The Forgotten War turns 17

By Gil Barndollar

On October 7, 2001, U.S. and British planes began striking Taliban positions, beginning Operation Enduring Freedom. The combination of Afghan allies, CIA teams, American airpower, and Special Forces “horse soldiers” broke the Taliban’s army in a matter of months. Yet 17 years later, America’s longest war still grinds on today—mostly on autopilot. We have spent perhaps $2 trillion and lost nearly 2,400 servicemen in Afghanistan, yet we are losing the war.

The Taliban controls more territory than at any time since 2002. The U.S. government claims that 44 percent of Afghan districts are controlled or contested by the Taliban, however Independent analysts like the Long War Journal say the figure is 59 percent.

Perhaps the greatest of the war’s many ironies is the state of Afghanistan’s security forces. Despite 17 years of Western funding and mentorship, the Afghan National Army (ANA) and the alphabet soup of different police and paramilitary organizations are unable to fight and win on their own. The occasional death of a U.S. soldier, often at the hands of an Afghan he is training, receives only the briefest recognition.  Meanwhile, we are spending billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars to teach a legendarily warlike people how to lose wars.

As in Vietnam, the U.S. has built an indigenous force that shares our military’s traits and its pathologies. Elite units have outsized importance, likely to the detriment of the army as a whole. Conventional ANA units are poached for their best soldiers, who are pushed into the Afghan commandos and special forces. Like Iraq’s famed Golden Division, the Afghan Special Operations Forces have become a fire brigade that conducts the majority of the army’s offensive operations. As a result, tactical and operational outcomes rest on a single point of failure and conventional ANA units suffer a steady drain of talent among their officers and enlisted men.

The Afghans also share our all-American reliance on airpower. Even the U.S. military admits this, as a recent article in the Marine Corps Gazette highlights. The lead author, recently returned from commanding the Corps’ advisor unit in Helmand Province, described the success of his Marines in stabilizing Helmand and stiffening the ANA’s 215th Corps. Daily use of U.S. airstrikes prevents “an unsustainable Afghan dependency on the presence of U.S. troops.” Yet the reverse is also true: the forever war in Afghanistan is exhausting our equipment, especially our airframes, far more than it is exhausting our ground troops. Recent studies by the RAND Corporation and the Government Accountability Office spell this out.

The true condition of Afghanistan’s security forces is difficult to determine. This is because the U.S. and Afghan governments have classified the security forces’ casualty counts. According to the New York Times, daily death tolls in recent months have nearly doubled since 2016, when they were last made public.

Unsurprisingly, recruiting for the ANA and police is down dramatically. With 63 percent of the population under the age of 25, Afghanistan will not run out of military age males any time soon, but the security forces are unable to persuade enough of them to enlist. The Taliban does not appear to share this problem.

In 2011, some wiser voices called for taking advantage of the long-awaited killing of Osama bin Laden. “Declare victory and go home,” they counseled. America’s leaders chose to ignore that advice, and we continued to fight the Taliban for control of even the most medieval corners of their country.

The U.S. is now openly seeking a negotiated settlement with the Taliban. With superb circular logic, we now seem determined to somehow start winning a losing war in order to enable negotiations because we know we cannot win. It is a mark of our desperation that Erik Prince’s privatization plan, with its supposed army of culturally savvy contractors and its American viceroy who the Afghans won’t accept, is still receiving consideration.

Unwilling to accept sunk costs, we keep pouring men, women, and money into a war that is unwinnable, even on our increasingly vague terms of victory. “Declare defeat and go home” may not be politically palatable, even in an America that last won a war in 1991. But continuing with our present Afghanistan “strategy” is moral cowardice on the part of both our leaders and the American people.

Gil Barndollar is Director of Middle East Studies at the Center for the National Interest. He served as a U.S. Marine infantry officer from 2009 to 2016, deploying to Afghanistan twice.

 This piece was originally published by The Hill on October 7, 2018. Read more HERE.