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Return on Investment: The Key to President Trump’s Approach to Afghanistan

Photo: Flickr Creative Commons

President Trump is inheriting a mess in Afghanistan. While it’s not his creation, it is now his responsibility.  How should he approach this burden? First, let’s review the state of affairs. The Taliban controls or contests a growing percentage of Afghanistan’s districts and multiple provinces are effectively in the hands of insurgents. Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups are returning to the sanctuary of that Taliban-controlled territory. The Islamic State controls little territory but will continue to target minorities to foment sectarian friction. All this plus  worsening security conditions, poor governance, and an Afghan economy totally dependent on foreign donations.  With the U.S. spending 45.1 billion dollars in Overseas Contingency Operations funding and nearly 10 billion dollars in aid, it is hard to imagine that President Trump will continue down a costly path that yields only diminishing returns, at best.

And that should be his focus: earning a stronger return on his investment (ROI). Specifically, he should be more realistic about the prospects for peace, and focus solely on whether US money and troops are bringing results, project by project, dollar by dollar.

Even though the American mission is faltering and the Afghan government is struggling to retain the public trust, Afghanistan remains a critical battleground in the global fight against Islamic extremist ideology. Perhaps one of President Obama’s biggest mistakes was that he never prioritized the notion of return on investment as a critical precondition to America’s continued commitment of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Mr. Trump, a seasoned businessman, undoubtedly appreciates the concept of ROI far more than his predecessor. Doing more of the same  - spending lots, blindly in pursuit of a flawed military strategy - will not deliver an improved outcome.  

First, the new administration should rein in the ineffective spending that focused on the “burn rate” of spending as the primary metric of accomplishment and emphasis on a lean, ROI-focused strategy. To achieve better results, Washington should work with Kabul’s National Unity Government (NUG) to lay out an agreed-upon plan for an enduring U.S. commitment in Afghanistan.  

This new strategy and associated budget request should earmark specific progress milestones associated with future international military and development support to the Afghan government. For starters, the new Ambassador to Kabul (presumably one of President Trump first picks) should insist on Kabul’s delivery on promises of political reform. Also, the coalition must also reconsider its approach to the advisory support mission in Afghanistan. NATO, not just the U.S., needs to increase the number of personnel involved in the “train, advise, and assist” role.

By focusing on ROI, Washington would make it clear to Kabul that the failure to advance important governance reform initiatives, such as setting the conditions for parliamentary elections and preparing for the 2019 presidential elections, could jeopardize critical international donor support. Without a focus on ROI, accountability for shortcomings, and conditionality of support, there is simply no incentive for adjustments in NUG behavior.

At the same time, the Trump administration must give Gen. John Nicholson, the Commander of the NATO Resolute Support mission, the freedom to plan based on realities on the ground rather than arbitrary timelines of withdrawal. Gen. Nicholson should reconsider the coalition’s approach to warfighting in support of Afghan partners. The new strategy should allow for the effective targeting of Taliban leadership in Afghanistan and in Pakistan. President Trump should stay clear of his predecessor’s tendency of looking for peace in all the wrong places. The hard truth is that the Taliban are not interested in the Afghan government reconciliation offering and that there are no silver bullet solutions to the radical Islamic fundamentalism, personified in the Taliban movement.

Put another way, the Trump administration should abandon all efforts for a quick end to the war in Afghanistan, such as the reconciliation talks with the Taliban. The peace process has delivered zero return on investment and has only benefited those who see the High Peace Council as a cash cow. If anything, President Trump should fight the urge to take his turn in making deals between belligerents who are simply not ready to reconcile and are brought together by neighbors with dubious agendas. After the Afghan government has strengthened its hand vis-à-vis the Taliban, perhaps a more favorable peace settlement will be possible. This moment is not near.

To be clear, the current threat from the Taliban is bona fide but manageable. Left unchecked in 2017, however, the Taliban threat will likely surge beyond control. But, President Trump and new Secretary of Defense James Mattis must reconsider the utility of the recently announced deployment of 300 U.S. Marines to Helmand. Deploying such a small force, just barely ahead of the poppy-growing season, is a senseless exposure of brave Americans for uncertain and ill-defined goals. News of the deployment received the following Taliban response: “"Let them come and fight with us, so we can show them how strong we are and how they will once again fail miserably in the fight to take back Helmand." Taliban bravado aside, there is a lot of skepticism about how such a small force of will be able to “advise, train, and assist” their Afghan partners out of the mess they find themselves in.

While Afghan and Coalition forces have been successful in defending provincial capitals threatened by the Taliban in 2016, these forces have generally failed to thwart Taliban plans of expanding insurgent control in rural areas. Poor ROI on the battlefield, however, has more to do with poor Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) leadership than with lack of capabilities. Key to building the necessary partner capacity in the ANSF will be the exporting of best practices from the Afghan commandos to the conventional forces. In the end, while the notion that Afghans are in the lead of the counterinsurgency fight is praiseworthy, one would hope that the U.S. would get more return on its military and financial investment in Afghanistan beyond simply preventing catastrophic failure.

