Things Are No Better in Afghanistan

Things Are No Better in Afghanistan
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On November 28, 2017, U.S. Commander Gen. John Nicholson delivered a remarkable briefing to the Pentagon press corps on the Trump administration’s new Afghanistan policy. The general was so upbeat about the progress that he witnessed on the battlefield that you could be forgiven for thinking the U.S. was just a few months away from celebrating complete and total victory. Nicholson beamed with confidence that the new war plan was a “game-changer” and a turning point against the Taliban. The “momentum is now with Afghan security forces,” he declared, and with just a little more time, the Taliban will soon realize that their only option is reconciliation with the Afghan government.

Apparently, the Defense Department’s Inspector General does not share the commander’s booming optimism.

“The overall goal of the South Asia strategy is to convince the Taliban...that their only path forward is to enter into reconciliation talks,” the Inspector General wrote in his latest report about the war’s progress, released with little fanfare last week. “However, the United Nations noted in December that there was no discernible progress in the peace process in 2017.” On the one metric Washington has used to determine success—expanding the Afghan government’s control of the population to 80 percent by 2019—the report cites “no significant progress in 2017.”

The war, in short, is at best a stalemate. In fact, the U.S. campaign is not only struggling to turn a corner but is also unlikely to result in any long-term security gains for the United States.  Even with an indefinite or conditions-based U.S. military presence as the Trump administration has outlined, Afghanistan will remain a dysfunctional nation beset with tribal conflict, competing ethnic factions fighting over the country’s minimal spoils, and a collection point for locally and regionally-based terrorist organizations.  This is the state of Afghanistan finds itself in today, despite the presence of 14,000 U.S. troops, $45 billion a year in U.S. taxpayer money, and an influx of new strategic bombers and intelligence assets.  As it stands, the United States is spending more than double the Afghan government’s GDP every single year to finance the deployment of 14,000 U.S. troops on behalf of a government in Kabul that is plagued by corruption and unable to secure its own capital city. 

No amount of precision weapons dropped on Taliban formations or money thrown into the Afghan government’s budget will be enough to turn the country into a semi-functional state that has the capacity to defend itself.  There is a mountain’s worth of evidence accumulated over sixteen years that the approach the Trump administration has decided to implement is unworkable and a pointless waste of American lives and resources.  America’s policy in Afghanistan is the very definition of lunacy in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: “wild foolishness” and “extravagant folly.”  To believe that protecting the United States from Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in Afghanistan can only occur by spending tens of billions of dollars and transforming a feebled Afghanistan into a U.S. protectorate over an open-ended timetable is to throw away common sense.

The unfortunate reality of this situation is that it was perfectly predictable. Many of us cautioned against an escalation or were strongly opposed to an increase in U.S. combat power in Afghanistan because we knew where it would lead: at best, to a short-term tactical setback for a Taliban movement that has dealt with such a scenario multiple times in the past. Proponents of sending several thousand additional American troops to the country, both inside and outside of the administration, never explained to the American people in any depth why a mini-surge would be any more successful in pressuring the insurgents to reconcile when 140,000 coalition troops were unable to do so during the height of the 2010-2012 surge.

Nor did members of Congress ask the critical questions that they should have asked before the administration deployed more troops into the conflict. What, for instance, is the end-game for U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, a country that still depends on the international community for 92 percent of its military budget? What is the point of boosting U.S. troop levels when the Afghan Taliban can slip across the border to Pakistan and wait out the onslaught? Are the Taliban even interested in diplomacy? Can Washington assure the American people that hundreds of millions (perhaps billions) of their hard-earned taxpayer dollars will not be lost to corruption and graft?  And, the most fundamental question of them all: why would doubling down in Afghanistan be any different from past surges, escalations where short-term and deceptive security gains were a pittance compared to the costs in casualties, international reputation, and taxpayer money?

If any of these questions were asked, they were asked behind closed doors. A more likely possibility, however, is that the questions were not asked at all. The Trump administration, like the Bush and Obama administrations, appears content with continuing an Afghanistan policy on autopilot rather than taking a fresh, cold-hearted look at whether foreign powers can, and should, be in the business of pacifying a dysfunctional country with an incompetent and increasing despised government in Kabul. The answer supported by 16 years of experience: no, they should not. The result: a stalemate.

It is not too late for the administration to break the cycle of strategic folly that has categorized America’s misadventure in Afghanistan. 

When a policy is not working, those who make the policy strive to change it. Afghanistan, however, is different: there is no policy that can provide Washington with a return on a bad investment.  Rather, the change in policy is about limiting the damage.  

U.S. service-members have shed too much blood over the last decade and a half for the U.S. to throw good money after bad. As Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Armed Forces, President Trump has an obligation to troops on their fifth, sixth, or tenth deployment to both get the strategy right and come to the obvious conclusion every other president has refused to acknowledge — Afghanistan is not worthy of any more American investment.  It is time to get out, let the region’s neighbors manage the Afghan quagmire, and move on to challenges like China and Russia that are greater strategic priorities to U.S. national security

The chest-thumping and unlimited optimism from America’s field commanders aside, the assessment is abysmal, and taxpayers should not be forced to subsidize continued Afghani failure.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

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