‘Mission Accomplished’ Will Never Come in Afghanistan

Will the Trump administration put American interests first, or the president’s own obsession with "winning"?

<> on September 23, 2010 in Marja, Afghanistan.
<> on September 23, 2010 in Marja, Afghanistan.

What would you do if your boss ordered you to teach a sheep to fly? Because I have the luxury of tenure, I like to think I would tell him or her that the task was impossible and politely suggest they seek medical attention. But if you were one of the commanders who have overseen the U.S. military effort in Afghanistan, force of habit and professional culture would nudge you toward saying “can do” and then designing a new campaign in ovine aeronautics.

Having accepted the assignment, each year you’d deliver a sober, measured, but ultimately upbeat report on the progress you’ve been making. After acknowledging that no sheep had successfully flown, you’d tell Congress, the president, and the public that several sheep had managed to jump several inches off the ground and that one particularly well-coached ewe had managed to “fall with style” when propelled off a slight incline. Even if the herd’s progress had reached a “stalemate,” you’d say that completing the assignment was still possible but that it would of course require more time, more money, and a few thousand more troops.

There, in a nutshell, is the U.S. war in Afghanistan. What began in 2001 as a focused effort to topple the Taliban and rout al Qaeda has become an endless, costly, and unrealistic effort with no clearly discernible endpoint and little hope of success. It has become our forgotten war, and the chief aim of those in charge of the operation seems to be keeping it off the front pages and out of the public eye.

And make no mistake, it is a war. Afghan civilian casualties hit a new high in 2016, and government security forces suffered more than 15,000 casualties and more than 5,000 killed. According to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the insurgency is controlling or contesting 149 of the country’s 402 districts. Fourteen U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan last year, and the United States will spend roughly $5 billion training Afghan security forces in 2017, and billions of dollars more supporting its own combat operations, with no clear end in view.

How did we get here? A quick review: The United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001, when the Taliban refused to turn over Osama bin Laden and his associates following the 9/11 attacks. Working with the Afghan Northern Alliance, U.S. special operations forces and intelligence operatives soon routed the Taliban and drove them from Kabul. Command errors allowed bin Laden to escape into Pakistan, however, where he remained in hiding until he was killed by a U.S. raid in May 2011. Similarly, the Taliban went to ground inside Pashtun areas or across the border in Pakistan, where they enjoyed tacit (and, in some cases, active) support from Pakistani intelligence agencies.

Working with its European allies and other regional powers, the United States proceeded to set up a post-Taliban Afghan government under Hamid Karzai. The new Afghan Constitution envisioned a centralized, Western-style democracy, even though Afghanistan was a poor, semi-literate, corrupt, and deeply divided society with a long tradition of local autonomy. This entire program was a long-shot effort from the start, but any hope of success dissolved when the George W. Bush administration turned its back on the country in order to invade Iraq in 2003. By the end of Bush’s tenure, the Taliban had regrouped and were regaining control in many parts of the country, aided in part by the corruption and ineffectiveness of the central government in Kabul.

The deteriorating situation led newly elected President Barack Obama to dispatch additional U.S. troops in the spring of 2009, and he later authorized a larger “surge” of U.S. forces in the fall of that year. He claimed this step was necessary to prevent al Qaeda from regaining a “safe haven” in Afghanistan (ignoring the fact that al Qaeda already had better havens elsewhere), and he promised the “surge” would turn the tide and allow the United States to withdraw completely in a few years. This overall strategy made little sense, however, and setting a deadline for a U.S. withdrawal just gave the Taliban ample incentive to wait us out. The Afghan government remained divided, corrupt, and ineffective, and the vast sums spent to train the Afghan National Security Forces over many years failed to produce an effective fighting force. Instead of achieving victory and withdrawing U.S. forces, Obama ended his presidency by authorizing nearly 9,000 U.S. troops to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely.

What do we have to show for all this effort and the many sacrifices made by U.S. and NATO soldiers? Not much. The Taliban now control more territory than at any time since the U.S. invasion in 2001, and the New York Times reports that the Taliban recently captured the Sangin district in Helmand, a bitterly contested area where more British and U.S. troops died than any other district. Not surprisingly, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, is asking for additional reinforcements. The purpose, it is said, is to improve training of the Afghan security forces so that someday the United States can really and truly end its involvement there. Never mind that we have already spent more than $65 billion on training in the past (along with nearly $120 billion in reconstruction efforts and nearly a trillion dollars in actual war costs). Yet the Afghan units that have received all this largesse still cannot manage to contain their Taliban foes. In short, we have been trying to teach sheep to fly. Yet with a bit more time and effort, we are told, the problems will be solved, and our woolly friends will soar.

Donald Trump has said very little about Afghanistan, so we don’t know how he intends to deal with this particular problem. But the tea leaves are not encouraging. On the one hand, Trump has been critical of “nation-building” in the past and might be inclined to cut U.S. losses and get out. But on the other hand, he’s fixated on “winning” and won’t want to enter the history books as the president who let the Taliban best him.

Trump has also staffed his administration with a lot of senior military officers — including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly — and he seems inclined to delegate more authority over military operations to the military itself. That approach might make sense (and it does give him someone to blame if things go wrong), except that there’s no reason to think any of the generals know how to win this one either. Remember: It was generals like Stanley McChrystal who urged Obama to escalate the war in 2009, to little avail.

Contrary to what some on the left believe, the U.S. military is not inherently bellicose (indeed, it is often less war-prone than some civilians). But it doesn’t like to lose and doesn’t even like fighting to a draw. As long as the president and Congress will go along, in short, the military will continue to kick the can down the road, even if this does not alter the strategic situation in the slightest and continues to distract and divert the country from more pressing tasks.

The second worrisome feature is Trump’s disregard for diplomacy. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is an amateur diplomat who apparently supports Trump’s proposal to cut the State Department’s budget by nearly 30 percent, and his initial forays into foreign policy suggest he still has a lot to learn.

Indifference to diplomacy is a problem here because the only long-term solution to the Afghan morass is a broad political settlement that reconciles the competing factions within Afghanistan and gets the outside powers that have been interfering there to play more constructive roles. For example, nearly everyone agrees that a central problem is the Taliban’s ability to use Pakistani territory as a sanctuary (not to mention the support they get from Pakistani intelligence), which in turn means success requires persuading Islamabad to change its policies. That may not be possible, but it is ultimately a diplomatic challenge rather than a military one. The bottom line: If training Afghan security forces and killing Taliban leaders with drone strikes could solve this problem, our past efforts would have achieved a lot more by now. Without a robust, sophisticated, and knowledgeable diplomatic effort, long-term success will remain elusive.

Which brings me to National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster. Not only does McMaster have personal experience in Afghanistan (where he ran U.S. anti-corruption efforts), but he is also the author of Dereliction of Duty, a famous study of the U.S. military’s failure to give its civilian overseers accurate and honest advice during the Vietnam War. McMaster has offered upbeat bromides about Afghanistan in the past, but that was then and this is now. The question is: At this point, does he appreciate the difficulty — indeed, the futility — of what we keep trying to do in Afghanistan and the impossibility of trying to teach sheep to fly? And if he has figured this out, will he tell the president?

Photo credit: SCOTT OLSON/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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