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America’s former envoy to Afghanistan: the war can’t be won

Trump unveiled his new Afghanistan strategy last night. It’s just like the old one.

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On Monday night, President Trump did what the last two presidents before him did: he doubled down on the war in Afghanistan. Unlike Obama, however, Trump offered no timeline for withdrawal.

“Conditions on the ground, not arbitrary timetables, will guide our strategy from now on,” he told the nation.

There are currently 9,800 troops serving in Afghanistan. We don’t know how many more Trump is sending. We don’t know how long they’ll be there. And we don’t know what victory even means at this point.

To get a sense of where we are in Afghanistan, I reached out Laurel Miller, who until very recently was America’s leading diplomat in Afghanistan and Pakistan. She led the office of the Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan for roughly four years. After her office was abruptly closed by the State Department in July, she returned to her previous position as an analyst at the RAND Corporation.

I asked her straightforwardly if there’s a path to victory in Afghanistan and, if not, why US troops are still fighting and dying there. I also asked her how she thinks this conflict will end. While she’s unsure about the latter question, her answer to the first was one was crystal clear.

“Military victory is not plausible in any foreseeable time frame,” she told me, “and what we’re doing now isn’t sustainable.”

You can read our full conversation below.


Sean Illing

Even though he changed his position, was Trump initially right to not want to send more troops to Afghanistan?

Laurel Miller

I think there are some serious questions that are right to ask. He isn’t necessarily being asked to double down on the war, but he is being asked to take ownership of it, which basically means embracing the status quo.

Sean Illing

What are the viable options at this point?

Laurel Miller

There are three basic options in terms of the military aspects of US policy. One is to double down, which means a significant surge. This is what the Obama administration did initially. Second, there’s the stay-the-course option, which could include sending a few thousand more troops. Third, there’s the troop withdrawal option.

Obviously, there’s a lot more detail involved in each of those, but those are the basic military choices right now. A major surge does not appear to be under consideration. Whether President Trump is considering a withdrawal, I can’t say. I wouldn’t assume that’s off the table, though. As for the middle course, it appears there is hesitation because after months of discussion, there hasn’t yet been a decision to go down that road.

Sean Illing

We’re now 16 years into this war. What the hell are we doing? What’s the mission?

Laurel Miller

There's a twofold military mission in Afghanistan now. One is a counterterrorism mission that is conducted in partnership with the Afghan government, but with a very heavy role by the United States. That counterterrorism mission is focused on eliminating the very limited remnants of al-Qaeda and, increasingly over the last year and a half, dealing with the ISIS branch that has popped up in Afghanistan.

The second mission is a mission of support for and development of Afghan security forces in their counterinsurgency fight against the Taliban. After 2014, the United States was no longer directly involved in the counterinsurgency combat mission against the Taliban. It's been involved in supporting the Afghan government forces, for instance by providing close air support, and also by developing their fighting capabilities and support systems like logistics.

Sean Illing

You mentioned the “sunk costs” issue earlier when we were talking, and I think it’s appropriate. It seems to me that we’re in Afghanistan today because we were in Afghanistan yesterday, and we’ll be there tomorrow for the same reason. As far as I can tell, all other justifications have collapsed. The US military is holding the country together as though it’s propping up a dam to beat back a raging river — but as soon we leave, everything falls apart.

Laurel Miller

In my view, you have a series of decisions over the course of 16 years that have put us on a path that's been very hard to get off of. The US still has security interests in the region, there are still risks, but it’s also true that the way in which we are protecting against these risks has developed inertia over time.

Sean Illing

I’ll just ask this straightforwardly: Is this a war that can be won?

Laurel Miller

No. Military victory is not plausible in any foreseeable time frame. This is an enormously complex situation. There are genuine underlying grievances that have to do with Afghan politics, various cleavages within Afghan society. None of these can be addressed or resolved without some kind of political power sharing through a reconciliation process — and that’s nowhere in sight.

