During his campaign for president, as well as in his time as a private citizen, Donald Trump promised a swift end to the war in Afghanistan.
In his own words: “Let’s get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA.” However, in recent days, Trump has approved a policy that will put yet more troops into the country. Its purpose, ostensibly, is to stabilize the failing Afghan government and to force the Taliban to the negotiation table.
At the heart of this plan is the idea that simply killing the enemy will serve as an effective deterrent to continued resistance. Put simply, “We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists.” This perspective seems to make sense. After all, the more enemy combatants that are removed from the fight, the closer to victory we will be. However, this view neglects the very long and bloody history of counter insurgencies in the 20th century.
The U.S. government defines counter insurgencies as “comprehensive civilian and military efforts taken to simultaneously defeat and contain insurgency and address its root causes.” However, throughout much of the US and foreign experience in these conflicts, the idea of addressing the root causes was often looked over in favor of simply attempting to defeat the enemy through conventional means. Instead of engaging in a hearts and minds campaign, we attempted to “search and destroy” the enemy. Such a strategy has proved to be ineffective time and time again.
The Algerian War of Independence was fought between 1954 and 1962 and pitted France against insurgents in its then colony of Algeria. The war was brutal, with bombings, torture and massacres on both sides. However, the central strategic mistake of the French was to place too much reliance on the idea that just killing the insurgents would bring an end to the conflict. “No matter how many insurgents are killed, if the recruiting base is still active, it only serves as a means of dealing with the problem but there would be no end.” Essentially, killing insurgents will not fix why there are insurgents in the first place. Insurgent fighters can be replaced, the trust and respect of the population cannot be.
The Vietnam War was another insurgency that simply could not be won with the tactics utilized. During the war, “The army used body counts to evaluate success at all levels. On the basis of the number of enemy killed, officers and units were ‘rewarded by promotions, medals, and time off from field duty.’” This strategy proved wholly ineffective in actually bringing about success in Vietnam. While the numbers of enemy dead were massive, they could always be replaced. The fixation on counting bodies rather than on fixing the systemic issues that led to the insurgency in the first place cost the U.S. the war.
Trump appears to want to apply this tactic of simply engaging the enemy without any of the more difficult (and expensive) reconstruction and nation building that is needed to win the hearts and minds of the people. This plan, like with every other time this plan was utilized, will fail to achieve significant results. Cutting down one enemy will only result in more rising up to take their place. This plan, while simple in its execution, will only leave more American soldiers in harm’s way and still fail to pacify Afghanistan. History is not on the side of this administration’s plan; they’d be wise to heed the failures of the past.