Quite unlike Great Britain or the Soviet Union, the United States has never had a coherent strategy for its engagement in Afghanistan. No amount of military operational acumen or diplomatic experience can make up for that deficiency; it hardly matters what we do if we have no idea why we’re doing it.
Both the British and the Russians understood that the “Great Game” was played on a field that spanned South Asia, and that the prize in the contest was India, the jewel in Queen Victoria’s crown. She, her foreign office, and her generals—most notably Field Marshal Frederick Roberts, the victor of the Second Afghan War—kept a remarkably consistent course over decades as, for that matter, did the tsars and commissars who were their opponents. Absent such a perspective, President Trump’s question—“Why are we still there?”—is unanswerable.
With such a perspective, the questions of military tactics hardly matter. Afghanistan has little intrinsic value, human capital, or economic potential, but has ever been the playground for external great powers. Even worse, it has become a playground for Pakistan, the world’s original failed nuclear state, a disaster since its creation in 1947. (Can you say, “East Pakistan?”) Simply denying Pakistan its longed-for “strategic depth” in Afghanistan may be worth the price of admission.
Further, it becomes more apparent with time that an American strategic partnership is an essential ingredient in containing the effects of Chinese growth and Russian revanche. The Indians care a lot about Afghanistan, which is both a blessing and a curse—after decades of inward-looking “nonalignment,” they’re relearning the lessons of Lord Curzon but have yet to master them. Then there’s the matter of the jihadi terrorism that is crippling the Sunni Muslim world; that the hydra grows new heads does not eliminate the need to cut them off. We need to cover our mouths and keep the scythes sharp.
Thus the most compelling strategic reason to be in Afghanistan is an exercise in circular reasoning: we’re still there—and should be—because we need to be there. This is international broken-windows policing, little more. What we’ve come to call a counterinsurgency strategy there would be most effective, and while the methods of counterterrorism cost more than they return, they have not been futile. Nor would warlord-wheeling-and-dealing, though that’s the weakest way to wield influence. But, as our Iraq experience suggests, the only thing worse than being in Afghanistan is not being in Afghanistan.