Establishment policies prevail. Worse, McMaster, who is a tactical genius, is revealed as a strategic idiot (the combination is not unusual; Rommel was another example). So we appear doomed to four more years of  strategic failure in Afghanistan and everywhere else McMaster is in charge. Where is Count Witte when we need him?

What makes this hopeless reprise of a strategy that has already been tried and has failed especially disheartening is that other, more promising strategies are available for Afghanistan. Two could be combined to offer a reasonable chance of an outcome we could live with, namely a coalition government that includes the Taliban but excludes al Qaeda, ISIS, and other Salafists from the country.

The first recognizes that Pakistan is the key to Afghanistan, but Afghanistan is also the key to Pakistan. So long as the Afghan government is aligned with India, as it now is, Pakistan must support the Taliban. The Taliban offers its only option for an alliance with Afghanistan, which it must have for strategic depth vis-a-vis India. Remember, India is Pakistan’s number one strategic threat. A pro-India Afghanistan threatens Pakistan with a two-front war, which is intolerable. So Pakistan is tied to the Taliban whether it wants to be or not (my guess is not).

A new strategy for Afghanistan begins with our compelling the current Afghan government to de-align with India and become a reliable (and subservient) ally of Pakistan. What if it refuses? We leave tomorrow and take our money with us. I suspect that prospect will make President Ghani see reason.

Once Pakistan can break with the Taliban, a second new strategy comes into play. The Taliban is increasingly threatened by ISIS in Afghanistan. The two are already fighting, with casualties on both sides. ISIS is also a dangerous moral threat to the Taliban, because it is more extreme, which means it appeals strongly to young fighters. In effect, among Islamic puritans, ISIS makes the Taliban look like the establishment while it represents true purity. That scares the Taliban, as it should.

So we now can offer the Taliban our aid against ISIS if it will join a coalition Afghan government. With Pakistan pushing in the same direction, the chances of success would be reasonably good–which they are not if we keep repeating what we have been doing for more than ten years without success.

To show the depth of our strategic incompetence, instead of using ISIS in Afghanistan as a lever to move the Taliban, we are trying to destroy it. We are doing the Taliban’s fighting for it, eliminating the threat to its flank and lessening the pressure it feels to do a deal with us. The “Mother Of All Bombs” we dropped in Afghanistan a few weeks ago was aimed not at the Taliban, but at ISIS. Like most air bombardments of dug-in opponents, it did very little. But why are we fighting ISIS in Afghanistan at all when it could serve our goal? Bismarck must be rolling in his grave.

It seems the new Trump administration is just more of the same old, failed, incompetent strategy, or absence of strategy. We will do more of the same and expect a different result. That’s not just stupidity, it’s idiocy. And it appears that vaunted General McMaster is the craziest guy in the madhouse.