Still at war in Afghanistan, but to what end?

By Daniel DePetris

Do you remember that war we launched in response to the September 11 attacks more than 15 years ago? You'd be forgiven for assuming that the United States has long closed the chapter on Afghanistan, the longest military campaign in the country’s history. Outside of an opening question by U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), Secretary of Defense-designate James Mattis wasn't asked about Afghanistan at all during his three-hour confirmation hearing -- a vivid illustration that most of Congress has moved on from the issue.

The war in Afghanistan is not only still going on, but President Obama has also increased U.S. military involvement during his final year in office. The Afghan security forces -- designed to be America's ticket out of the war -- are performing valiantly, but are taking so many casualties from the Taliban that Washington has had to slow down the pace of American withdrawals. Indeed, when the next administration is fully in place, it will inherit a war that the American people have all but forgotten - but which U.S. soldiers on the ground and pilots in the air are still very much involved in.

Every day, the Afghan army requests U.S. air support against Taliban positions in order to soften up resistance before an offensive or to maintain the territory it already has. The number of U.S. bombs dropped in Afghanistan climbed by 40 percent in 2016 compared to the year before. We have seen an influx of American power from the sky that is a product of President Obama's decision to loosen the rules of engagement, broaden the target list, and authorizing U.S. commanders to expand the scope of U.S. air activity from defensive to offensive operations. Aerial sorties from U.S. aircraft that resulted in at least one weapon released increased by 50 percent in 2016, yet another bit of evidence pointing to a more aggressive American presence in Afghanistan than President Obama would have liked at this point in his tenure.

With 9,800 U.S. troops still stationed in the country, President Obama long ago realized that his dream of extracting America from its longest war won't happen before he leaves. If anything, the Obama administration has provided his commanders with the latitude to move troops around and in certain circumstances closer to the actual fighting. Two years after U.S. Marines withdrew from Helmand province, the corps is back again -- forced to return to the very spot where so many American troops died during the 2010-2011 surge in order to help Kabul keep the Taliban from capturing the provincial capital.

With everything going on in the world today, from state-sponsored cyber attacks on U.S. domestic infrastructure to Iran's naval maneuvering against U.S. destroyers in the Strait of Hormuz, the war in Afghanistan barely gets a wink of attention from politicians in Washington -- most of whom continue to go about their daily lives as if Afghanistan is a problem that can best be dealt with by shoveling billions of dollars down the throats of Afghan politicians and commanders.

Appropriating a hefty $4 billion to Afghanistan's security forces has become an annual Washington tradition with zero benchmarks baked into the defense assistance. And in terms of mission priorities, a war in Afghanistan in its 16th year, originally explained as a counterterrorism mission against Al-Qaeda, has long ago turned into nation-building, social engineering campaign and a constant weight on the U.S. military's shoulders.

In January 2009, President Obama committed himself to winning the "good war" and then drawing America's men and women in uniform out of Afghanistan in order to focus on bigger and better things at home and abroad. Eight years later, U.S. trainers, advisers, special operators, and pilots remain in combat against the very same enemy, bombing the very same places in the very same provinces and districts that the United States took with such sacrifice years prior.

If President-Elect Donald Trump really wants to shake up Washington and reassess America's priorities, he should ask his generals and the ex-generals in his cabinet whether four more years of the status-quo is worth the investment.

 Asking whether Afghanistan is a lost cause is an enormously tough question to pose given more than fifteen years of financial and military commitment. But sometimes the Commander-in-Chief needs to ask the hard questions because nobody else will.

At best, Afghanistan will be in a semi-chaotic state with an insurgency permanently part of its political fabric and a central government too corrupt and weak to extend its influence in certain areas of the country. At worst, it's a never-ending military campaign hemorrhaging taxpayer money that is giving the Afghans the false hope that America will always come to the rescue. 

Daniel DePetris is a fellow at Defense Priorities.

This piece was originally published by Real Clear Defense on January 31, 2017. Read more HERE