Yet the Afghan war, which is consuming more American lives than the fight against the Islamic State, was barely mentioned during the recent presidential campaign. While a punitive expedition was justified in 2001 to target the terrorist group al‐Qaeda and overthrow the Taliban regime for hosting terrorist training camps, President George W. Bush turned the mission into a haphazard nation‐building affair.
No one seems happy with the result, least of all Afghans. When I visited back in 2011 I didn’t find a single Afghan who had anything good to say about his or her government, at least who didn’t work for it.
Instead of getting America out of the war, President Barack Obama twice increased U.S. forces, to no long‐term benefit. After finally planning an exit he halted the withdrawal. Today there are still roughly 8400 U.S. military personnel—along with several thousand allied troops—on station in the Central Asian country.
Another 26,000 U.S. contractors are working there. Washington dropped 40 percent more bombs in 2016 than the year before, “the product of President Obama’s decision to loosen the rules of engagement, broaden the target list, and authorize U.S. commanders to expand the scope of U.S. air activity from defensive to offensive operations,” explained Daniel Depretis, a fellow at Defense Priorities. American combat forces have returned to areas they left, such as Helmand province.
Donald Trump long spoke sense about Afghanistan. In 2012 he termed the conflict “a complete and total disaster” and encouraged the U.S. to “get out of Afghanistan. We’ve wasted billion and billions of dollars and more importantly thousands of thousands of lives.”
The following year he said “Our troops are being killed by the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there.” Thus, Washington should “get out of Afghanistan.” In 2015 Trump asked: “at some point, are they going to be there for the next 200 years?”
However, President Trump is talking Neocon‐lite. He suggested, without further explanation, that we had to stay because Afghanistan is “right next to Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons.” Last year he declared: “I would stay in Afghanistan. I hate doing it. I hate doing it so much.” In December he told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani: “he would certainly continue to support Afghanistan security.”
Unfortunately, the Afghan government is losing despite such cooperation. In January Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko cited the challenge of “continued insecurity.” Although Washington has spent tens of billions of dollars so far on Afghan security forces, the latter are “basically playing whack‐a‐mole following the Taliban around Afghanistan.” The Kabul government controls less territory; its armed forces abandoned rural outposts to protect provincial capitals; and road connections between major cities are tenuous.
The most tempting policy might be to follow President Obama’s approach—add a few more troops, accompanied by lots of positive rhetoric. Yet a few more combat boots won’t transform a conflict which has continued in one form or another for years.
All that strategy would achieve is to put off the inevitable withdrawal, which will be seen as a retreat and ultimately defeat. But the loss would occur on the next president’s watch, albeit at the cost of hundreds or thousands of American and allied lives.
SIGAR, as Sopko is known, issued two reports in January, identifying the most serious problems including insecurity, corruption, unsustainability, drugs, and management. He painted an ugly picture. Although the hawks who dominate Washington criticized America’s “withdrawal” from the world under Barack Obama, he actually revived George W. Bush’s Afghan war.
Since Washington’s intervention in the aftermath of 9/11, roughly 2400 American military personnel have died and more than 20,000 been wounded attempting to bring democracy to Central Asia. Some 3500 military contractors have been killed, along with more than 1100 allied personnel. Overall the U.S. has poured more than $800 billion into the war. Set aside the costs of combat. The U.S. has spent $117.3 billion on relief and “reconstruction,” that is, attempting to create a functioning state in Afghanistan.
This is, noted SIGAR, “the largest expenditure to rebuild a single country in our nation’s history.” It is more than the Marshall Plan delivered to all of Europe. This financial tsunami was used to train Afghan security forces, buttress the Kabul government, and spur economic development.
Outlays continued as the U.S. began withdrawing its armed forces. Expenditures ran about $6 billion each of the last two years; they are scheduled to drop to $2 billion this year, but could be augmented once the Trump administration addresses the issue. Moreover, $8.4 billion previously appropriated remains to be disbursed.
Alas, Afghanistan’s development, stated SIGAR, “remains tenuous and incomplete,” which seems unduly generous judgment. Stated the inspector general: “the United States contributed significantly to the problems in Afghanistan by dumping too much money, too quickly, into too small an economy, with too little oversight.”
Overall, Afghan public confidence continues to fall. The Asia Foundation’s survey last year found 29.3 percent of people believed the country was moving in the right direction, down from 36.7 percent the year before. That’s the lowest level from the poll’s start in 2004.
Afghanistan came in at 111 of 113 in last year’s World Justice Project survey on the Rule of Law Index. The country rated particularly poorly on corruption and criminal justice. U.S.-funded programs found inadequate or poor government services ranging from prisons to schools to business licensure to vehicle registration.
Moreover, warned SIGAR, “Current economic growth remains far below what is necessary to increase employment and improve living standards, according to the IMF.” In particular, “per capita GDP is falling, employment opportunities are limited, and the budget is pressured. Afghanistan’s labor market is unable to absorb what the World Bank estimates are 400,000 people entering the work force every year.” A quarter of job‐seekers are unemployed, almost treble the number when the U.S. was increasing military force levels in 2012.
