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The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for more than seventeen years. Despite many years of effort and billions spent, the U.S. military is still suffering casualties in that remote land. In 2017, fourteen American soldiers died in Afghanistan — some, in fact, shot from behind by their supposed local allies. Already, through January 2019, two more American troopers have been killed. They were the 2,418th and 2,419th U.S. military deaths in the war since 2001.
None of this sacrifice has defeated the Taliban or staved off enemy military advances throughout the country over the last several years. In fact, there have been a number of spectacular Taliban successes and attacks of late. On August 21, 2018, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s speech in the heavily fortified capital city of Kabul was interrupted by dozens of mortar rounds fired by the Taliban. It was no mere anecdotal anomaly.
In fact, August 2018 was the bloodiest August in terms of Afghan security-force casualties in any of the past 39 years of persistent war. In one district, 100 Afghan commandoes — the pride of the U.S. advisory effort — were slaughtered. In a five-day battle for the city of Ghazni, 100 more soldiers and police were killed, along with 150 civilians, when the Taliban massed 1,000 fighters to rush and briefly seize the city. At least 350 other Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) members were killed this past August. Massive high-casualty Taliban attacks proliferated throughout 2018, and have continued in the new year, with more than 100 Afghan troops killed in a single attack on January 22, 2019. Such casualty levels are, frankly, unsustainable.
To say the least, the war is not going well. That became inevitable the moment the United States initiated its “nation-building” strategy in 2002, and has remained the case irrespective of the levels of U.S. military and financial investment through the intervening seventeen years. America’s longest war has decidedly not achieved the supposed goal of establishing a liberal democracy in Afghanistan.
Luckily, in December 2018, Donald Trump announced his tentative decision to begin a U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and gradually de-escalate this unwinnable war. It remains to be seen, however, whether he will be dissuaded from doing so by a bipartisan, interventionist clique of the media and his own advisors.
Now is the key opportunity to end this aimless, costly war. As such, two realities should inform U.S. policy in this troubled country.
First, the seventeen-year active U.S. role in Afghanistan is only part of an intractable, ongoing 39-year war that the U.S. government and military cannot and will not “fix.”
Second, there is no military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan and it is long past prudent to disengage and bring all U.S. troops home, and simply accept the potential ugliness of Afghanistan — and the world — as it is, rather than how interventionists want things to be.
The bottom line
- The ongoing campaign in Afghanistan is America’s longest war, yet it has been largely unsuccessful and inconclusive. That is due to a key reality — the U.S. armed forces have gone to prop up the Afghan government, and there is no external military solution to Afghanistan’s ongoing 39-year conflict.
- Consistent and even amplified U.S. government spending has not produced, and is not producing, successful outcomes. Current political, economic, and security indicators are trending downward throughout Afghanistan.
- Risks to the United States in the way of casualties and monetary costs outweigh any potential benefits. Though casualty levels have decreased consistently with reductions in troop levels, American servicemen and women continue to die in this indecisive war.
- Two decades of futile efforts across the Greater Middle East show that armed nation-building does not work. The emergence of a stable, liberal democracy in Afghanistan, while theoretically desirable, is not a legitimate role for the U.S. government and vital national interest, and isn’t an achievable outcome in any event.
- The Taliban and homegrown, Afghan Islamist insurgent and terror groups do not present an existential threat to the United States.
A brief history of a four-decade war
Historically, Afghanistan has been a decentralized region resistant to foreign invasions or occupations. The modern borders, and concept, of Afghanistan coalesced only with the 1747 foundation of the Durrani Empire. During the 19th century, Afghanistan was a tool and buffer in the “Great Game” between the British and Russian empires in Central Asia. Misplaced British fears of Russia’s southward expansion led to three disastrous Anglo-Afghan Wars between 1842 and 1919. Afghanistan was a moderately stable monarchy in the first three-quarters of the 20th century. During the early Cold War, its government successfully played the United States and its global rival the Soviet Union against one another and received development aid from both.
