It would be easy to ignore and continue on the course set by his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, but that would also be a mistake.
Absent Pompeo’s focused leadership, American investments of time, effort, lives, and money in Afghanistan will be wiped out, and this nation will experience the same humiliation as has been visited on earlier great powers that ventured into Afghanistan.
After rapidly seizing Kabul 176 years ago, British Indian forces behaved as though their enemies had been vanquished and interests secured. But an insurgency forced a brutal and mostly fatal withdrawal. Of roughly 16,500 British and Indian forces and civilians who left Kabul for safety in Jalalabad in January 1842, only some 150 arrived safely.
This slow, unfolding horror inspired the dark Rudyard Kipling verse, “When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains/and the women come out to cut up what remains/jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.”
So, what now must be done?
First, Pompeo must realize what Tillerson failed to grasp, which is that Afghanistan policy cannot be abandoned to the Pentagon. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has a crucial role training and mentoring Afghan forces, and giving logistical, intelligence, and air support. But he cannot improve Afghan governance or extinguish the insurgencies that plague it.
Our military has been created, trained, and honed to fight. It is a vital and admirable destructive force. But it is not a builder, so let’s stop asking it to build nations. If Afghanistan is to be stable, it will be built by Afghans, and it is the State Department that must help it.
Pompeo will need to negotiate with the Taliban and other insurgents. Talks will need to be backed by force, and President Trump has provided that force with his administration’s commitment to an open-ended deployment of troops.
Taking advantage of increasing fragmentation within both the Afghan and Pakistani Taliban organizations and the unprecedented U.S.-Saudi pressure on Pakistan and Qatar, Pompeo can now negotiate from a position of strength.
He has to buck the status quo. The latest report by the special inspector general for Afghanistan finds continuing waste in U.S. programs and abundant failure.
State can set things straight by facilitating interagency cooperation. To the great discredit of the administrations of former Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, there has never been decent American diplomatic, military, and intelligence coordination in Afghanistan.
We supported Pompeo’s nomination for secretary of state because we believe he offers the right mix of intellect, experience, and leadership to deal with big issues. His approach to Afghanistan will be an early and big test of whether that confidence was well-placed.
Opinion by Washington Examiner