There's also the fact that Pakistan continues to enable and sustain the insurgency by allowing Taliban leadership to live and operate in Pakistan. The Pakistani government allows the Taliban freedom of movement in and out of Pakistan. And research shows that it is extremely difficult to defeat an insurgency when it’s provided a safe haven and has other kinds of support from neighboring countries.

Anwar Pachir, whose family was displaced by ISIS, walks through a storm outside his current home on July 14, 2017, in Surkh Rod District, Afghanistan.
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Sean Illing

Do you know any serious person or analyst who thinks we can win in Afghanistan?

Laurel Miller

Honestly, no. If you mean military victory, no. Even those within the American military establishment who think there is a possibility of improving the trajectory of the conflict in the government's favor, people with the most optimistic assessment you’ll find, understand that ultimately you need some kind of political settlement among the Afghanistan [power factions]. There is no evident path to ending the war on the battlefield.

Sean Illing

So what’s the strategic logic of someone like National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, who has successfully convinced Trump to send more troops?

Laurel Miller

I won’t speak for any particular individuals because they can speak for themselves. I can say there is an argument that some have made that over the course of several years, enough progress can be made in developing the capabilities of the Afghan forces that you can turn the trajectory of the conflict in the government's favor, and that the government should be negotiating from a position of strength, not in a situation where the Taliban is gaining strength. It's not an illogical view if supported by analysis that would suggest that's possible to achieve. Of course, in any conflict, every side prefers to negotiate from a position of strength, so that is likely true of the Taliban as well.

Sean Illing

To me, that’s the logic that got us into this infinite regress argument that says: We have to keep propping up the Afghan government because it will collapse when we leave. But that will always be the case, unless we’re prepared to do this for decades.

Laurel Miller

It’s prudent not to get drawn into believing that we just haven’t done it right or well enough yet, and if we can get it right, we’ll create enough stability to leave. To me, it’s always a red flag when people say, "Yeah, but we're just going to do it better this time," because first of all, it's basically the same people actually doing it. Even when the top-level policymakers change, the tools for implementing these kinds of policies do not change. No one has any new, quick fixes that people before failed to consider.

We can’t prove or disprove assessments of what’s possible or what may happen in the future. What we can do is look at past experiences. I think the experience of the last 16 years suggests that within the next four, we're not going to see some sort of dramatic turnaround in dealing with the hard problems in Afghanistan. That’s not to say that there haven’t been improvements in Afghanistan, because there have, but it is unlikely that the US going to be able to greatly speed up progress.

Sean Illing

How long do you think we’d have to stay in Afghanistan to have any chance of creating the necessary stability in order to withdraw without risking a collapse of the Afghan government?

Laurel Miller

I have no idea. I can give you one data point that shows how far off we are: As it stands, Afghans pay about 10 percent of the costs for their security forces and security institutions. So when are they going to get to 50 percent or 60 percent or 90 percent? There’s no foreseeable time horizon for accomplishing that. And so long as they’re dependent on foreign resources simply to maintain minimal security while fighting an insurgency, they won’t be self-sufficient.

Sean Illing

Given everything you’ve just said, what’s the wisest course moving forward? What should we do?

Laurel Miller

On the military side, it does make sense to have a modest increase in the number of American troops if that is going to help to arrest the downward slide of the security situation. If the security continues to erode, our options narrow. If you can maintain the stalemate, the approximate stalemate that we have now, you at least preserve some options.

On the political side, my view is that the effort to try to launch a peace process, a process of negotiated settlement, should be the highest priority. I don’t see any way of escaping this vicious cycle and creating durable stability in Afghanistan without political reconciliation. Working toward a negotiated settlement in Afghanistan could also give us opportunities for resolving our differences with Pakistan. This is something the US has worked on intermittently for years, but it has never been prioritized in the same way we prioritize the military effort.

Sean Illing

Your best guess: How does this conflict end for the United States?

Laurel Miller

It's hard to say how it will end. If we don’t negotiate an end to it that sufficiently addresses our national security objectives, we could get to a point where political support for the war collapses entirely.

I can’t tell you how this war will end. What I can tell you is that what we’re doing now is not likely to produce a sustainable solution.