With metronomic regularity, Washington discovers Afghanistan and then forgets it, a pattern that has continued for over three decades since the Soviet invasion of that country in 1979. Rarely has U.S. policy there reflected a realistic appraisal of actual American interests. That pattern continues to the present day as the Trump administration, with one foot out the door, is expected to order the drawdown of troops from Afghanistan, as well as Iraq and Somalia, before he leaves office in January.
According to the New York Times on Monday, the number of troops in Afghanistan would be halved from its current level of 4,500.
The legacy of the war in Afghanistan for Americans and for Afghans is somewhere between dismal and horrifying. Over 2,300 U.S. military personnel and at least 65,000 Afghan soldiers and police have been killed. As of 2019, the death toll for Afghan civilians was approximately 43,074 and 2020 is on track to add 3,000 more. From 2001 to 2015, there were 833 major limb amputations of U.S. military personnel serving in Afghanistan. Suicide rates among modern veterans is nothing short of a public health emergency. Despite this massive sacrifice, around 40 percent of Afghan territory remains contested or completely under Taliban control. The 2014 presidential election was contested and required US-led and UN-backed mediation that only put a temporary bandage on a deeply dysfunctional system. The 2019 elections again required a political settlement negotiated behind closed doors. Corruption is so endemic in the Afghan government that the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) found $19 billion in waste, fraud, and abuse in the last decade alone. Afghanistan remains the world’s number one producer of opium which is turned into heroin.
Even as the dysfunction that has characterized the war is widely recognized, few in the foreign policy establishment are willing to consider the possibility that its continuation no longer serves the interests of the United States. Indeed, rumors that the outgoing Trump administration might pull the plug on the war evoke a panicky response. A group of Obama and Bush era diplomats recently warned that such a withdrawal is an “impetuous, damaging, and risky course of action.” To them, a hasty withdrawal from a war that has cost the American people $778 Billion, over 2,000 lives, and reputational damage from an era of torture and strategic impotence will lead those who wish the U.S. harm to “toast with champagne or tea.” Even as our coalition partners have largely watched from the sidelines since 2014, these former diplomats worry that a quick exit may prevent allies from joining future security efforts.
Granted, the Trump administration’s withdrawal plan is less a plan than an aspiration. The logistical challenges in pulling out the remainder of U.S. forces by year’s end are daunting. But the only alternative offered by critics is to indefinitely hold our troops hostage to the outcome of a “peace agreement” that Washington cannot control. This replaces the unattainable objective of militarily defeating the Taliban with an equally evasive goal of a perfect peace deal in a country with complex ethnic, religious, and tribal cleavages. It is a prescription for remaining in Afghanistan forever.
In a letter published last year, some of the same former diplomats advocated against a date for a U.S. withdrawal, explaining that “[a] fundamental mistake of the Obama administration was the constant repetition of dates for departure.” Ever-changing and dubiously credible withdrawal announcements aside, this assessment ignores the Obama administration’s three-year long surge which saw as many as 100,000 U.S. troops deployed to Afghanistan, leaving 1,044 killed in action, 13,622 injured, and 8,693 Afghan civilians killed in the crossfire. A web of forward operating bases and combat outposts created the illusion of coalition control over large swaths of Afghanistan, but as soon the surge ended, the Taliban took back these gains. The obvious question is: When is enough, enough?
The Wall Street Journal’s Editorial Board argues that “[a] complete withdrawal all but guarantees a Taliban-ISIS assault on Kabul, and a 1975 Saigon-style defeat and humiliation is possible.” For the Editorial Board, 47,434 American combat deaths in Vietnam falls short of what suffices as enough. Reducing Afghanistan to a regional chess match, with our troops and Afghan civilians as pawns, they assert that the “only beneficiaries of a U.S. withdrawal now would be the Taliban, Iran and Islamic terrorists.”
The overall U.S. record in Afghanistan is not entirely without successes, which include driving the Taliban from most major cities and weakening al-Qaeda. By 2017, around 33 percent of Afghan girls attended school and in 2020, 27 percent of parliamentarians are women. The uncomfortable reality is these gains are enabled by unsustainable U.S. security guarantees rather than an inclusive and organic process of transitional justice and development. Washington chose to implement rapid advancements in a Kabul bubble rather than sustainable ones country-wide. Progress in urban centers was underwritten by a brutally violent counterinsurgency campaign waged in the countryside where the majority of Afghans live —including 76 percent of Afghan women. To decouple Afghanistan’s advancements from such human suffering is willful blindness.
U.S. commanders pepper their speech with sanguine depictions of American and Afghan soldiers fighting “shoulder to shoulder.” While true for Afghanistan’s most elite units that display exemplary bravery, the trust deficit on the ground is palpable. In 2012, three years into the U.S.-led surge, green-on-blue attacks by Afghan soldiers accounted for 62 Coalition deaths, 35 of them American personnel, with nearly one-in-six U.S. casualties resulting from hostile actions of our Afghan partners. As Washington transitioned greater responsibility to the Afghans, green-on-blue attacks were replaced by outright fratricide within the Afghan ranks. In 2017, there were 68 insider attacks, 62 involving Afghan personnel killing other Afghans. Corruption and attrition within the Afghan military also led to the Pentagon to remove 30,000 “ghost” soldiers from the books.
Perhaps this military impasse is what led General Austin Miller, current U.S. commander in Kabul, to acknowledge, “[t]his campaign will not be resolved by military means alone.” Other senior U.S. military officers concur. When in 2019, then-CENTCOM commander General Joseph Votel was asked what winning looks like, he replied, “it looks like a negotiated settlement and it looks like safeguarding our national interests.” It is incumbent on our elected leaders — not our generals — to have the courage to recognize that continuous war in Afghanistan is no longer in America’s national interest.
Proponents of remaining in Afghanistan aver that the United States loses very little by staying the course. But an indefinite presence in Afghanistan assumes without evidence that the presence of U.S. troops advances peace in the region. Worse, it prevents Washington from properly assessing and addressing the hierarchy of threats that face the United States — a reality that is more apparent than ever during the COVID-19 era.
The war in Afghanistan has included a counterinsurgency campaign, a counterterrorism mission, and a nation-building exercise. In none of the three has the United States succeeded. No serious person believes that the war is winnable in any meaningful sense. To persist in this misbegotten enterprise is merely to throw good money after bad.
President-elect Biden promises to “build back better.” A first step toward doing so will be to liquidate wars that no longer serve the interests of the United States. If Trump succeeds in ending this particular “endless war,” he will be doing Biden a favor.
This article originally appeared in Responsible Statecraft.