Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Here we go again in Afghanistan

The newly announced Afghanistan strategy differs only in style, not substance, from the strategies of the past, and certainly from the current strategy.

Task Force Flying Dragons Aviators Fly to Operating Base Fenty


By John Q. Bolton
Best Defense guest columnist

The newly announced Afghanistan strategy differs only in style, not substance, from the strategies of the past, and certainly from the current strategy. After 16 years we still lack a coherent strategy, once that aligns ways and means to achieve realistic ends.


By John Q. Bolton
Best Defense guest columnist

The newly announced Afghanistan strategy differs only in style, not substance, from the strategies of the past, and certainly from the current strategy. After 16 years we still lack a coherent strategy, once that aligns ways and means to achieve realistic ends.

It’s true the administration promises to utilize all the elements of American power, but this is a bromide. While it renounces nation building and timelines (removed in 2014) and emphasizes “killing terrorists,” the new strategy’s purported end, ensuring that Afghanistan will not become a terrorist safe haven, is wildly out of line with the limited means the Pentagon is said to be planning (an increase of 3,000 to 5,000 troops and the concurrent call to end nation building. Put simply: If over 100,000 troops couldn’t kill enough terrorists, how will only 10,000?

Furthermore, killing isn’t an end state. It is an operational tactic that can only provide the breathing space for destroying terrorist groups, reconciliation, or some other cessation of hostilities. Moreover, if Afghanistan really is a problem requiring the application of “all the elements of national power,” then it is a problem that exists on a nation-building scale, making killing more out of place.

The problem with arguing that Afghanistan will become a haven for terrorists is that it is exactly the kind of open-ended, fight everywhere justification for forever war that the American people have opposed since at least 2008. Not only is this type of warfare deeply antithetical to our form of government, but assertions about enemy safe havens also rest on the faulty logic that the past will repeat itself, exactly. While the Taliban is the major enemy in Afghanistan, it is not al Qaeda in terms of scale and goals. It’s worth noting that the Taliban is not a declared terrorist group. This is partially true and partially political, a way to encourage reconciliation. However, it remains the truth that the Taliban’s aims are predominantly regional. It wants to rule Afghanistan. Indeed, it has an entire shadow government that works alongside, and sometimes in place of, Kabul.

Therein lies the problem with a strategy of “killing terrorists.” Doing so ignores the root causes of radical violence as well as local factors. Killing terrorists in Afghanistan, such as they are, will do nothing to stop domestically organized, foreign-inspired killers like those in Barcelona, France, or the United States. We are continuing — indeed reemphasizing — a failed whack-a-mole strategy. It makes for good television, but is strategically unsound, operationally expensive, and tactically exhausting. It also elevates terrorist organizations to the same level as nation states — a status that makes them proud — when they are simply criminals. This strategy forces the military to run head on into problems it is not designed, equipped, nor trained to solve.

Strangely, after so much time spent in Afghanistan, we have never really examined our military training paradigms or personnel structure, let alone made real changes in order to meet the needs of this supposedly crucial theater. This realization was echoed by Lieutenant General (ret.) Daniel Bolger: “Time after time, as I and my fellow generals saw that our strategies weren’t working, we failed to reconsider our basic assumptions; we failed to question our flawed understanding … in the end, all the courage and skill in the world could not overcome ignorance and arrogance.”

There is another factor clouding our views of Afghanistan, one that distorts its actual place relative to American National Security: the U.S. military. For the military, especially its leaders, this war is personal. For them Afghanistan’s sunk costs are very real and often translate into lost friends and comrades. Conversely, the public may generally oppose the war, but to America at large, the costs are negligible. They are abstract. Therefore, the American people must evaluate calls to “support the commander of the ground,” while noting that the past 16 commanders in Afghanistan all wanted more troops. A harsh, realistic, appraisal is what a great nation owes itself. With that in mind, let us consider these hard facts:

Americans are dying in Afghanistan because Americans are in Afghanistan. Promoting other paradigms of fighting global jihad or making the world safe for democracy ignores the reality that no military strategy has succeed in that far-away land. Setting aside the enormous costs of the war (direct spending of over $700 billion on everything from construction, payouts to families of killed civilians to nonsense like designer goats and a $36 million unused command center), an even harder truth is this: There is nothing beyond the most tenuous of linkages between Afghanistan’s security and governance and America’s national security. While the Taliban may have provided a haven for al Qaeda, they are hardly a threat to America’s security. Indeed, our own actions in the forever war have inflamed the Islamic world against us, sowed the seeds of domestic strife at home, and deeply, perhaps catastrophically, indebted the nation.

We may applaud ourselves for staying the course in Afghanistan, but it is precisely our unwillingness to confront the harsh truths outlined above that we have become mired in a stalemate. This public apathy is underwritten by a social contract that has separated the American people from their military in a fundamentally destructive manner — one in which the public will do anything it wants for the military, “except take it seriously.” A wise people, seeing the situation for what it truly is, would grapple with these harsh truths, determine a way to stop fighting literally on the other side of the world, and seek a settlement, not as victors, but as an honorable people. We can find peace in Afghanistan while fighting other terrorist and regional threats in a coherent manner.

The hills and valleys of Central Asia have unique strategic, historical, and geographic value and their people are deserving of the freedom, stability, and security that humans the world over are entitled to. Nevertheless, such desires are hardly worth the bones of a single American paratrooper, especially in the context of fighting and killing in a forever war. Those deeming otherwise ignore the lessons of history and seek to recast our own strategic folly into a generations-long endeavor to reshape a region of the world profoundly opposed to external influences.

John Q. Bolton is an Army officer assigned to a deploying brigade combat team. An Army aviator (AH-64D/E), he is a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a 2005 graduate of West Point and was the 2015 recipient of the George Marshall Award from the Army Command and General Staff College. The views presented here are his alone and not representative of the U.S. Army, the Defense Department, or the U.S. government.

Photo credit: Department of Defense


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

More from Foreign Policy

Volker Perthes, U.N. special representative for Sudan, addresses the media in Khartoum, Sudan, on Jan. 10.

Sudan’s Future Hangs in the Balance

Demonstrators find themselves at odds with key U.N. and U.S. mediators.

In an aerial view, traffic creeps along Virginia Highway 1 after being diverted away from Interstate 95 after it was closed due to a winter storm.

Traffic Jams Are a Very American Disaster

The I-95 backup shows how easily highways can become traps.

Relatives and neighbors gather around a burned vehicle targeted and hit by an American drone strike in Kabul.

The Human Rights vs. National Security Dilemma Is a Fallacy

Advocacy organizations can’t protect human rights without challenging U.S. military support for tyrants and the corrupt influence of the defense industry and foreign governments.


The Problem With Sanctions

From the White House to Turtle Bay, sanctions have never been more popular. But why are they so hard to make work?