Tag: Afghanistan War

Trump and America’s Longest War

Today’s high schoolers don’t know a time when the United States was not at war in Afghanistan. Conservative estimates find that U.S. taxpayers have spent almost $1 trillion in the country since 2001. Of this amount, $126 billion has gone toward Afghanistan reconstruction – more in inflation-adjusted dollars than was spent to rebuild Europe after World War II. At least another $750 billion has been spent on warfighting. Despite such efforts, the Taliban controls more territory than at any time since the war began. It is obvious that reversing these trends would require a level of effort that Americans will not abide.

President Trump was correct, therefore, to call attention in his State of the Union address to the “constructive talks” that his administration was engaged in “with a number of Afghan groups, including the Taliban.” 

Presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, a former ambassador to Afghanistan and Iraq, reported last week that the negotiators had agreed in principle to a framework to end the war.

“As we make progress in these negotiations,” President Trump explained, “we will be able to reduce our troop presence and focus on counter-terrorism.” On another occasion in the speech, he stated, succinctly, “Great nations do not fight endless wars.”

The editorial board of the New York Times – not normally thought of as a Trump ally – has reached a similar conclusion: “The troops have fought bravely in Afghanistan. It’s time to bring them home.”

A number of the president’s critics, however, disagree. The Brookings Institution’s Michael O’Hanlon, for example, claimed late last month that it “would be a mistake” to reduce the American military presence in Afghanistan. “There is still a strong case,” he wrote in the New York Times, “to sustain America’s longest war.”

Former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, equated a negotiated withdrawal to surrender. He urged the United States to pledge to leave U.S. troops “in Afghanistan as long as the current government wants them.”

In this case, at least, Trump is correct, and his critics are not: a negotiated end to the war in Afghanistan, and the removal of all U.S. forces from the country in a deliberate but expeditious fashion, is in our national interest. Remaining there indefinitely would be folly.

A U.S. military presence in Afghanistan is no longer necessary. Leaving U.S. troops there, without an achievable mission, and with no timetable for achieving it, is also deeply unpopular. A recent poll, for example, found that a majority of Americans would support a decision to remove all U.S. troops from Afghanistan within a year, while only 22 percent would oppose such a move.

To be sure, the decision to go into Afghanistan after 9/11 was justifiable. The object should have been to destroy the terrorist training camps in the country, to remove the terrorist-harboring Taliban government, and to send a clear message to others that such behavior would no longer be tolerated. If the Bush administration had defined its post-9 /11 goals appropriately, U.S. forces could have left soon after the post-Taliban government under Hamid Karzai was installed in Kabul.  

The counterterrorism rationale for remaining in Afghanistan 17 years after 9/11, however, doesn’t hold water. After all, as the Times’ editorial noted, “the initial American objective — bringing Bin Laden to justice — has been achieved. And subsequent objectives, to build an Afghan government that can stand on its own, protect the population and fight off its enemies, may not be achievable, and certainly aren’t achievable without resources the United States is unwilling to invest.”

Millions of Americans were attracted to Donald Trump’s instinct to get the United States out of foreign wars; indeed evidence suggests that it helped him in three electorally critical states – Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin – in November 2016. Since then, however, Trump has mostly expanded the conflicts he inherited, and he has engaged in other actions, including with respect to Iran and Venezuela, that bring us closer to new ones. His decision to surge additional U.S. forces into Afghanistan in August 2017 was a serious mistake, on the merits, as well as a dramatic betrayal of one of his most important campaign promises.

Last night’s speech, therefore, could signal a key turning point of Trump’s presidency, at least as it pertains to the longest of the nation’s seemingly endless wars.

Let’s hope so.

Want to End War? Privatize the VA.

A while back, the Cato Institute’s vice president for defense and foreign policy studies and director of health policy studies took to the pages of the New York Times to explain why privatizing the Veterans Health Administration would lead to less war and better health care for veterans. 

