What the heck are we doing in Afghanistan right now?
I ask this very important question because President Donald Trump’s senior advisers are proposing sending thousands of additional US troops there so they can “start winning” again, according to one official who spoke with The Washington Post.
That would be great if the word “winning” could be defined.
Let’s put this into perspective: Since October 2001, the United States has had a military presence in Afghanistan.
Over nearly 16 years of war, more than 2,200 service members have been killed, and more than 20,000 have been wounded. We have spent almost $1 trillion there.
We have paid a heavy price for a loosely defined end.
After 9/11, we went into Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda and the Taliban so we could deny them a safe haven. But in 2004, when I was on the ground as a US Marine, the job I was given was a simpler one: drive around in the hope you get shot at. That’s how we found the enemy.
Fortunately, Trump has been deeply skeptical of his top military advisors — and that’s actually a good thing. As I expressed recently on Twitter, the generals will give you rosy assessments; the sergeants will give you the truth.
A reality check
For years, we have been offered rosy assessments from the military’s top commanders in Afghanistan. Gen. John Abizaid said in 2005 that “interesting progress” had been made. Gen. Dan McNeill said in 2007 that we were making “significant progress.” And Gen. David Petraeus highlighted the progress made in 2010.
In 2013, Gen. John Allen said we were “on the road to winning” in Afghanistan.
Reality check: We’re not. And we probably never will be. The war in Afghanistan has been a lost cause for a long time.
When the Soviet Union withdrew its army from Afghanistan in 1989, its defeat seemed complete and irreversible. Most Afghans bitterly repudiated the attempt to impose communist rule by force.
The New York Times reported on July 25, 2017 that U.S. advisors and Afghan officials are trying to use Afghanistan’s mineral wealth potential—once estimated at $1 trillion—to sell President Donald Trump on a war he understandably has little enthusiasm for.
In addition to Afghanistan’s geopolitical and geostrategic importance, its lucrative mineral resources — estimated to be worth between $1 and $3 trillion — could be one of the major justifications for the United States to remain in the fragile state.
While the Trump administration continues to debate troop levels in Afghanistan, a rather odd and concerning incident took place last week: a plane carrying Abdul Rashid Dostum, the vice president, was denied permission to land in Mazar-i Sharif. The vice president had recently formed a new political coalition with Governor Ata Mohammad Noor and others who had previously been loyal to the internationally-backed National Unity Government (NUG), headed by President Ashraf Ghani. It appeared that the national government is attempting to undermine this new partnership.
Before he entered the White House, President Trump looked at the American war effort in Iraq and came away with a simple solution: “Take the oil.”
Thankfully, this campaign-trail suggestion has not carried over to his presidency. But it was an early warning sign of Trump's own capacity for grand strategy. He sees everything, including international relations, as a transaction, a quid pro quo arrangement where even the complex legacy of a U.S. invasion in the Middle East can be reduced to a “bad deal” and an argument to plunder another nation's wealth.
In order to prevent the increasingly damaging deadly suicide attacks in the Afghan capital and across the country, reduce the unsustainable battlefield casualties of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF), and reverse insurgents’ unprecedented territorial gains, Kabul and Washington must rethink their current strategy and address inherent problems in their approach to building the ANDSF. Time has proven that restricting the U.S.-led foreign troops’ role to training and advising in building a professional ANDSF has failed to produce the desired outcome, and ignoring the need to invest in and revitalize the Afghan intelligence agency – the National Directorate of Security (NDS) – has been a costly mistake.
President Trump has no easy options in Afghanistan. An abrupt United States military exit would probably provoke the collapse of an Afghan state deeply dependent on American backing, while a major reinforcement — a reprise of the Obama administration’s initial approach — would be tough to support given that it didn’t work last time.
It is only a short drive into a side valley just off the busy main road between Jalalabad and Asadabad, the capitals of Afghanistan’s eastern provinces of Nangarhar and Kunar. The narrow dusty road passes fields of golden blades of wheat that slightly sway in the light breeze. Beyond the fields and the scattered verdant trees, barren craggy hills frame the valley called Dara-i Mazor in Kunar’s district of Nurgal. Across the small river, some of the traditional mud houses resemble tiny bulky castles, hinting at the fact that Afghanistan’s violent past dates much further back than the U.S. or Soviet-led invasions.
Sixteen years have passed and we are still fighting a war in Afghanistan which is not only the longest in American history (at a cost approaching one trillion and the blood of thousands of brave soldiers), but one which is morally corrupting from which there seems to be no exit with any gratification but shame. It was necessary to invade Afghanistan to destroy al-Qaeda following 9/11, but once it was defeated we should have departed, leaving behind some residual forces to clean up the mess. Instead, we decided to introduce democracy, a totally alien concept to a land historically governed by tribes, and which no foreign power has ever been able to govern or fully conquer for long.