It Still Doesn’t Get Worse Than Afghanistan

From alienating allies to starting trade wars, Trump has made plenty of foreign-policy errors. But his biggest blunder is the one Obama handed him.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Camp Alvarado in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 9, 2018. (Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo arrives at Camp Alvarado in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 9, 2018. (Andrew Harnik/AFP/Getty Images)

What’s the dumbest aspect of contemporary U.S. foreign and defense policy? There’s no shortage of worthy candidates: the fruitless pursuit of strategic missile defense, which has cost more than $200 billion since the 1980s but still can’t provide convincing protection against even a nuclear pipsqueak like North Korea; President Donald Trump’s foolish flirtation with a global trade war, and especially his transparently comical claim that imports from Canada — Canada? — constitute some sort of national security threat; or even the blank check the United States has given its various Middle East allies to interfere in places such as Yemen, mostly unsuccessfully. And don’t get me started on Trump’s handling of North Korea or Iran.

These are all valid contenders — and there are no doubt others — but for my money (and yours), the single most indefensible and brain-dead aspect of U.S. foreign policy today remains the fruitless but never-ending effort to defeat the Taliban and achieve some sort of meaningful victory in Afghanistan. The United States has been trying to do this for so long that the arrival of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Kabul on Monday, on the heels of the country’s latest broken ceasefire, went unnoticed by most Americans. Many have probably forgotten (or never knew) how America’s involvement in Afghanistan even started — including some of the troops now being sent there.

A quick review: The United States originally sent troops to Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, in order to capture Osama bin Laden and topple the Taliban government, which had refused to give bin Laden up. This decision was clearly the right one, although U.S. commanders bungled the Battle of Tora Bora and let bin Laden slip away into Pakistan. But bin Laden is now dead — that’s D-E-A-D, dead — as are most of his close associates. So, the original rationale that took the United States into the heart of Central Asia is now irrelevant.

Unfortunately, the United States and its allies also decided the time was ripe to turn Afghanistan into some sort of Western-style liberal democracy, despite its lack of democratic traditions, deep internal divisions, high levels of illiteracy, poverty, interfering neighbors, and other significant obstacles. And Washington has been pursuing that elusive grail ever since, with about as much success as you’d expect. At last count, that war has cost the United States more than a trillion dollars, and it is still costing American taxpayers some $45 billion per year. More than 2,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed and thousands more wounded, along with hundreds of contractors and coalition partners and thousands of Afghan civilians, soldiers, and police.

What does the United States have to show for all these sacrifices? Today, the Taliban control more territory than at any time since they were ousted from power. The number of civilian casualties peaked in 2017 and remains on a similar pace this year, and the number of insurgent attacks per year has been rising steadily too. Opium production is at an all-time high as well, despite the billions of dollars the United States has spent on various eradication plans. The Afghan government remains irredeemably corrupt, internally divided, and ineffective. In a further sign of internal disarray, last week the New York Times reported that government forces were attacking a militia controlled by an ally of exiled Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, an anti-Taliban warlord who is at odds with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

To be sure, the massive infusions of outside money that have poured into Afghanistan since 2002 have clearly had some positive effects. How could they not? But numerous reports by the U.S. Defense Department’s own Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction have documented the remarkably low payoff received for all this money. Numerous aid projects ended up over budget or unfinished, with vast sums disappearing into the black hole of Afghan corruption.

The justification for all this wasted effort, Americans are told, is the need to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups such as al Qaeda or the Islamic State. That was then-President Barack Obama’s rationale for his failed surge in 2009, and Trump offered the same justification for his own decision to increase U.S. forces levels last year. Prolonging the war made little sense in 2009 and makes even less sense today, because al Qaeda and other violent extremists have plenty of other safe havens, and a landlocked country in Central Asia isn’t an especially attractive place from which to operate a global jihad against the West.

The bottom line is that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan is a failure under Trump, just as it was a failure under Obama and George W. Bush. We like to think that democracies are better at public policy because open debate allows mistakes to be recognized and corrected, whereas dictators supposedly face no opposition and can therefore do the same dumb things over and over with no opposition. The past 17 years of U.S. policy in Central Asia ought to give us pause about that confident claim, because in this case the learning curve appears to be as flat as the Bagram airfield.

Why did the United States fail? Mostly because the task it set for itself was really, really hard, and one for which the available tools were not appropriate. Driving the Taliban from power was the easy part, but replacing them with a modern, Western-style constitution and corresponding set of political institutions was a fanciful objective, especially in a distant society that bore little or no resemblance to that of the United States. The Taliban weren’t going to go anywhere, save for the sanctuaries they enjoyed in neighboring Pakistan, and the U.S. and allied military actions inevitably generated resentment throughout the country and aided Taliban recruiting. As a research team led by a former senior Defense Department advisor on Afghanistan subsequently concluded: “civilian harm by U.S., international, and Afghan forces contributed significantly to the growth of the Taliban … and undermined the war effort by straining U.S.-Afghan relations.”

Moreover, U.S. officials and commanders lacked the detailed local knowledge necessary for successful state-building: They did not know which local leaders to trust or support, did not understand the complex and subtle networks of allegiance in which they were trying to work, and failed to recognize that the social changes they were trying to introduce were often unwelcome. And even when some U.S. officials did acquire a modicum of understanding, their tours would end and their replacements would have to start the learning process all over again.

To make matters worse, the United States had much less leverage than it thought. The central government in Kabul has little incentive to implement reforms that might one day help it defeat the Taliban, because the billions of dollars of U.S. economic aid that were lining its pockets would dry up if victory were ever achieved. And because U.S. officials kept insisting that defeat or withdrawal was not an option, they could not pressure their local clients to change their ways by threatening to go home and leave them to their fates.

And what is perhaps most astonishing — or, on second thought, maybe it isn’t — is that a parade of U.S. commanders refused to acknowledge that this is a war that cannot be won. Instead, every new appointee insists that they are about to turn the corner. That claim has been made repeatedly for nearly a decade, and it remains a hope rather than a reality. Yet presidents, legislators, and military commanders continue to insist that the United States must continue to pour good money and lives into this conflict, even though the prospects for success are no higher today than they were a decade ago.

Wars like this continue in part because 1) no one wants to fess up and admit the United States is not omnipotent, 2) they are being fought by volunteers rather than draftees, 3) U.S. casualty rates are now quite low, and 4) because it is easy to get distracted by Trump’s latest outrage and forget about a distant war that is rarely mentioned on radio or TV and is mostly confined to the back pages of the newspaper. And so, the war drones on, no pun intended, with little hope of either victory or withdrawal.

Everyone makes mistakes, but it takes a certain effort and focus to make the same errors for nearly two decades. And we should not lose sight of the longer-term political consequences. Continuing to defend dumb policies like the Afghan War weakens the D.C. establishment’s claims to authority, insight, expertise, and integrity, and this makes it that much easier for somebody like Trump to disparage the so-called Blob of insular elites and ignore its advice on other issues (e.g., trade). Trump’s own handling of foreign policy is a disaster in the making, but given the Blob’s track record in recent years, can you really blame him for thinking he can do better?

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

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