Britain’s Col. Richard Kemp served in Afghanistan and had a front-row view of the political and strategic thinking behind that war and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Here, he discusses how Afghanistan became the world’s “forgotten war,” his model for a forward-looking global military policy, and what risks really keep him awake at night.
Octavian Report: What is your take on President Trump's Afghanistan strategy?
Col. Richard Kemp: The basics of it are to focus not on nation building but on trying to kill the terrorists who are trying to take over the country, and I think that's exactly the right approach. It was, of course, the initial reason we went into Afghanistan. It wasn't to turn Afghanistan into a western democracy. It wasn't to improve women's rights. It wasn't in order to rebuild the country. It was all about killing terrorists and stopping them from doing another 9/11 from there. All that got blurred. I think that it's good to see focus and clarity from Trump.
Another important dimension is Pakistan. The Taliban would not have have been able to continue as long as it did without the support of Pakistan and particularly the support of the Pakistani army and intelligence services. We know that they not only gave them safe haven inside Pakistan, but also both physically helped to restore them by providing some weapons and training.
They provided things like helicopter lifts for them on some occasions, as well as helping them avoid getting killed and with targeting. We know how valuable that was. I think that's an area that's very difficult to cope with. It's critical to attack all that if the problem is to be brought under control, but it's also extremely difficult to tackle it. Pakistan is obsessed with maintaining some control over Afghanistan and trying to force them to stop doing that via groups like either the Islamic State or the Taliban or rebels is going to be very, very hard.
OR: The Trump administration proposes giving the American forces on the ground more autonomy. Do you think that that makes sense, given the status of Afghan forces at the moment?
Kemp: I think there was always a lot of pretense about that from both the U.S. and Britain and other allies involved on that subject. There was a lot of pretense about Afghans leading this fight. They never did lead the fight while we were there. They would be put in front so it could be seen that they were leading. It was pretense more than reality, and so I think recognizing the reality -- that the Western forces have really got to be taking a lead while they're there -- is welcome.
Of course, it does then raise the issue of when the Afghan forces are going to be able to stand on their own feet. And I think they will be able to do that better by watching what we do and learning from what we do and the Americans do, rather than this pretense, this charade that they're taking the lead. Obviously, the training aspect of it is important and a lot of the additional forces being sent out there by the U.S. will be fundamental in training the Afghans and actually showing them how to do it in battle -- actually leading them and showing them how it works, and how it should work.
OR: Do you think a political solution in Afghanistan is possible, absent the kind of nation building that Trump has ostensibly sworn off?
Kemp: I don't think a political compromise with the Taliban or the Islamic State is even a remote possibility, and I don't think it ever has been. If we wish Afghanistan to maintain a government that is pro-West, friendly towards us, cooperative towards us, well, that's not the Taliban's ethos. It's not what they're about. They won't accept that. They don't want it. They hate us and they will hate us. They want to be our enemies. There's not going to be an accommodation between those two angles.
I think realistically speaking, there's two options. One is a kind of settled status quo in Afghanistan where the capital and parts of the country remain under the control of the pro-Western central government where other areas of Afghanistan fall under Taliban control (or the control of IS, or of smaller local groups). It's not much different from where we're at now, except that I think that the balance of control has swung too far against the government and that does need to be rectified.
The second alternative, I think, can be found in Pakistan. A lot of the problems caused by the Taliban and Islamic State could be prevented by Pakistan, if they wanted to prevent them. That's not really very likely. I think that's the best possibility, but not very likely. It may be that India plays a part in this. The main reason Pakistan is obsessed with controlling areas of Afghanistan is because of its fear of India. If Pakistan's fear of India can be allayed or changed in some way, then that may give them less reason to want to support jihad in Afghanistan. But I don't think that's very likely either.
My ultimate perspective on a realistic future for Afghanistan is that we don't want to miss why we went in the first place. We don't want it be an ungoverned territory that can be used as a launch base or a training base for the Islamic State or Al-Qaeda or the Taliban. I’d want a country that is ruled in theory at least by a pro-Western government, which controls a significant part of the country -- though probably not all of it -- and which has accommodations with different elements, different groupings around the country. American forces should retain a foothold there, in order to launch operations when necessary. I'm talking more about maintaining intelligence and surveillance presence, and the ability to carry out air strikes or special forces raids.
I think that is the future of Afghanistan. In other words, we aim to get it into as a good a state as we can. We never actually in the foreseeable future leave it completely. If we had followed that policy with Iraq, then the likelihood is the Islamic State would not have risen up as it did. It did so because the U.S. up and left, leaving nothing there. That could happen again in Afghanistan if the U.S. leaves.
Richard Kemp has spent most his life fighting terrorism and insurgency, commanding British troops on the front line of some of the world’s toughest hotspots.