Today in The Hill, I discuss why this proposal has enduring relevance:

As Britain Tries to Learn from Iraq Mistakes, So Should the U.S. — by Privatizing the VA


Many Democrats remain angry with their presumptive presidential nominee Hillary Clinton for voting as a U.S. senator from New York to authorize the Iraq invasion in 2002. Clinton later wrote, “I had acted in good faith and made the best decision I could with the information I had … But I still got it wrong.”

There is a reform that could have given Clinton and other policymakers better information about the costs of invading Iraq – information that could conceivably have prevented the invasion altogether or at least shortened the U.S. occupation.

Read the whole thing.

U.S. Is Losing (Has Lost?) the War on Drugs in Afghanistan

After a decade of reconstruction and over $7 billion spent on counternarcotic operations, the results are in: the United States has lost the “war on drugs” in Afghanistan, although few U.S. officials are willing to admit it. According to this report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), poppy cultivation is actually at an all-time high, over 8 percent higher in 2013 than the previous peak in 2007.

And, with the United States slated to reduce its presence in Afghanistan, the problem is likely to get worse. According to the report, given the “deteriorating security in many parts of rural Afghanistan and low levels of eradication of poppy fields, further increases in cultivation are likely in 2014.”

Some observers are more optimistic, however. A letter from the U.S. embassy in Kabul states that the United States is “making good progress in building the capacity of [its] Afghan partners to design, lead, manage, and sustain over the long term strategic and tactical counternarcotics efforts addressing all stages of the drug trade.”

It’s difficult to understand their optimism. The embassy letter, which is included in the SIGAR report, admits that “poppy cultivation has shifted from areas where government presence is broadly supported and security has improved, toward more remote and isolated areas where the governance is weak and security is inadequate.”

Looking ahead, however, unless one believes—contrary to all evidence—that Afghan government control will expand into these areas as the U.S. military presence shrinks, that should translate to more poppy cultivation, not less. The embassy curiously refused to come to that conclusion.

Washington’s war on drugs in Afghanistan, like its war on drugs in the Americas, tries to defy the most basic law of economics: supply and demand. And it’s having tragic effects, as my colleague Ted Galen Carpenter has observed for years (including especially here and here). So long as the world’s appetite for drugs remains high, willing sellers will be there to satiate it.

It is hardly surprising that a prohibitionist strategy didn’t work in Afghanistan. It is surprising that some thought it would, or still might, given that it has failed everywhere else.

Overcommitted in Afghanistan

Saturday’s Washington Post ran a story titled “Lawmakers Push for a New Afghan Strategy.” Notably, the number of conservative policymakers looking for a change is growing significantly, as evidenced by the comments of the former governor of Utah (and possible presidential candidate), Republican John Huntsman and Rep. Charlie Bass (R-NH) on CNN yesterday.

If they would like a serious proposal that would bring our level of commitment in line with our interests in Afghanistan, they should have a look at this just-released paper [.pdf] by Joshua Rovner of the U.S. Naval War College and Austin Long of Columbia University. Rovner and Long take aim at the two central justifications for the present strategy–fear of “safe havens” and concerns over instability in Afghanistan putting Pakistan’s nuclear weapons up for grabs–and judge that the current strategy has little to do with those objectives. Instead, they propose a significant change in strategy that would secure our vital interests in that nation at a cost more commensurate with our interests.

One thing that policymakers should know about the issue is that public opinion is resoundingly in favor of withdrawal, not staying the current course indefinitely. As Rovner and Long point out, a March Washington Post poll showed that 73 percent of Americans thought that the United States should “withdraw a substantial number of U.S. combat forces from Afghanistan this summer” (although only 39 percent expected that Washington would do so).

Increasing numbers of Republicans seem to be recognizing that the mainstream neoconservative view that we need to stay in numbers in Afghanistan forever is out of step with both sound strategic judgment and public opinion. In a recent House vote on withdrawing from Afghanistan, the number of Republicans voting yes tripled from the last vote on the question (although still a low figure).

If policymakers want to know the responsible way to a more solvent strategy in Afghanistan, they should give the Rovner/Long paper a read. Or they can send staff to our event on the paper here at Cato June 29, featuring Rovner, my colleague Malou Innocent, Joshua Foust of the American Security Project, and Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution.