By Daniel DePetris
This Monday, a Taliban suicide bomber penetrated a western neighborhood of Kabul where many Afghan politicians and security officials live, killing 24 Afghan government employees. That attack, yet another incident in the heart of Afghanistan’s capital, was the most recent of several large-scale insurgent bombings that have occurred this year. Indeed, this week’s bombing came less than two months after the deadliest Taliban strike in the country since its fighters were thrown out of power by the U.S.-led international coalition more than 15 years ago.
Look at Afghanistan’s security situation today, and it’s difficult to see any good news. While U.S. trainers, advisers, and special operations forces on the ground consistently celebrate their Afghan army partners as dedicated and courageous young men willing to sacrifice their own lives for their country, the grunts in Afghanistan’s armed forces remain at the mercy of their own superiors—many of whom have been implicated in various corruption schemes and have helped contribute to the nation’s absolutely dismal transparency rankings. The Afghan air force is, to put it mildly, under-equipped and untrained to perform the kind of close-air support that has proven essential in holding terrain against a nimble but smart nationwide insurgency. And casualties within the Afghan armed forces are unsustainable; the best army in the world would have trouble replenishing after suffering more than 2,100 dead and wounded in just two months.
The natural inclination for the United States when monitoring this situation would be to pour more resources into the conflict to assist the Afghan government in retaking ground that has been steadily lost over the previous two years. This is exactly what National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster is reportedly proposing.
But if this is what the security environment in Afghanistan looks like after a decade and a half of involvement, more than 2,400 American fatalities, and at least $700 billion in reconstruction, economic aid, and military assistance costs, the very least U.S. officials can do is begin taking a look in the mirror.
It’s time to admit a few things that should be abundantly clear after all of this investment and sacrifice.
1. There is nothing left for us to "win" in Afghanistan: What two previous U.S. administrations have described as “winning”—an Afghanistan that is peaceful, governed by politicians who are bold visionaries, run by a system that values accountability and punishes those who engage in corrupt practices regardless of seniority—reads more like Washington's Christmas wish list than a series of realistic objectives. Call it nation-building, post-conflict reconstruction, or western do-gooderism, but the result of striving for goals that are unattainable has been a precious waste of taxpayer dollars, the loss of life that is even more precious, and a big distraction for a foreign policy community that confronts challenges that are more dire to America’s geopolitical strength.
2. We accomplished our original mission years ago: The conflict in Afghanistan has gone on for so long that it’s sometimes easy to forget why the United States became involved in the war in the first place. In the weeks after the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration had a clear sense of what it needed to do on Afghan soil and the amount of force it would take to do it. The reason the U.S. went into Afghanistan wasn’t about human rights or the establishment of a democracy in Central Asia.
Demolishing Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda infrastructure, bringing bin Laden to justice, and overthrowing the Taliban regime that enabled and sheltered him for the previous five years were morally worthy and strategically sound objectives for the U.S. to work toward. And indeed, after a little less than three months of sustained bombing from the air, collaboration with anti-Taliban militias on the ground, and full unity-of-effort across the executive and legislative branches, the al-Qaeda machine was pulverized. As soon as the mission switched from killing terrorists to building a brand new Afghan political system, transforming a primitive Afghan economy seething with corruption, and writing a new Afghan constitution, Washington's chances for further success evaporate. The U.S. aimed for the stars, but it turned out to be a self-inflected wound that the country continues to nurse today.
3. Without Pakista's cooperation, Afghanistan is lost: In 2009, President Barack Obama announced that he would be deploying an additional 30,000 U.S. troops into Afghanistan to supplement the 20,000 additional American forces he approved in the spring of that year. The strategy: to pound the Taliban into the sand, regain territory from the insurgency, and provide the Afghan government with the breathing space to build up a security force that could eventually continue the fight control on its own.
The Afghan forces weren’t ready to do so—and even if they were, the Taliban’s ability to hang around and regroup across the border in Pakistan would have continued to give the insurgency the advantage of time. Whether the Pakistani armed forces were unwilling to launch operations against the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network, were afraid to do so, or thought it would undermine their geopolitical leverage is a matter of some dispute, but the end result was the same—a Taliban leadership that could ide out when it needed to, but could press its advantage whenever it wanted. If 140,000 troops couldn’t mitigate the Pakistan problem, deploying another 4,000 to 5,000 U.S. service members as McMaster and U.S. Gen. Nicholson are recommending won’t either.
4. Afghanistan doesn't and won't determine whether America is safe from terrorism: For more than a decade, U.S. military officials, policymakers, and establishment scholars in Washington's think-tank community have told us that the U.S. homeland will be at risk of another 9/11-style mass casualty terrorist attack unless Afghanistan is stable. In testimony to the Senate Appropriations Committee in June, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis continued with that theme: "Our primary national interest and the international interest in Afghanistan is ensuring it does not become an ungoverned space from which attacks can be launched against the United States, other nations or the Afghan people.”
Leaving aside for the moment whether a terrorist-free Afghanistan is even possible, the suggestion that the U.S. will be safe from terrorism only if the U.S. and the Afghan government drive all terrorist groups out of the country is ludicrous. Terrorism directed at America and Americans will remain with us regardless of who controls Afghanistan’s political system. If the rise and fall of the Islamic State has shown the world anything, it's that territorial safe-havens are no longer a prerequisite for terrorist organizations to conduct attacks in faraway lands—all a member of ISIS or Al-Qaeda requires is an internet connection, an encrypted app on a smartphone, and a person at the other end who is vulnerable enough to eat their propaganda.
The best counterterrorism strategy is not propping up a weak Afghan state for nearly a generation, but investing resources in smart policing; increasing intelligence coordination and information sharing between allied services; eliminating direct threats to the United States through targeted strikes; ensuring that our border enforcement and airports have the funds they need to remain ever vigilant; and teaching citizens to be on the lookout for suspicious behavior.
As the United States of America, we boast the most professional military and the wealthiest economy on the planet. As such, it’s hard not to think that you can solve all of the world’s problems and put a rag-tag group of bearded Islamists with AK-47’s into their graves.
But the U.S. has learned the hard way over the last 15 years that we can’t fix everything and shouldn't waste precious resources trying—we should instead prioritize missions and focus on what matters to Americans, keeping our country safe, not nation building in the Middle East.
Daniel DePetris is fellow at Defense Priorities.
This piece was originally published by The Washington Examiner on August 2, 2017. Read more HERE.