Afghanistan: Perpetual War Without Success or End
Lost under the growing headlines related to the North Korean nuclear program, America’s permanent war in Afghanistan continues its aimless drift. Effectively hidden from public view, the war remorselessly chews up American service members and tens of billions of dollars in national treasure, while no longer contributing to U.S. security. The latest developments serve to deepen the futility.
Gen. Joseph Votel, commander of the U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM), said the introduction of additional U.S. troops and more relaxed rules of engagement authorized by President Trump would help to “focus on offensive operations,” and help Afghan troops, “gain the initiative very quickly” as fighting enters 2018. One must wonder, however, how long Congress and the American people will continue believing these unrealistic, “victory is just around the corner” declarations from its senior commanders.
In April 2005, then-commander Lt. Gen. David Barno said that over the coming year he saw “much of the (Taliban), probably most of it, I think collapsing and rejoining the Afghan political and economic process.” Far from collapsing, however, the Taliban rebounded to such a degree that four years later, Gen. Stanley McChrystal famously warned President Obama that without massive reinforcements, America’s fight against the Taliban “will likely result in failure.”
Gen. David Petraeus followed McChrystal in command of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, assuring the American people in congressional testimony that we were “on the right azimuth” to victory. At the end of his deployment in 2013, Gen. Petraeus’ successor, Gen. John Allen, went so far as to claim the U.S. coalition had triumphed, saying “(t)his is victory. This is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.”
Gen. Allen’s optimism notwithstanding, over the three years following this “victory” statement, the Taliban clawed district after district from the coalition troops until, by early 2017, the Taliban controlled, contested, or influenced a staggering 40 percent of the country.
Now Gen. Votel says that with less than 15 percent as many troops as Petraeus, he will succeed where all others failed. Yet he will be wrong, too. The reasons aren’t hard to figure out, and many scholars and military and government voices have been saying it for years.
In September 2009, senior State Department official Matthew Hoh, after having served as a Marine combat commander in Iraq, resigned his post in Afghanistan in protest of how the mission was being conducted.
In his resignation letter, he told Ambassador Nancy Powell that “(w)e are mortgaging our nation’s economy on a war, which, even with increased commitment, will remain a draw for years to come.” Success and victory, he continued, “whatever they may be, will be realized not in years, after billions more spent, but in decades and generations.” Nine years later, Hoh’s words may be too optimistic.
In February 2012, after returning from my second combat deployment to Afghanistan, I published an 84-page analysis of the U.S. war effort in which I concluded, “despite what our senior defense leaders say in public, the military surge failed to reduce the insurgency, and with the drawdown in full swing, our future efforts are virtually certain to likewise fail.” The past six years have regrettably confirmed my assessment as accurate.
Despite the overly optimistic claims of every U.S. commander since 2005, the continued degradation in the Afghan government, the unrepentant corruption, and the undisguisable reemergence of the Taliban cannot be disguised. The so-called Afghan “unity” government continues to fragment, as President Ashraf Ghani dismissed a regional governor in Balkh Province, but Mohammad Atta Noor refuses to leave.
Ghani has thus far been unable to enforce his order. As the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) has routinely testified, the Afghan government remains hopelessly corrupt, the Afghan military of limited ability, and the Taliban insurgency expands its territorial influence and control.
We must put a stop to the endless, and unnecessary, bleeding of our troops and U.S. taxpayers’ money, and recognize that our attempts to externally force a military solution on the political problems plaguing Afghanistan will never succeed.
It is time to redeploy U.S. military forces and adopt a new, effective strategy that focuses on U.S. interests, rather than spreading democracy and occupying ungovernable spaces. The people of Afghanistan and those of the region who will have to live with the results are the only ones with the cultural understanding necessary to find a negotiated end. It is they, and not the U.S., that will find a sustainable settlement—and U.S. military power can re-focus on security threats instead of peripheral nation-building missions.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1