(Bloomberg View) -- When he meets NATO leaders in Brussels this week, U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to discuss the idea of sending thousands more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan. They may be needed to shore up beleaguered Afghan forces, but U.S. troops alone cannot end America’s longest war.
Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, argued in February that he needed reinforcements to roll back a resurgent Taliban. Trump advisers have reportedly recommended sending around 5,000 or more U.S. soldiers, on top of the roughly 8,500 stationed in Afghanistan currently. They’d be assigned as trainers and advisers to the Afghan army, and could call upon U.S. air power under more robust rules of engagement. The U.S. commitment would also be open-ended, with no deadline for withdrawing, in contrast to the surge of eight years ago.
There were roughly 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground after that surge -- yet today the Taliban control more territory than they have at any time since being driven from power in 2001. More than $65 billion spent on training hasn’t produced an Afghan army or police force capable of holding off the Taliban on its own. A power-sharing arrangement in Kabul is perpetually on the verge of collapse. Corruption remains woven into most official dealings. And Taliban leaders could be forgiven for thinking that, deadline or no, a chaotic Trump administration is unlikely to sustain any kind of focus on Afghanistan.
The key to ending the war in Afghanistan is, as it always has been, Pakistan. As long as Taliban fighters enjoy safe haven across the border, they can keep up their insurgency indefinitely. Billions in military aid and years of prodding by the U.S. have failed to convince Pakistani leaders to cut that lifeline. Some of the alternatives now being discussed -- including expanding U.S. drone strikes into Pakistan proper, cutting off military aid and encouraging India to get more involved in Afghanistan -- risk destabilizing a coup-prone nuclear power. Economic sanctions would be ineffective, given Pakistan’s deep and growing relationship with China, its biggest trading partner.
So the key to Pakistan’s cooperation is China. As with North Korea, where Trump has similarly sought Chinese help, this should be in China’s interests. No doubt some Beijing strategists appreciate the current stalemate, which unsettles India and drains U.S. resources. But the idea, quietly promoted by Pakistani spymasters, that the current situation can be controlled is debatable. A collapse in Kabul would fan the flames of Islamic extremism on China’s borders and possibly threaten its multibillion-dollar infrastructure investments in Pakistan.
A real effort to constrict the insurgents’ freedom of movement within Pakistan could at least drive the Taliban back to the negotiating table. For its part, the Trump administration has to develop a diplomatic strategy to deal with them once they do, one that acknowledges the interests of regional players with whom the U.S. has been sparring recently, including Iran and Russia. To help stabilize the Kabul government, shrink the opportunities for corruption and promote Afghan economic development, U.S. diplomats, not just the military, will need reinforcements as well.
--Editors: Nisid Hajari, Michael Newman
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