In the end it will drain their resources and weaken their ability to maintain global dominance. This is already America’s longest war, and over the past 16 years it has already cost US taxpayers over a trillion dollars. This year it is estimated the war will cost US taxpayers $50 billion - almost a billion dollars a week.
The Soviet Union only managed to occupy Afghanistan for 10 years from 1979-1989, and when it was routed by the CIA-backed Mujahadeen, it contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Before the Russians it was the British that had a hard time occupying the country for long, thus keeping their interventions short, even at the height of the British Empire. Before the British it was the greatly feared Mongols of Ghengis Khan who had war victories in Afghanistan but were unable to control the territory for long. All the way back to Alexander the Great, the resilience of Afghan warriors has always fought off foreign occupation. The one thing that has always unified the Afghan tribes is their pride in independence.
Today it is the Taliban, who were originally the students of the CIA-funded Mujahadeen, who say “the Americans have the clock, but we have the time". After a decade and a half of war, estimates are that the Taliban controls 45-50 per cent of the country, and the central government controls minimal territory outside of the capital Kabul. Despite US training to Afghan security forces, they are unable to defeat the Taliban which uses the rugged mountainous terrain to hide and then attack.
America has lost over 2,404 soldiers in Afghanistan, with 20,000 suffering injuries. This pales in comparison to the 111,000 Afghans, including civilians, soldiers and militants, who are estimated to have been killed in the conflict.
It is no wonder that in 2013 Donald Trump tweeted, “We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives. If we have to go back in, we go in hard & quick. Rebuild the US first.” But that strategy was tried by President Barack Obama and failed.
It was President George W. Bush who decided to invade Afghanistan in 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks, in “Operation Enduring Freedom.” Within a year 10,000 US soldiers had been deployed to Afghanistan, and by 2008 there were 48,500 American soldiers on the ground.
These were soldiers who didn’t know the language, the culture, the religion, the ethnic and sectarian divisions, or the country’s history. The U.S. strategy has been to train an Afghan army that can fight al-Qaeda and the Taliban and then largely withdraw.
The target of a 216,000-strong Afghan army and police force under the Bush presidency in 2007 was not met. The Afghan security force included no serious air force, artillery, logistics or medical services, and the US advisory presence in the army was small. Part of the problem was that US forces and resources were being diverted to the war in Iraq, meaning that the US was operating on multiple fronts.
The Americans also did nothing to win the hearts and minds of Afghans, but instead installed a government in Kabul with no legitimacy. The money earmarked for nation building never reached the people, and perhaps most importantly, there was never a political dialogue with the Taliban on the future of the country.
Then came Obama who pursued a new approach of surging US troops to 100,000 by 2010. His generals promised to break the stalemate, and with the additional NATO troops on the ground the Pentagon thought their objectives were realizable.
But the Obama administration only grudgingly provided the resources necessary to avoid outright failure. The strategy of trying to build an Afghan security structure that could successfully combat the Taliban was undermined. Virtually every aspect of US training provided to Afghan forces was rushed and under-resourced.
Not having come any closer to defeating the Taliban despite the massive number of US troops on the ground, the goal of the Obama White House then became to withdraw US troops involved in active combat by 2014. The Afghan forces were incapable of countering the Taliban, but in a rush to wind down the US mission, Obama declared, “We are no longer at war with the Taliban."
But as Obama’s term drew to a close last year, it became increasingly evident that the Taliban was resurgent, and that the remaining US troops were only enough to prevent immediate defeat. Obama pledged to maintain a presence of around 10,000 US troops on the ground, and now President Donald Trump intends to make the US military presence in Afghanistan permanent.
The Trump administration has no intention of leaving Afghanistan, despite all of President Donald Trump’s campaign bluster about withdrawing US troops and putting America first. According to Trump, he has now “studied Afghanistan in great detail, and changed his mind".
What lies behind this about-turn is the view of the security establishment that in order to maintain US global dominance, having a plethora of US bases in Afghanistan is imperative.
Geopolitically, Afghanistan lies at the heart of Asia, wedged between China, Pakistan and Iran - all countries the US wants to keep an eye on and may want to wage war against in the future. To withdraw most US troops from Afghanistan, as President Barak Obama had intended last year, would probably lead to the 450 US bases being overrun by the Taliban. If this were to happen, the US would lose its military presence in one of the most strategic locations in the region.
Tensions between the US and Pakistan have escalated this year as the Trump administration tries to blame Pakistan for the failure of US policy in Afghanistan, accusing it of harboring Taliban leaders and giving militants safe haven. As relations deteriorate, the US will want to monitor Pakistan.
Then there is Iran, which lies to the west of Afghanistan and has become Public Enemy Number One in the eyes of the Trump White House. As Trump beats the drums of war with Iran, if the US is ever to launch a war against Tehran it would need US bases in Afghanistan, where it could deploy as many as 100,000 US troops within two to four weeks. Any such military mobilization would not be considered an invasion in terms of the US-Afghan bilateral security agreement.
America’s long-term strategic priority is also to contain China and Russia, and for that it believes it cannot do away with its military foothold in Afghanistan. The US has already been forced to hand back its only Central Asian airbase to Kyrgyzstan - the Manas Transit Centre, which served US operations in Afghanistan from 2001 as a “gateway to Afghanistan". The US has also closed 505 bases in Iraq.
The view of the Pentagon is that the US needs bases to protect itself against future possible Chinese military threats.
Moscow is growing increasingly wary of the US military presence in the region. President Vladimir Putin’s special envoy to Afghanistan has said the US presence is a concern. Russia is all too well aware of the growing global infrastructure of US bases, which have exploded in size and scope.
The bases are known as “lily pads”, to frog-jump towards enemies.
Russia understands that the US wants to project its power and create a worldwide network of frontier forts to maintain global dominance.
In order for the US to defend its continued presence in Afghanistan, it needs to masquerade as “killing terrorists” and “training the Afghan security forces”. That explains why the US dropped more bombs on Afghanistan in September than in any other month since 2010.
“We are not nation-building again. We are killing terrorists,” Trump declared. He has also increased the number of US troops on the ground from 8500 to 12500. The increase is mainly to adequately protect US bases that the Taliban had started to attack.
But the US strategy in Afghanistan will backfire in the end. The bombing runs are largely indiscriminate, killing countless civilians and fanning hatred of what is seen as the American occupying forces.
Most of bombs the US has dropped are on Nangarhar province, which is where they dropped the Massive Ordnance Air Blast on April 13. The cost of the blast was $16 million and most of the victims were civilians.
The notion that the US is merely using Afghan soil to test its military hardware is not lost on Afghans. The growing enmity between them and US forces explains why the Taliban have managed to reclaim significant territory.
The idea that the US can make the Afghan security forces stronger so they can succeed is unrealistic.
The senior adviser on Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Defense Department from 2009-2014, Christopher Kolenda, says the US government’s ability to retake territory under Taliban control is unlikely to change. He argues that the US should prioritize an initiative to achieve a negotiated settlement between the government and the Taliban.
However, an end to the conflict could result in the US being forced to close its bases, as happened in Iraq, which makes simmering conflict in Afghanistan the preferred option for US strategists.
The military has no strategy for victory, merely a plan to avoid defeat. What the US is going for is war without end in one of the poorest nations in the world.