Charles Paige / December 11, 2018

Muddling Along in Afghanistan

After 17 years, a look at our strategy and how to achieve national-security objectives.

Public attention on the war in Afghanistan tends to ebb and flow in relation to casualties. When U.S. military casualties are reported, as they were just before Thanksgiving, there’s a brief why-are-we-still-there outcry that quickly fades until the next high-profile attack. With each of these cycles, pessimism increases — as reflected in the various “it’s not worth it … it’s unwinnable … bring the boys home” opinion pieces.

Perhaps the low point, opinion-wise, was a recent article by an active duty Army officer who argues (although not particularly convincingly) that the U.S. has actually been defeated militarily in Afghanistan, outside any political considerations.

The most oft-repeated refrain is that we’ve been fighting for over 17 years with little to show for our efforts. The 17-year mantra implies that we’ve thrown everything we have at the Taliban and usually concludes with an admonition that it’s not worth sacrificing one more American life in pursuit of “obviously” (17 years!) unachievable goals. But are either of those suppositions accurate?

The first point is fairly easy to debunk. Outside of the initial invasion in 2001, the U.S. and its NATO partners were only decisively engaged in Afghanistan for roughly three years — late 2009 to late 2012 — out of the 17. Even then, the Obama administration’s decision to announce its withdrawal timeline up front assured the Taliban that they merely had to endure a few tough years before the U.S. would again lose interest. Although great strides were made, both toward militarily defeating the Taliban and toward increasing the capability of the Afghan National Army and Police, the commitment to a hard withdrawal timeline meant that we effectively committed to letting go of the bike seat without waiting to see if the Afghans could pedal and keep the bike upright. Contrary to the “failed militarily” argument, the constraints on how many troops to send and how long they would stay were primarily political decisions, as were other critical issues like rules of engagement and whether to negotiate with the Taliban.

The question of whether further sacrifice of blood and treasure is worth it is more subjective, but should be considered in the context of the level-of-commitment issue. If we had made a sustained, genuine effort and come up short, the “no more” argument would carry more weight. Even if we had gone all in, though, simply walking away from Afghanistan now is no guarantee that no more American lives would be lost. In fact, walking away, as was done in Iraq, will likely result in greater casualties in the long run when terrorist organizations like al-Qaida and ISIS menace the West from the safe haven a Taliban-led regime would provide, which in turn would likely lead to another invasion and round of full-scale combat.

The best — which may admittedly only be the least-bad — option, then is to continue advising and assisting the Afghan Security Forces and supporting their role in bringing the Taliban to the negotiating table. Or as retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal put it, we should “keep a limited number of forces there and just kind of muddle along and see what we can do.” He continued: “But that means you’re gonna lose some people, and then it’s fair for Americans to ask, ‘Why am I doing this? Why am I putting my sons and daughters in harm’s way?’ And the answer is, there’s a certain cost to doing things in the world, being engaged. That’s not as satisfying. That’s not an applause line kind of answer, but that’s what I think.”

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