America’s War in Afghanistan: Fostering Anger, Not Security
A nighttime raid left a family home in flames. Two brothers and one of their wives were executed on the spot; the woman shot three times in the head. A little girl, just three years old, was found burned to death in a bedroom.
The scene might be at home in the erstwhile Soviet Union or a gang-run region of El Salvador today, but it is Afghanistan. And the raiding party was not communist secret police or a drug lord’s foot soldiers but an Afghan strike team managed by the CIA.
These teams have for many Afghans become the public face of the United States’ 18-year intervention, and the teams’ brutality toward civilians has made that face an ugly one. An extensive New York Times investigation uncovered stories of shocking violence against innocent people, a carelessness which makes the strike forces’ effectiveness look less like precision targeting than a shotgun spray hitting everything that moves, militants sometimes included.
Stories like these travel fast and far, and it is not difficult to imagine the anger they will engender, for perhaps nothing is more universally enraging than the preventable death and suffering of innocents. In rural Afghanistan, such fury can only be compounded by ignorance: Nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks, the “vast majority of Afghans generally have no concrete, explicit reason as to why” the United States invaded and occupied their country, notes Thomas Johnson, a Naval Postgraduate School professor. Many have never heard of 9/11 at all. They do not know why America’s longest conflict is visited on their country, but they certainly know of its grim effects for their countrymen.
The result is predictable. Afghans who might otherwise be neutral or friendly toward the United States are made vulnerable to militant propagandists who happily use reports of such U.S.-linked abuses for recruitment to their side. More security risks are being created than eliminated—more terrorists made than killed. Any goodwill cultivated by American diplomacy or costly nation-building projects is destroyed. Local governments’ authority is undermined because the raids occur outside the normal processes of justice, and victims are left without recourse or recompense. And U.S. forces are put in harm’s way on behalf of a populace that does not want them there.
The CIA-backed raids are “alienating residents from the government and increasing support for the Taliban,” said Jan-mir Zazai, a provincial investigator, in the Times’s paraphrase. “Before the people start protests before the people pick up weapons against the government,” advised Malik Zaman, a tribal elder, “the government needs to rein in these kind of reckless operations.”
Our government needs to rein in more than that.
The CIA-sponsored raids and their unintended consequences show the futility of the U.S. war in Afghanistan in part, but the entire picture is worse. Washington foreign policy elites do not want to admit it, but any serious contemplation of Afghanistan in 2019—an endless sinkhole for American blood and treasure in which the Taliban is resurgent and most effective governance remains at the local and tribal level—makes obvious that there is no military victory to be had. There is no realistic scenario in which we bomb and spend our way to an American-style democracy in Afghanistan.
Cycling through tactics and commanders for another two decades of surge and ebb will not change that, and, as the Center for a New American Security’s Robert Kaplan recently argued, “[s]pending billions and stationing thousands of troops there with no end in sight to stem a deepening chaos is simply not sustainable policy.” Washington cannot fight its way to success in Afghanistan, though it could use the prospect of an American exit to shrewd diplomatic effect.
U.S. withdrawal would not fix Afghanistan’s problems—and the violence that has plagued that country since long before American troops deployed in 2001 will continue for the foreseeable future. But it requires a break from reality to argue that staying put offers any plausible route to U.S.-orchestrated peace. Extending this generational conflict will only add to the list of unintended and unwanted consequences of years-long occupation. It will only increase the costs of Washington’s strategic foreign policy failure, mire us deeper in a futile nation-building project, and foster anger and chaos instead of the stability Afghanistan needs.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and weekend editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.