Is Afghanistan an unwinnable war?

By Daniel DePetris

Next week marks the one-year anniversary of President Donald Trump’s first nationally televised address to the American people on the war in Afghanistan—a war as bloody as it has ever been since fighting against the Taliban began nearly 17 years ago. Twelve months removed from the unveiling of Trump’s South Asia strategy, which essentially boiled down to pounding the Taliban from the air until they sued for peace, the plan has had very little to show for it. Indeed, if an August 17 report from NBC News is accurate, Trump is evoking more frustration by the week due to the lack of progress.

The war in Afghanistan has gone on for so long that those who were born the year 9/11 happened will be eligible to enlist. Outside of those who have family and friends serving in this “graveyard of empires,” it barely registers in the collective American psyche. Yet it may be this lack of public attention that is keeping the U.S. on the hamster-wheel of a failed strategy. It seems like whatever the United States does, Afghanistan is a one-step-forward, four-steps-back situation.

The last seven days have been enormously violent even by Afghanistan’s standards, and they expose the Pentagon’s false narrative of any signs of progress. Over a span of days, hundreds of Afghan security forces were killed in highly coordinated attacks by the Taliban across the country. At an Afghan army base in Faryab, a three-day Taliban assault ground the Afghan troops into an ignoble surrender; pleading for more ammunition, supplies, and reinforcements, the few dozen soldiers decided to give themselves up in order to save their own lives. 

In Baghlan, a northern province in Afghanistan, another army base was overrun by the insurgents. Dozens of troops were dead, and the Taliban reportedly stripped the base of its vehicles and weapons. To the south, the Afghan army was counterattacking in Ghazni and driving the Taliban from districts of the city that the group captured day’s earlier. Yet again, Kabul could only perform the operation with the help of American air power, a depressing omen that despite $72 billion from the American taxpayer, the Afghan security forces are still unable to defend their country without the safety net of the U.S. Air Force.

By the testimonials of U.S. advisers on the ground, the Afghan army is experiencing the same systemic logistics, re-supply, and maintenance problems that have bedeviled the security forces for years.

Hovering over it all is the critical question, one that hasn’t been answered by the foreign policy elite with any detail: what is the U.S. still doing in Afghanistan? What is our strategic end goal?

After 17 years—how long do we plan to stay?

Responsible administration officials and military commanders will tell you that the U.S. military remains due to the threat of terrorism. If Washington withdrew, according to this argument, Afghanistan would once again serve as a training ground for terrorists who aspire to attack the U.S. homeland. 

But this talking point only goes so far. If the U.S. advisory presence is meant to ensure Afghanistan is terrorist-free, the strategy has clearly failed. The deployment of 140,000 U.S. and coalition troops was not able to clean Afghanistan of terrorist groups, so it is beyond reason to expect U.S. and coalition forces to do the same today with less resources.  Nor is it likely more resources would do succeed in that objective either; indeed, as our mere presence may be making the problem worse by serving as a successful recruiting tool for ISIS, who to date continue to be resilient against U.S. Special Forces. Throwing $45 billion per year into Afghanistan and asking the young men and women in the U.S. military to serve as the permanent protectors of a quarrelsome and corrupt government in Kabul does nothing to address this. 

Policymakers across multiple administrations have been blind to a hard reality: the U.S. has done all it can in a place like Afghanistan. The U.S. was totally justified in intervening after the country was hit by the worst act of terrorism in modern history. And intervene America did; in a few short months, Al-Qaeda’s infrastructure in Afghanistan was destroyed and its militants were tired and on the run. The smart thing for Washington at that time was to pack up and go home.  Instead, multiple U.S. administrations chose to change the mission entirely in an attempt to build a modern, parliamentary democracy in Central Asia from scratch. It was a bad decision, one that has continued without much resistance for over a decade and a half.   

The U.S. soldiers who have been deployed and asked to stand their ground in places like the Korengal Valley and Helmand have done everything the decision-makers in Washington ordered them to do. And despite following those orders, Afghanistan is the same old quandary it has ever been.

The conflict will go on for as long as Afghans themselves are resistant to a peace agreement.  Washington and its NATO allies can dispatch a million troops in Afghanistan and it would only have a short-term effect on the security situation. Afghanistan’s conflict will only end through political arrangements by the Afghans themselves. The sooner the Trump administration comes around to that concept and finally ends America’s misadventure in Afghanistan the sooner money, attention, and resources can be re-invested to the geopolitical threats that truly impact U.S. security.

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on August 21, 2018. Read more HERE.