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All That's Left for the U.S. to Do in Afghanistan Is Lose

The U.S. Army / Flickr

This piece originally appeared on antiwar.com.

I’ll admit it. I’m sick of writing about America’s longest war – the quagmire in Afghanistan. Still, in a time of near media blackout on this issue, someone has to keep banging the drum. Of late, it seems every single week that those of us who follow the war are inundated with more bad news. It all adds up to what this author has long been predicting in Afghanistan: the impending military defeat of the U.S.-trained Afghan Army and its American advisors. This is a fact that should rattle the public, shake up policymakers, and usher in a holistic review of the entirety of America’s interventions in the Greater Middle East. Only don’t count on it – Washington prefers, like a petulant child, to cover its proverbial eyes and ignore the fated failure of this hopeless war and several others like it.

This past month, four US service members were killed in Afghanistan, bringing the 2018 total to 13 American deaths. That may sound like a relatively modest casualty count, but given the contracted US troop totals in country and the transition to using those troopers only in an advisory capacity, this represents a serious spike in American deaths. Add to this the exponential rise in Afghan Security Force casualties over the last few years, and the recent rise in green-on-blue attacks – in which partnered Afghan “allies” turn their guns on their American advisors – and matters look even worse. Despite the ubiquitous assertions of senior US commander after commander that the mission has “turned a corner,” and that “victory” is near, there’s no meaningful evidence to that effect.

In fact, the Taliban now controls or contests nearly 45% of Afghanistan’s districts, up from just 28% in 2015, and the group is active in 70% of the country’s districts – this in spite of President Trump’s increase of US military pressure during his first two years in office. On the ground, from a granular view, matters appear even worse. Spectacular Taliban attacks are increasing, even in heavily guarded sectors within the capital of Kabul – convincing many locals that no place is safe from Taliban infiltration even after 17+ years of ongoing war. Last Wednesday an attack on a U.K. security contractor firm in the heart of Kabul killed 10 and wounded 19 others. A few days earlier, the Taliban ambushed and killed 20 police in the country’s west, and killed another 10 soldiers in the north.

Then there’s the rise in Afghan civilian casualties over the last few weeks – most caused by errant US airstrikes. While overall US ground troop levels hover around 15,000 – a significant drop from the 100,000 or so American soldiers there when I served there in 2011-12 – US planes have dropped a record number of bombs in 2018. What’s more, none of this boosted bombing has halted the Taliban momentum, and, according to the UN, has only achieved a spike in civilian casualties. In just one of these increasingly common missteps, last Wednesday at least 30 Afghan civilians – including many women and children – were killed in a US airstrike in Helmand province. Sure, another 16 Taliban fighters were also reportedly killed, but research and experience indicates that the deaths of the 30 civilians will likely create far more anti-U.S., anti-Kabul insurgents. That’s counterinsurgency math 101. Heck, even a war hawk like retired General Petraeus would admit – and has said – as much.

The last hope for an end to the fighting is the nascent peace process between the Taliban, Russia, the U.S., and – sometimes – the Afghan government, in Qatar. Still, while certainly an option preferable to perpetual American involvement in the war, even this is a longshot. The Taliban know they are winning and appear ready to reject talks with what they view as an illegitimate, Western-imposed government in Kabul. The two sides inhabit two different universes. The articulate, educated, and Westernized President Ashraf Ghani insists that continued commitment to democracy, women’s rights, and the legitimacy of the existing security forces be a prerequisite for any peace settlement. The Taliban scoff at such notions and consider all three items to be tainted by the West and inherently “un-Islamic.” And they know they hold the stronger cards. Don’t count on a negotiated peace any time soon. Expect something far messier and less reassuring in the near future: either an outright Taliban victory or the fracture of Afghanistan into at least two warring sub-states.

None of these inconvenient facts manage to pierce the corporate-imposed, mainstream media blackout of all things Afghanistan in America today. All the while, the US war effort rolls along with a strange inertia all its own. In fact, the rise in civilian casualties and never-ending nature of the war has brought the Afghan population to a disturbing set of nihilistic and conspiratorial assumptions. A shocking percentage of Afghans now blame the US for the unending war and claim that Washington purposely has extended the conflict to extract Afghanistan’s mineral resources and to check Russia, Iran, and China. While such conspiracy theories tend to wither under close scrutiny and the logic of Occam’s razor, their persistence and popularity among Afghans is rather troubling.

Despite this flood of bad news and worrying trends favoring the Taliban, Washington seems utterly lacking in any fresh thinking on Afghan War policy. In response to the tragic recent US troop deaths, President Trump – who has (controversially) yet to visit US soldiers in country – offered more “old” thinking on the war and its purpose. Defending America’s ongoing mission in light of the latest US casualties, Trump – who once admitted his (astute) instinct was to leave Afghanistan – offered only this: “We’re there because virtually every expert that I have and speak to say if we don’t go there, they’re going to be fighting over here.”

So there it is again – the outmoded, but still amazingly prevalent “safe haven” myth. It goes something like this: if the US doesn’t maintain a troop presence and prop up the Kabul government forever, then Al Qaeda, ISIS, and whoever else will use Afghanistan as a base to attack this American homeland. This ignores a few key facts. One, the Taliban has denied that it will ever again serve as a base for transnational terror attacks (probably because they don’t want a renewed Western invasion of their country down the road). Two, there exists today only a relatively paltry and isolated number of Al Qaeda and ISIS fighters in Afghanistan. And, finally, advances in US intelligence, special operations, and drone warfare have demonstrated an increased ability to check terror groups from “offshore” bases rather than with combat troop deployments. In this sense, matters have changed substantially since 2001.

From a broader perspective, President Trump’s – though this author, for one, believes it’s really his mainstream foreign policy advisors who are behind the president’s recent statements – “safe haven” explanation fails the test of logical consistency. If a significant ground troop presence is necessary to deter terror attacks from any locale with Al Qaeda or ISIS affiliates, wouldn’t that require new invasions and occupations of Libya, West Africa, Somalia, Yemen, and Pakistan – nations with as many or more Islamist fighters? That theory has proven false for over a decade now, and is, anyway, frankly unsustainable without doubling or tripling the size of the already overstretched US military.

It is long past time for some clear-eyed, rational, and pragmatic thinking on the war in Afghanistan. All the trends and metrics – which the Pentagon lives and dies by – are pointing inexorably downward. Day to day events, and life on the ground in Afghanistan, worsens by the hour. Short of re-injecting another 100,000 US ground troops, again, nothing seems likely to stave off defeat in America’s longest war. The time has come, as it once did in Vietnam, to ask who, exactly, is willing to be the last to die for a nose-diving war effort. As someone who has ordered too many soldiers to their deaths in inconclusive, ill-advised wars, I can tell you this: I wouldn’t want to be the commander – or president – to spend even one more life in Afghanistan.

But I’m not running this war…

Maj. Danny Sjursen
Maj. Danny Sjursen is a U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan...
Maj. Danny Sjursen

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