1 June 2017

Four Ways Forward in Afghanistan

By Sameer Lalwani

After a five-month-long interagency review process, senior officials have recommended that U.S. President Donald Trump send several thousand more troops to Afghanistan. The request is in line with proposals from General John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and makes the consensus recommendation of about 3,000-5,000 more troops. But troop increases alone do not a strategy make. Scholars as varied as Stephen Walt and Michael O’Hanlon have argued that, to arrest rapid deterioration on the ground, the United States needs to situate the troops in a coherent strategy.

At present, at least four plausible strategies can be distilled: state building, reconciliation, containment, and basing. Each strategy contains distinct goals, its own theory of victory, and unique costs and risks. The George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations muddled or vacillated among all four options, which generated incoherence and sometimes worked at cross-purposes. The Trump administration must weigh each strategy individually and make a hard choice based on achievable ends and acceptable tradeoffs. And it must do so before it puts more American and NATO troops in harm’s way.


A strategy of “trying to win” against the Taliban, as Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham have urged, demands at least some state building so that Kabul can withstand the insurgency and compete for public support. This strategy will involve building up core Afghan state capabilities, principally the security forces and governing institutions, so that they might be “capable of standing on their own” and defeating the Taliban. The broader, debatable assumption is that only a capable Afghan state excluding the Taliban can prevent international terrorist organizations from posing a threat to the United States or expanding across South and Central Asia.

The state-building strategy would deploy U.S. troops down to the brigade or battalion level to guide and mentor Afghan units and to signal an enduring commitment to the Afghan state. Retired officials have also argued that keeping troops in the fight will better

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