by Steve Coll
“The United States is not losing in Afghanistan, but it is not winning either, and that is not good enough,” reads the opening sentence of a top-secret review of the war in Afghanistan commissioned by President George W. Bush in 2008, according to multiple participants in that review. Subsequent classified reviews of the American strategy in the war have repeated that conclusion.
The Trump administration undertook the latest rethinking of the war in August. President Trump’s advisers again reviewed its causes: opium, corruption, ethnic factionalism and, above all, the support and sanctuary provided to the Taliban by Pakistan, through the covert action arm of its powerful spy agency, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence.
Why is this problem so hard? Why, since the Sept. 11 attacks, has the United States been unable to prevent Pakistan, a notional ally that has received billions of dollars in aid, from succoring the Taliban at such a high cost in American lives and Afghan misery?
One major reason is American war aims in Afghanistan have been, and remain, riddled with contradictions and illusions that Inter-Services Intelligence can exploit. President Bush, President Barack Obama and President Trump have all offered convoluted, incomplete or unconvincing answers to essential questions: Why are we in Afghanistan? What interests justify our sacrifices? How will the war end?
Mr. Trump is departing from his predecessors by getting tougher on Pakistan. His administration is withholdingas much as $1.3 billion worth of annual aid to Pakistan until it does more to pressure the Taliban. Unfortunately, the record of using threats and sanctions to change Pakistan’s conduct is a dismal one, and the influence and leverage of the United States in Pakistan is shrinking.
Mr. Trump is not the first ***
***For the United States, an alternative to pursuing difficult and uncertain negotiations would be to give up and leave, but the most likely result of a unilateral military pullout now would be more violence and rising influence for the Taliban and the Islamic State.
The most rational course is one for which President Trump would seem poorly suited: to work closely with allies, prioritize high-level diplomacy, be smart in pressuring the Inter-Services Intelligence and accept that in Afghanistan, a starting point for any international policy is humility.