HARI SREENIVASAN, PBS NEWSHOUR WEEKEND: This week, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain offered a new strategy for the conflict in Afghanistan, the longest war in U.S. history. As part of next year’s defense budget, McCain calls for adding to the 8,400 American troops now deployed in Afghanistan and giving U.S. commanders greater authority to target Taliban insurgents and ISIS militants. McCain, an Arizona Republican, also criticized President Trump for having, quote, no strategy, unquote, after seven months in office.
The Pentagon has been pressing the White House for up to 5,000 more troops.
To discuss the options in Afghanistan, I’m joined by Aaron O’Connell, an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin and the editor of “Our Latest Longest War: Losing Hearts and Minds in Afghanistan.”
O’Connell is a former marine who served as an adviser to General David Petraeus when he commanded U.S. troops in Afghanistan. He later served as an assistant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff and on the National Security Council in the Obama administration.
So, first, there’s this premise of the question on why or why we’re not winning the war in Afghanistan, and you write in a recent op-ed, it’s not necessarily ours to win. Explain that.
AARON O’CONNELL, PROFESSOR OF HISTORY, UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT AUSTIN: Yes. Well, the war in Afghanistan is actually part of a number of wars — five, to be exact. And three of them predate American involvement in the country. The most crucial of these is a three-century-long fight inside the Pashtun tribe between Kabuli elites and Kandahari elites and then people from the rural areas of Afghanistan. So, that’s been going on for a long time, and nothing we can do is really going to change it.
SREENIVASAN: Considering the amount of blood and treasure that we’ve spilled there so far, what has been working?
O’CONNELL: Yes, it’s important to note some things have been working. Limited counterterrorism strikes against key officials have been quite successful. We’ve killed Osama bin Laden. We’ve neutered the leadership of al Qaeda. And every time a new leader of the Afghan Taliban is named, we typically get him in a matter of months. So, selective counterterrorism strikes against key leaders works quite well.
We’ve also had some success improving local health and education in Afghanistan. We’ve extended the life expectancy of the ordinary Afghan by a decade. That’s a real accomplishment.
But the efforts to defeat the Taliban have been much less successful as have our efforts to improve Afghan governance.
SREENIVASAN: Why haven’t they been as successful?
O’CONNELL: Well, it’s a complicated picture, Hari. First of all, the Taliban is not a transnational terrorist movement. It has no aspiration to attack United States. That’s important for your listeners to know.
But what they do have is really everything they need to fight indefinitely in Afghanistan. They have money from opium. The country is awash in arms.
They have networks for intimidating detractors. They have sanctuaries in Pakistan. And they have an almost unlimited supply of new recruits from the Pashtun areas whose life narratives really begin and end with defending Islam and rejecting foreign rule.
So, we’re learning what the Russians and the British learned before us, which is that the Pashtuns of Afghanistan have much greater strategic patience than we do, and the efforts we’ve taken to try to destroy or neuter that insurgency have not been successful.
SREENIVASAN: What about the space that Afghanistan occupies — and I’m almost thinking geographically — the type of support or lack of concern on the part of Pakistan, or the amount of resources that are coming even across from Iran?
O’CONNELL: It’s important to know that this is a very important region for the United States. It has Pakistan, and anything you do in Pakistan affects India. It has Iran. Russia is involved, as well.
The interesting thing is, we’ve spent three-quarters of a trillion dollars in Afghanistan, and Afghanistan is the least important country for American interests in the region.
So, what we’re seeing here is actually a reuse of an old domino theory that some of your listeners might remember from Vietnam. We’re in Afghanistan because we fear that losing in Afghanistan will precipitate state failure in Pakistan, a country with a fairly large radicalized Islamic population and nuclear weapons. So, the odd thing is that we are spending all of our time, attention and resources on Afghanistan when what we’re really concerned about is Pakistan. And furthermore, we are missing opportunities to partner with India.
SREENIVASAN: Is there a strategy there that would work? I mean, does John McCain have a better one than what the administration is putting out right now?
O’CONNELL: Well, I don’t know what the administration is putting out right now, and that’s a big part of the problem. So, Senator McCain has made some very poignant and useful comments about what we should be doing in Afghanistan. He’s deeply invested, and a man with a true strategic wisdom about the U.S.’s role in the world.
The really strange thing here is that we’re getting — the fleshed out policy we’ve gotten on Afghanistan thus far is coming from a senator from Arizona. It’s really important to note that what we’re doing in Afghanistan is not a military-only problem, and, therefore, there’s only one man that can set our objectives there, and that man is the president. He needs to lead, and he hasn’t led so far.
SREENIVASAN: Aaron O’Connell from the University of Texas, Austin, thanks so much for joining us.
O’CONNELL: Thank you.