In the upcoming fighting season, NATO Resolute Support mission should concentrate on enabling Afghan conventional forces to regain territory lost to the Taliban. The Afghan Army and Police need to develop the confidence to hold terrain. The keys to success: good Afghan senior leadership and curbing corruption and the commitment that these forces will not be abandoned on the field if they hold their ground. For the past few years, Afghan Special Forces have taken the brunt of the fighting. Afghan commandos are spread thin, often overused, and increasingly misused in a light infantry role in lieu of regular Army units in Taliban contested areas. If Afghan conventional forces carry more of the load, Afghan commandos could be used to achieve more decisive results, such as decimating insurgent leadership and criminal networks.  

Sending a large conventional force to Afghanistan in 2010, with significant staff numbers and massive logistical requirements, was a mistake. Historically, however, leveraging special operations forces to help bolster indigenous capabilities has worked in Colombia, North and East Africa, and the Philippines. For example, Colombia has reached a historic peace agreement with the FARC that could put an end to the longest internal conflict in the Western Hemisphere. Since 2000, Washington has invested just over 10 billion dollars in “Plan Colombia”—the name of the U.S. security assistance and aid package. Much of the funding went to building partner capacity and professionalization of Colombia’s security forces. The significant ROI demonstrated in Colombia helped preserve the long-term viability of Plan Colombia. In 2010, we used the “surge” of forces in Iraq as the example of how to stabilize Afghanistan; in hindsight, it should be clear that Plan Colombia would have been a much better example than Plan Iraq.

To turn things around, the United States must increase the number of coalition special operations forces in country to a number adequate for the task at hand. President Obama’s wishful thinking that monitoring and combating the Islamic State, preventing the reemergence of al Qaeda, or halting the Taliban expansion could be supported by the current numbers of U.S. forces was naïve. After 15 years in Afghanistan, it should be clear that the fight against jihadi terrorists will take decades not months. As such, the new Trump Afghan strategy should consider and accept the geo-strategic value of maintaining a long term U.S. special operations presence in Afghanistan to support the train-advise-assist and counter-terrorism mission.

If the Afghan government is going to have to turn around this losing war, President Trump’s investment up front should be the commitment of an increase of the American commitment to roughly 15,000 — mostly special operations — troops to the Afghan mission for his four years in office. Contractor trainers, with special operations background, could be used to augment the coalition forces, thus freeing the military members to concentrate on the “train, advise, and assist” mission. Supporting the professionalization and augmentation of the Afghan security forces will give the Afghan government a fair chance to deliver a positive ROI in the security sectors.

The Trump administration should reconsider the role of the U.S. Embassy in Kabul. The drawdown of U.S. military forces in Afghanistan was dramatic but it took two years to accomplish. Critical embassy staff augmentation from the Department of Commerce and Agriculture ended abruptly in 2014. President Trump should reintroduce a Commercial Attaché, and support staff, for the purposes of assistance to and advocacy of U.S. businesses operating in Afghanistan and with the specific mandate of increasing American foreign direct investment in critical economic growth sectors such as mining and energy.

Ultimately, the international community should consider its own mistakes before putting the blame for all that is wrong in Afghanistan on a nascent and imperfect government challenged by a growing insurgency. After all, the creation of the NUG was a compromise sponsored by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry. After insisting on this marriage of political inconvenience, the United States has mistakenly assumed a passive, if not aloof, approach to Afghan politics. This “leading from behind” foreign policy contributed greatly to most of the Afghan government’s policy failures. Without even a remote consideration of ROI, it is unfair to expect an anemic Afghan government to prioritize appropriately or do anything more than move from one policy emergency to the next.

For years, polls have shown that Americans have grown weary of the mission in Afghanistan. Afghan polls have shown dissatisfaction with Kabul’s leadership. How can anyone blame popular dissatisfaction with governments that place little importance to return on investment of blood and national treasure. Disregard for ROI has hurt the mission in Afghanistan. On the current path, America’s mission in Afghanistan is heading towards failure. If anything, it is a question of when not if.

To walk the Afghan mission back from the brink of disaster, President Trump should not double-down on a debunked counter-insurgency strategy and financial policies that throw good money away on bad investments with diminishing returns. Instead, the Trump administration should make bold changes in the way the United States spends money in Afghanistan and in the coalition’s approach to the advisory mission. Key to the new Trump strategy on Afghanistan will be binding an enduring American commitment to positive ROI. Considering Trump’s business background, ROI will likely become the foundational concept behind his approach to security cooperation in many hotspots around the world.


Ioannis Koskinas is a senior fellow with the International Security program at New America, focusing on foreign policy issues with an emphasis on Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, and the Levant.