Trump Frees Mattis to Escalate Endless Afghan War
As Defense Secretary James Mattis is authorized to determine troop levels in Afghanistan, Stephen Miles of Win Without War says the U.S. and other foreign powers should focus on a political solution
Aaron Matè: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Matè. President Donald Trump has given Defense Secretary James Mattis the authority to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. Mattis is believed to support sending at least a few thousand more soldiers. The Taliban control close to half of Afghanistan, and continue to gain ground in the longest ever US war.
Joining me to discuss is Stephen Miles, Director of Win Without War, Stephen, welcome.
Stephen Miles: Glad to be here.
Aaron Matè: Let me start by playing for you the comments of Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, when he was speaking to John McCain, Senator John McCain at a hearing this week.
John McCain: First conversation that you and I had was about a strategy for Afghanistan. We’re now six months into this administration, we still haven’t got a strategy for Afghanistan. It makes it hard for us to support you when we don’t have a strategy. We know what the strategy was for the last eight years, don’t lose. When can we expect, the Congress and the United States, to get a strategy for Afghanistan that is a departure from the last eight years, which is, don’t lose?
James Mattis: I believe by mid-July, we will be able to brief you in detail, sir.
Aaron Matè: So, that’s Secretary James Mattis being questioned by Senator John McCain at a hearing this week. Stephen, so the complaint there from Senator McCain is that the US doesn’t have a strategy. Do you think that with Trump loosening control here, and basically giving Mattis carte blanche to increase US forces, that that strategy is changing?
Stephen Miles: Well, we’re heading in the opposite direction. That’s the opposite of having a strategy. It’s worth noting that Senator McCain spoke on the first several months of the Trump administration, but we’re in the 16th year of this war. And one thing’s clear, it’s just not something that can be won on the battle field. So, the notion that the solution to that problem, which is 16 years in the making, is somehow solely giving the authority to the Department of Defense to try to win a war that everyone agrees has political solutions, it’s just preposterous. The reality is that the problems in Afghanistan are political in nature at their core, and they will only require political solutions. So, we’re actually getting farther away from having a strategy by essentially putting everything down into the military-only bucket.
Aaron Matè: So, in terms of political solutions, what then do you think the US should be doing? The main counterargument to that that I hear, is that it’s the Taliban, because in part, they’ve been doing so well on the ground, militarily, aren’t interested in a political solution.
Stephen Miles: Well, I think that’s not an accurate assessment. I mean, the reality is the US has never fully pursued a diplomatic process to end the war. The diplomacy can’t just be focused on one faction. It can’t just be one party to the conflict. It has to be all parties to the conflict. That includes not only the Taliban, which the US was unwilling to talk to for years, but also the regional stakeholders, India, Pakistan, and others. This is a problem that has been happening for a long time. And the folks like Senator McCain who think that somehow 5,000 more American soldiers will magically provide a solution that has bedeviled a hundred thousand American soldiers for years, it’s preposterous. The reality is that something needs to change, and it needs to change dramatically.
Aaron Matè: Yeah, you know, on the issue of the Taliban and them being willing to negotiate, there was a piece in the New York Times last year called, “How Peace Between Afghanistan and the Taliban Foundered,” and they revealed, and I hadn’t heard this before, that there was a Norwegian diplomat, who actually had ties to the Taliban, because they deemed him to be credible, and he even spoke to Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, who expressed at least his openness to meeting with the West, but the Obama administration, instead, pursued military escalation strategy in Afghanistan.
Stephen Miles: You know, look, the process has never been fully explored. There’s been various back channels, there’s been a Taliban office that was opened remotely, the truth is we’ve never put our cards down and gone in for a diplomatic, political solution. And part of that rests on the shoulders of the government in Afghanistan as well. You know, they do quite well for themselves, both individually and as an entity, by relying on the large asset of American military support. American taxpayers are sending billions of dollars a year to Afghanistan. Many, many of those billions of dollars being funneled off to corruption, and put in the pockets of private citizens. People in Afghanistan and people here in Washington don’t want to stop that process, so there’s not much political interests from those parties on pursuing peace. But for those of us who are actually interested in seeing the conflict come to an end, we need to take a different course.
