Break the patterns of failure in Afghanistan

By Bonnie Kristian

After 17 years, the American war in Afghanistan has settled into grimly familiar patterns large and small. On a weekly and monthly level, the same headlines roll in again and again: A suicide bomber blows up a market, mosque, or other public venue, and dozens of innocents die. A coalition soldier is killed and a few more wounded. A high-ranking Islamic State, al Qaeda, Taliban, or other insurgency leader dies, and his role is soon refilled, hydra-like, by a new generation of radical.

Then there are patterns on a larger scale. The longest conflict in U.S. history fades in and out of American consciousness. Three presidential administrations from two political parties have overseen five troop surges, none of which has successfully broken the stalemate fight that has claimed tens of thousands of American and Afghan lives and has cost us trillions in taxpayer dollars.

And we cycle through commanders, too. On Sunday, Gen. John Nicholson handed off leadership of NATO’s Resolute Support Mission and U.S. forces in Afghanistan to Gen. Austin Miller. Carefully unmentioned in the Defense Department press release on the changeover is the fact that Miller will be the 18th officer to fill this role, succeeding Nicholson and the 16 commanders of the previous NATO mission in Afghanistan.

Nicholson is the only one of the lot to have lasted more than two years, and he ended his tenure with a simple message: “It is time for this war in Afghanistan to end.”

“[Afghan] President [Ashraf] Ghani’s courageous decision to announce a ceasefire over [the Muslim holiday of] Eid al Fitr unleashed the strong call of the Afghan people for peace,” Nicholson said. “The entire world has witnessed this, and we support it. I believe some of the Taliban want peace also, but they are being encouraged to keep fighting. To the Taliban I say: ‘You don’t need to keep killing your fellow Afghans. You don’t need to keep killing your fellow Muslims. The time for peace is now.’”

Nicholson has made this commendable—and eminently practical—push for local diplomacy repeatedly in recent months. The “U.S. is prepared to work with the parties to reach a peace agreement and political settlement to bring a permanent end to the war,” he said in August. “At the end of the day, any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and the Afghan government. This must be an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, with Afghans talking to Afghans. And the U.S. is prepared to support, facilitate, and participate in these discussions.”

The risk with Miller’s takeover is that Nicholson’s hard-won wisdom on this point will be lost.

The outgoing general’s comparative realism seems in scant supply in Miller’s talk of being “relentless” in a “generational” fight to exterminate terrorism in Afghanistan. This disheartening enthusiasm to double down on the mistakes of the past—to make these counterproductive patterns even more permanent—suggests a dangerous failure “to distinguish what the U.S. military can do, what it cannot do, what it need not do, and what it should not do.”

And that distinction grows more necessary with every passing day. Next week marks 17 years since the 9/11 attacks, and the first time people born after the Twin Towers fell will be able to enlist. We may be just months away from a truly new headline: “First American soldier born after the invasion of Afghanistan dies in Afghanistan.”

That is a headline I pray we never see—but it is a headline we will see if Washington does not more aggressively pursue what Defense Secretary James Mattis has acknowledged to be the only viable route to stability in Afghanistan: “political reconciliation.” (Tuesday’s announcement that Zalmay Khalilzad, former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, has been appointed special adviser to Afghanistan is welcome news on this front. Khalilzad will be “full-time focused on developing the opportunities to get the Afghans and the Taliban to come to a reconciliation,” a role that is long overdue.)

As Mattis and Nicholson have realized, there is no military victory to be had in Afghanistan. Diplomacy and political solutions are the best options. The U.S. military is by far the most powerful in the world, and it can do many things well. Yet nation-building Afghanistan is not one of them. Internal political problems will not be wiped away by an external military force.

Nearly two decades of cyclical mistakes and setbacks have demonstrated this all too well. “U.S. troops have made considerable sacrifices,” notes military historian Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich. “The Pentagon has expended stupendous sums. Yet when it comes to promised results—disorder curbed, democracy promoted, human rights advanced, terrorism suppressed—the United States has precious little to show.”

We will not have more to show if we spend another 17 years in the same patterns of failure. It is time for these patterns to be broken. It is time for this war in Afghanistan to end.

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, Relevant Magazine, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

This piece was originally published by The Week on September 11, 2018. Read more HERE.