By Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, USA, Ret.
New reports that the White House has instructed its senior diplomats to begin seeking “direct talks with the Taliban,” to bring the war to an end is long overdue. Despite criticism against the policy shift, such talks would offer the best chance of ending America’s longest and most futile war.
While there is broad agreement that America leaders were justified in launching the October 2001 military operations in Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks, it is painfully evident after 17 years no one has any idea how to end the fighting on military terms. An honest, unemotional analysis of the fundamentals reveals there is an effective means by which the war can be brought to a quick resolution while maintaining and preserving American security.
Possibly the biggest impediment to ending the war has been the definition of what it means to ‘win.’ General Stanley McChrystal said in 2009 that winning in Afghanistan included “reversing the perceived momentum” of the Taliban, “seek[ing] rapid growth of Afghan national security forces,” and “tackl[ing] the issue of predatory corruption by some” Afghan officials.
Nine full years and no success later, however, Lt. Gen. Austin S. Miller—latest in line to command U.S. troops in Afghanistan—defined America’s “core goal” at his confirmation hearing to be that “terrorists can never again use Afghanistan as a safe haven to threaten the United States.”
The reason McChrystal failed to end the war—and Miller will likewise fail—is that these objectives can’t be militarily accomplished. Predicating an end to the war on objectives that cannot be rationally attained is to virtually guarantee perpetual failure to a permanent war. A major course correction is therefore in order.
Keeping 15,000 U.S. troops on the ground in Afghanistan does not, in any way, prevent terror attacks against the United States from originating there—and for this lack of success we will pay at least $45 billion this year alone. Our troops should therefore be withdrawn as quickly as can be safely accomplished.
I personally observed in 2011 during my second combat deployment in Afghanistan that even with 140,000 US and NATO troops in Afghanistan, there were vast swaths of the country that were ungoverned and off-limits to allied troops.
Meaning, at no point since October 2001 has American military power prevented Afghanistan from having ungoverned spaces and thus has had a neutral effect in preventing further attacks. What has kept us safe, however—and will continue to keep us safe—has been our robust, globally-focused intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance capabilities working in concert with the CIA, FBI, and local law enforcement to defend our borders from external attack.
Many pundits claim that if the U.S. military were to withdraw from Afghanistan that chaos would reign there—and that is almost certainly true. But that’s how we found it, how it is today, and wholly irrespective of when or under what conditions the U.S. leaves, how it will be long into the future until Afghans themselves come to an accommodation.
The question U.S. policy-makers need to ask is which is more important for American interests—the maintenance of a perpetually costly war that fails to prevent any future attacks, or ending America’s participation in the failing war?
Continuing to fight a war that cannot be won cements a policy that drains the U.S. of vital resources, continues spilling the blood of American servicemembers to no effect, and dissipates the Armed Forces’ ability to defend against potentially existential fights later—and in the meantime does not diminish the threat of international terrorism. To strengthen our national security, we must end the enduring policy of failure by prudently and effectively ending our military mission.
While the fundamentals of a withdrawal plan are relatively straight forward, it wouldn’t come without considerable opposition. One of the arguments against this plan was voiced by McChrystal nine years ago when he pleaded with the American public to “show resolve,” because “uncertainty disheartens our allies [and] emboldens our foe.” Yet the facts can’t be denied any longer: For all eight years of the Obama administration and the first 500 days of Trump’s tenure, we maintained that “resolve” and were rewarded with an unequivocal deterioration of the war.
Since McChrystal’s admonition to maintain the status quo, the Taliban have exploded in strength to reportedly 77,000, more territory is now in the hands of the insurgents than at any point since 2001, the Afghan government remains one of the most corrupt regimes on the planet, and civilian casualties in the first half of 2018 are the highest ever recorded.
The only way this permanent failure ends is if President Trump shows the willingness he has sometimes demonstrated in showing the courage to push back against the Washington establishment. He must ignore the status quo that holds our security hostage, end the war, and redeploy our troops. Without that resolve, we can count on continued failure in Afghanistan. With it, American security will be strengthened and readiness improved.
Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.
This piece was originally published by The American Conservative on July 24, 2018. Read more HERE.