However, the 1970s ushered in a persistent slide toward instability. The opposing Communist and Islamist movements each grew in strength and battled for control. The Soviet Union intervened in 1979 to prop up the nascent Communist government and waged a 10-year counterinsurgency against various Islamist mujahideen fighters opposed to the secular and socialist reforms of the new government. Despite committing some 120,000 modern troops and suffering tens of thousands of casualties, the Soviets ultimately failed in the face of Islamist-nationalist resistance and U.S military aid provided to the mujahideen through the auspices of the CIA.
The Soviets withdrew in 1989 and by 1991 both the U.S and Russian governments cut off military aid to the Afghan combatants. Brutal years of civil war followed. The Soviet puppet, Najibullah, held out for three years but fell to a mujahideen coalition in 1992. Afterwards the mujahideen factions fractured and divided the country among venal warlords. In response, in 1993-94, conservative, rural, and frustrated Pashtun clerics and students formed the hyper-Islamist Taliban movement and fought the warlords with increased success, eventually seizing Kabul in 1996. From 1996 to 2001, the Taliban imposed a brutal, archaic, and intolerant regime across most of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, a “Northern Alliance” of mostly minority groups (Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazara) continued to resist in the far northern quarter of Afghanistan. During that period, the Saudi international terrorist Osama bin Laden sought and received safe haven from the Taliban regime.
After the bin Laden-perpetrated 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, the U.S. military invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime, largely destroying or dispersing the al-Qaeda presence in the country. After deposing the Taliban, the United States and NATO made the fateful, and ultimately horrific, decision to shift the mission to nation-building. The continued foreign occupation of the country eventually buttressed the power and influence of the nearly shattered Taliban movement, which now gained strength and began contesting large sections of Afghanistan’s south and east by 2006. Increased violence and instability led to the announcement of a military “surge” by Barack Obama in 2009. By 2011, nearly 100,000 U.S. service members patrolled Afghanistan, though the Taliban was never decisively defeated. By 2014, the United States transitioned to an advisory mission of training the ANDSF and combatting transnational terror threats. Taliban influence only grew, and by 2018 the enemy contested or controlled a higher percentage of Afghan districts than at any previous time since the 2001 invasion.
A question of legitimacy
The Afghan central government in Kabul is largely unpopular and considered by many to be illegitimate. It faces regular criticism from the population and international community for its corruption, division, and inability to guarantee security. As a recent U.S. congressional report concluded, “Afghanistan’s … political outlook remains uncertain, if not negative, in light of ongoing hostilities.” Recent trends indicate that the U.S.-backed federal government is fragmenting along ethnic and ideological lines. That should come as little surprise. The last two presidential elections — in 2009 and 2014 — have been wracked by allegations of fraud, and the Parliamentary elections (scheduled for October 2016) were delayed almost indefinitely. Security is the main issue. Some 1,000 of 7,400 existing polling stations are now located in areas outside the government’s control. In the last presidential election, the United States had to broker a compromise arrangement between the two leading candidates in order to break the deadlock.
In recent years, the Uzbek Vice President (and notorious warlord) Abdul Rashid Dostum has criticized President Ghani’s government for favoring Pashtuns at the expense of minority groups. Dostum even fled the country in May 2017, in the wake of accusations of his perpetuation of political violence. That same month, representatives of several ethnic minority parties formed the Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan in opposition to the existing federal government. It is unclear whether the center can hold.
Meanwhile, peace and reconciliation efforts with the Taliban insurgents are ongoing, especially as increased violence has aided the growth of a nationwide peace movement. President Ghani has finally agreed to direct talks with the Taliban “without preconditions,” though the Taliban has largely rejected such initial efforts. In a sign of hope, however, the Taliban did agree to a three-day ceasefire in June 2018. The grassroots peace movement conducted a series of nationwide marches in favor of the cessation of hostilities. After 39 years of perpetual war, it appears that national public momentum increasingly favors an Afghan-brokered peace.
