By Bonnie Kristian
“[Y]ou can't meet a general anywhere in the Pentagon who believes there is a military solution to the Afghan war,” Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.) mused in a recent radio interview. “That's the main question I harangue them with when they come up to Capitol Hill to testify before our committees,” he continued. “I say, ‘Is there a military solution?’ And they all admit there is none. There's been mission creep that's now nation building, but they all admit no military solution.”
So why are we still fighting America’s longest war? Why continue military intervention in Afghanistan after nearly two decades when there is no prospect of anything resembling success?
The question becomes all the more pressing given apparent agreement with the Pentagon consensus Paul describes among key players in the Trump administration. President Trump himself has repeatedly expressed a desire to end the war, and he ordered a partial reduction in U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan in December. His current secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has acknowledged peace in Afghanistan will only be achieved via Afghan-led negotiations, not U.S. military action; and former Defense Secretary James Mattis said the same, arguing last year there is no “military victory” available to the United States. Rather, he said, “the victory will be a political reconciliation.”
Paul proposed three explanations for this gap between word and deed, each plausible and all surmountable if Trump is serious in his condemnation of America’s floundering in “endless wars.” The first is a personnel matter: “The problem is that several of [Trump’s] advisors that he has appointed don't necessarily agree with him” about getting out of Afghanistan, Paul said. “So they either countermand his sentiments or talk him into delaying actually ending the war.”
The role of national security advisor has been particularly pernicious in this regard. First it was occupied by H.R. McMaster, who endorsed “state-building in places like Afghanistan and Iraq,” and consistently seemed to steer Trump toward unjustifiably aggressive foreign policies. McMaster’s old seat is now filled by John Bolton, whose complete and reckless hawkishness was detailed anew in a lengthy New Yorker profile this week. “Bolton is a hawk,” Trump reportedly said of his advisor shortly before hiring him. “He’s going to get us into a war.” At the very least he’s managed to keep us in half a dozen, and it is unlikely Trump will be able to deliver on his more sensible foreign policy impulses so long as voices like these hold his ear.
The second problem Paul identified is that “there are still a number of people [in Washington] who are of what I call the Vietnam village strategy—take one more village and we'll get a better negotiated settlement.” Pompeo certainly seems to be of this ilk, describing the U.S. position in Afghan peace talks as one of ensuring the Taliban realizes “they can’t win on the ground militarily.”
While it is true the U.S. military can skirmish with the Taliban forever, this is no argument for prolonging the war. Pompeo is no doubt right that Taliban leadership understand they cannot trounce the most powerful military on the planet, but that hardly means continued U.S. intervention has the Taliban cornered. On the contrary, the group has been resurgent in recent years, gaining control over larger portions of the country even after massive and costly U.S. military efforts. And if that’s the case, as Paul said, “I don't want to send my kid, your kid, or my nephew to Afghanistan—because if there is no military solution, what is one more death going to do over there?”
It is utterly indefensible to spill more blood and treasure to, at best, maintain stalemate. Negotiations, already underway, will proceed with or without U.S. boots on the ground—if anything, American military exit might imbue the talks with a fresh sense of urgency, prompting necessary compromises neither side is presently willing to make.
The third delaying factor in overdue American withdrawal from Afghanistan Paul listed is how the mission has morphed. “[W]e just need to acknowledge that our original mission was to go after those who plotted or attacked us on 9/11,” he said, “and there's frankly none of them left. … We're [now fighting] forces that are associated with forces that are associated with forces that are associated with somebody else. It's so tangential to have any link to 9/11 that it really doesn't exist.”
That reality calls into question the legality of this evolving intervention (the original Authorization for Use of Military Force specifically cited the 9/11 attacks), but it also raises serious practical and strategic concerns. It serves neither U.S. interests nor local populations for Washington to perpetually police the world, moving endlessly from one parochial fight to another and offering military solutions to problems that need political and diplomatic resolutions orchestrated by the people whose lives they’ll affect.
Each of these obstacles—bad advice in Washington, needless and even counterproductive maintenance of stalemate, and strategically reckless mission creep—can and must be overcome if Trump intends to make good on his promises of a new direction for American foreign policy, including an end to the war in Afghanistan. There is no military solution to be had here; it is time to simply come home.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at Time Magazine, CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, The Hill, and The American Conservative, among other outlets.
This piece was originally published by Reason on May 2, 2019. Read more HERE.