Aaron Matè: And on that front, you mentioned earlier a regional solution involving other countries, and one of them is obviously Pakistan, as you said. Can you talk about the dynamic play here where elements of the Pakistani state help fuel the war through their support of elements of the Taliban; and whether you think a solution is possible unless the US is willing to put pressure on Pakistan to stop the Taliban support?
Stephen Miles: Yeah, I mean, one thing we have to break ourselves out of is this nother that it’s simple, and there’s a handful of actors, and we just have to understand those actors and their interests. There is a myriad of players here. There’s different factions within the Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban differ from the Afghan Taliban. There’s various factions within both of those. There’s other militant groups at work here as well, various militants in Afghanistan have started to call themselves ISIS, affiliated with them. There is a host of key players at play, and we should be honest with ourselves, this is not a case of good guys versus bad guys; and the complexity here, from a political perspective is deep. Pakistan has concerns about India, and India interests in Afghanistan. India has concerns about Chinese interests in Afghanistan. And America has concerns about all of the above. So, no one’s going to say it’s going to be easy, but after 16 years of war, it’s really time to stop thinking and deluding ourselves that we just are going to solve this with a few thousand more American soldiers.
Aaron Matè: Okay. And on the point of this not being black and white, what is the answer to someone from Afghanistan who says, “I don’t want to go back to living under Taliban rule, and so we cannot have peace with them. They do actually have to be militarily defeated.”
Stephen Miles: Sure. The situation is complex just as you’ve seen Iraq and Syria. The solutions that are going to be sustainable are going to be something that comes from the Afghan people themselves. Unless and until there is a political process by which Afghans feel invested, which Afghans feel like they can politically express their differences and address grievances through a political system, we’re going to see a situation that’s ripe for conflict. You know, if you were an Afghan, you’d be sitting there, and this conflict would not have started in 2001 when the Americans came. This conflict has been going on for a very long time in Afghanistan. We’re now in its fourth decade, so it’s going to be hard for them to find a political solution. But the Americans should be helping that process. We should be pushing parties to end corruption, end the type of warfare and strong men and militia support that fuels these conflicts, and building political processes, and supporting through the international community, building up political institutions that can resolve them. But until we do that and unless we do that, we’re not going to see any solution to this problem.
Aaron Matè: Finally, Stephen, can you talk about what impact all of this is having on the Afghan people? A few weeks ago, we had one of the worst bombings to date of the 16 year war with that massive bombing in Kabul. Last year, the UN said, I believe, was the worst year for Afghan civilians so far in terms of killings and injuries; the toll right now on Afghan civilian population.
Stephen Miles: Yeah, it’s an immense toll. It really is quite devastating. Again, this is several decades of conflict now for the people of Afghanistan. And by most measures, people there are ready for solutions, they’re ready for a different path forward. The problems that we’ve seen in the recent uptake in violence and chaos is one of the reasons we’ve seen Afghan refugees on the rise, the movement of people to try to find safe passage elsewhere.
But this is not a problem that is simply limited to the Afghan parties fighting with themselves, we are playing out larger conflicts and others, like Pakistan as we mentioned earlier, we’re playing out proxy wars on Afghan terrain. We need to stop doing that. We need to bring, not only all of the Afghan parties together to try to find solutions, but all the regional parties together with a robust and full diplomatic solution. But as long as we keep trying to fight and win this on the battle field, we’re never going to do that. That’s what the past 16 years of war have shown us.
Aaron Matè: Stephen Miles, Director of Win Without War. Stephen, thank you.
Stephen Miles: Happy to be here, thanks.
Aaron Matè: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.