Moreover, in spite of U.S. boasts regarding the humanitarian advances of post-Taliban Afghanistan, human rights remain a significant issue. Simply put, Afghanistan’s conservative religious and political traditions are persistent and perpetuate the denial of educational and employment opportunities to women and girls. Furthermore, 70 percent of Afghan marriages are still forced; the practice of baad — giving away women in marriage to settle tribal disputes — remains prevalent; there is no national law against sexual harassment and women are still routinely jailed for adultery; men convicted of “honor killings” against adulterous wives, meanwhile, serve only a maximum of two years in prison; and, on several occasions, women’s rights activists have been assassinated. In fact, the number of women jailed for so-called moral crimes has increased by 50 percent since 2011.
Religious freedom is also severely restricted by the supposedly modern Afghan government. Members of small religious minority groups — such as Christians, Sikhs, Hindus, and Bahá’ís — face regular discrimination. Specifically, the Afghan Supreme Court declared the Bahá’í faith to be a form of blasphemy — punishable by death under Afghan law. It is highly questionable whether such an unstable and, ultimately, intolerant government is worthy of U.S. investment and sacrifice.
Eventually, the Afghan political and military crisis will reach an end state, one that might well end in a negotiated agreement. The Taliban movement is popular in large swaths of eastern and southern Afghanistan — it always has been — and is not going anywhere. It will be a part of Afghanistan’s political and security future. Such a messy arrangement is essentially a fait accompli, regardless of the levels of U.S. efforts, deaths, or other sacrifices. In the end, this is an Afghan, not an American, problem and it must ultimately be solved by Afghan methods and compromises.
Weakness and stasis: a deteriorating security situation
For nearly two decades, one U.S. commanding general after another has assured the American public that — with just a few extra troops and a little more time — he could achieve victory in Afghanistan. That is particularly disturbing considering the attention and resources dedicated to the war in Afghanistan, especially over the last ten years. After all, early in 2018, a Pentagon spokesman stated that “Afghanistan has become CENTCOM’s main effort.” Still, despite Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford’s testimony to Congress that the battlefield situation represented “roughly a stalemate,” he and other senior generals have been far more optimistic at times — promising success if only they received more troops, more money, more … everything. In February 2017, the overall commander (the sixth of seven since 2009), Gen. John Nicholson, stated that the United States had a “shortfall of a few thousand” troops, which, if provided, would help “break the stalemate.” One year later, after getting a few thousand troops and a new strategy from Donald Trump, Nicholson stated that “we’ve set all the conditions to win.”
But results have not matched such optimistic predictions. In February 2018, former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel called the situation in Afghanistan “worse than it’s ever been,” and predicted that “the American military can’t fix the problems.” More disturbing, and instructive, are the recent words of a true insider with new, creeping doubts about progress in Afghanistan — a most recent commander of the war. Speaking “from the heart” in a September 2018 farewell address in the ceremony marking his transition out of command, General Nicholson admitted that “it is time for this war in Afghanistan to end.”
Reality and ground-level metrics have confirmed Nicholson’s suspicions. The Taliban has made gains all around the country in recent years, even showing strength outside their traditional areas of support. They’ve even conducted mass operations briefly seizing major cities such as Kunduz (September 2015), Farah (May 2018), and Ghazni (August 2018). Nationwide, according to the July 2018 Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) report, 44 percent of Afghan districts are either contested or controlled by the Taliban — the highest rate since 2001. What’s more, just before the Obama surge (often seen as the high tide of Taliban success) that number stood at only 30 percent of Afghan districts. When Obama initially agreed to a surge of nearly 100,000 U.S. troops on the ground, he claimed they were being sent to “reverse the Taliban’s momentum.” Clearly, in the long run that has proved unsuccessful.
Insurgent successes are largely funded by illicit narcotics, which have long filled the Taliban’s coffers. And, despite on-and-off efforts at drug (specifically opium) eradication, the metrics here are also disturbing. In November 2017, the United Nations reported that the total area used for poppy cultivation had broken a national record and was up 46 percent from 2016. Furthermore, opium production itself had increased by 87 percent. Overall, the trend of Afghan security has been downward — this, in spite of nearly seventeen years of varying levels of U.S. military commitment and sacrifice.
This article was originally published in the April 2019 edition of Future of Freedom.