Afghanistan: Mission Impossible
There are reports the U.S. Army is readying about a thousand additional troops for deployment to Afghanistan where they will link up with some 14,000 other U.S. service members tasked with an unachievable mission.
At the same time, this news was drowned out by the latest catastrophic attack, a horrific bombing that left more than 100 dead — The United States Central Command Commander General Votel was even nearby — in the very center of a “secure” district of Kabul.
The persistence of such violence after 16 years of U.S. intervention raises serious questions about the need for and ability of the United States military to address what is at root an internal Afghan security problem increasingly disconnected from core American security interests.
I am no stranger to these un-winnable crusades. In early 2011, my own unit flew into Kandahar—part of the last few thousand troops authorized under the Obama “surge.”
This talk of reinforcement, escalation, and “surging” is nothing new. It is history repeating itself.
These next 1,000 soldiers will enter the Afghan maelstrom as no less than the fifth surge attempted by military and political “strategists” who are clearly out of ideas (perhaps because there is no military solution to a fundamentally political problem).
The first was in 2008, as the Taliban overran key rural districts, President George W. Bush “quietly surged” a couple more combat brigades — some 8,000 soldiers — into Afghanistan just before leaving office. Shortly after taking over in 2009, President Obama ordered in 21,000 more troops.
Next, after at least three strategy reviews, Obama announced the deployment of 30,000 additional reinforcements. At peak strength, more than 100,000 American troops fought there. After several drawdowns, Obama left office with troop numbers hovering around 10,000.
Trump then entered office, and though his original “instinct” was to “pull out,” he caved to the generals and instead proclaimed a “new” strategy of escalation — 4,000 or 5,000 more service members.
Which brings us to the present potential escalation of 1,000 more brave troopers in a paltry “Surge 5.0.”
According to a recent Washington Post report, the extra 1,000 troops will contribute to the current American “strategy” to “bolster” Afghan troops so they can “pound” the Taliban in this spring’s fighting season.
How, a reasonable observer might ask, will a now grand total of 15,000 U.S. troops suddenly “pound” the Taliban when more than 100,000 of America’s finest failed to do so in 2011-12?
Leaving aside the bellicose rhetoric, let’s examine a few difficult, inconvenient facts presented by Washington’s own Congressional Research Service report:
- A record number of Afghan provinces and districts are under the control of or contested by the Taliban at present — this after over 16 years of U.S. efforts.
- Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) combat deaths hit 6,700 in 2016—a rate in which U.S. commanders have labeled as “unsustainable.”
- The Taliban has always and will always be able to count on a safe haven in neighboring Pakistan. That’s a formula for perpetual insurgency.
- Afghanistan’s economy still cannot support itself. In any given year foreign military and aid accounts for about 95 percent of total GDP, which means Afghan security is unsustainable without U.S. taxpayers funding a significant portion (forever?).
- Despite two decades of on-again, off-again drug eradication efforts, in 2017, Afghan opium production reached record levels. The resultant heroin cash windfall funds not only the Taliban, but also “poppy palaces,” mansions built by crooked government officials.
- Both the 2009 and 2014 Afghan presidential elections were highly corrupt and tainted. The very legitimacy of our partnered Afghan government is dubious at best.
- The U.S. has attempted to foist a powerful presidency and central government on an Afghan society that has been historically built around rural autonomy and devolution. Perhaps Washington will one day recognize the reason Afghanistan has been ungoverned for centuries is because it is ungovernable, not because America’s presence has been lacking.
Furthermore, the legal basis of the conflict is questionable. American soldiers are fighting in undeclared wars authorized by the vague, post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF).
That AUMF — which authorized the use force “against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the [9/11 attacks], or harbored such organizations or persons” — seems wholly inadequate to justify nearly a decade and a half of nation building.
For starters, the vast majority of “Taliban” fighters in Afghanistan today are Islamist nationalists who seek only to expel foreign troops from their lands. They have little to no connection to 9/11 and present no transnational terror threat to the United States. Just as disturbingly, 18-year-old U.S. military recruits patrolling Afghanistan today were toddlers on 9/11.
Some military and congressional hawks might then point to the new ISIS franchise — the “Khorasan province” of the caliphate — entrenched in Eastern Afghanistan.
Except Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, neither the Mesopotamian nor Afghan variety, even existed in 2001, so they can hardly fall under the existing AUMF umbrella.
Congress has a constitutional and ethical duty to either: 1) draft, outline and pass into law a new comprehensive AUMF covering contemporary operations in Afghanistan; or 2) bring American servicemen and women home before any more are killed in a fruitless conflict which is patently not a vital strategic interest.
President Trump’s White House is now the third administration to implement a surge and ask the impossible of those in uniform.
It is long past time to stop believing in surges, leadership changes, and other tired old approaches from the interventionist Washington elite. In Afghanistan policy there is, truly, nothing new under the sun.
Prudent foreign policy realism demands strategists who recognize that there are some wars that just can’t be won, at least within sustainable commitment and costs. National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster has said as much, admitting “there are problems that are maybe both intractable and of marginal interest to the American people, that do not justify investments of blood and treasure.”
I’d agree, and, in this case, when it comes to Afghanistan — just as in Vietnam — perhaps the more salient question isn’t whether the war is winnable, but, rather, if it is worth fighting at all.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.