Afghanistan comes in at 183 of 190 countries in the World Bank’s 2017 Doing Business report: problems include getting construction permits, connecting to electricity, registering property, trading across borders, and enforcing contracts. Indeed, explained SIGAR, “It is considered the second‐to‐worst country in protecting minority investors.” The security challenges facing Afghanistan make regulatory reform even more important, but the many difficult changes required seem unlikely if not impossible.
The government’s fiscal sustainability is in doubt. Kabul does extremely poorly on revenue collection, and is still highly dependent on foreign donors—domestic revenues cover less than half of expenditures. Moreover, the afghani is depreciating. Indeed, reported SIGAR, “Donor countries were expected to finance approximately 69 percent of Afghanistan’s $6.5 billion 2016 national budget, mostly through grants.” Yet the government is almost singularly unable to competently manage large aid transfers.
The problems are many and overwhelming. SIGAR explained that “the questionable capabilities of the Afghan security forces and pervasive corruption are the most critical. Without capable security forces, Afghanistan will never be able to stand on its own. Without addressing entrenched corruption, the legitimacy and effectiveness of the Afghan government will remain in a perilous state.” Sopko warned that not resolving these two “risk areas” could cause the entire effort to fail.
Unfortunately, evidence backs his assessment of insecurity. Americans have provided $70.6 billion to enable the Afghans to defeat the Taliban—on top of Pentagon spending on the war itself. Fighting has increased. Reported SIGAR, “Armed clashes reached their highest level since UN reporting began in 2007, and marked a 22 percent increase over the same period in 2015.”
The government controls only 57.2 percent of the country’s districts, which hold about 64 percent of the population. The rest are contested or under Taliban control. The number under Kabul’s control is down 6.2 percent from just August and almost 15 percent from November 2015.
The numbers of the Afghan security forces are decreasing, while both casualties and the number of districts under insurgent control or influence are increasing.” DOD claimed that the Afghan security forces are doing better, while acknowledging that the police lag behind the army. But, explained SIGAR, “DOD reported the inability of ANDSF leaders across the forces to effectively command and control operations, coupled with poor discipline of junior leaders in some units, hinders effectiveness in nearly every ministry functional and ANDSF capability area.”
Overall, SIGAR pointed to “capability gaps in key areas such as intelligence, aviation, and logistics [which] are improving, but still hinder effectiveness.” Corruption, too, reduced the effectiveness of security forces, as both army and police personnel sold ammunition, fuel, and weapons to the Taliban. Afghan special forces are more effective but over‐used.
Moreover, the total number of security personnel has declined. The army is officially at 86.3 percent of its authorized strength and the police are at 94 percent. However, the army has significant problems with attrition and “ghost” employees. SIGAR noted that “Reports of ‘ghost’ soldiers and police continue to surface.” Last month 30,000 such “ghosts” were kicked off the rolls.
Problems of corruption, financial management, and narcotics production are equally severe. The money provided Kabul has not been well‐spent. Explained SIGAR, “The usual difficulties of contract management are magnified and aggravated by Afghanistan’s remoteness, active insurgency, widespread corruption, limited ministerial capability, difficulties in collecting and verifying data, and other issues.”
Why should the U.S. continue to pursue such a seemingly futile task at such great cost? One argument, advanced by Gen. Nicholson, among others, is to save the U.S. homeland from terrorist attack. He told the Senate that “our primary mission remains to protect the homeland by preventing Afghanistan from being used again as a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States or our allies.”
However, there appears to be no dearth of havens for terrorists. Indeed, U.S. military action in Afghanistan merely pushed al‐Qaeda into neighboring Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden resided.
Washington responded by killing him, not invading and occupying Pakistan. There are plenty of other chaotic lands and ungoverned spaces from which terrorists could operate. The U.S. does not have the resources and will to conquer and pacify all of them.
In fact, a Taliban victory, or a political settlement resulting in some form of stable authority throughout most of the country, would ironically offer an antidote to terrorism. The Taliban apparently was not happy with their guest, Osama bin Laden, for bringing the wrath of the U.S. down upon them, and the movement would not want to face U.S. intervention a second time.
Moreover, war is the perfect environment which births and fosters terrorist groups. Gen. Nicholson apparently missed the issue of causation when he testified before the Senate that Afghanistan “has the greatest concentration of terrorist organizations in the world.” More than 15 years of U.S. military action has not made the country terrorist‐free.
Otherwise the Taliban is of little concern to America. Of course, it would be wonderful if America could create a liberal future for Afghans who desire to escape the past. But that task has proved to be far beyond Washington’s capabilities and cannot justify continuing to expend American lives and monies.
Even the Foreign Policy Institute’s Adesnik admitted that there is no military “solution for dangerous divisions emerging in Kabul.” Moreover, “offensive power cannot deprive the Taliban of the sanctuary they continue to enjoy in Pakistan.” A country which also offers al‐Qaeda the sanctuary that it desires.
Retired Col. Daniel Davis of Defense Priorities noted that the “surge” under President Barack Obama accomplished “the protection of the Afghan government in Kabul and the security of select lines of communication elsewhere in the country. But it did nothing to quell the insurgency.” Unfortunately, replaying the past will result in the same future: permanent war, not victory.
An American withdrawal wouldn’t leave Kabul friendless and alone. Russia, India, Iran, and China also are interested in a nation which sits uncomfortably close in their neighborhood. All could promote stability and combat terrorism.
Washington policymakers remain committed to the war in Afghanistan. For them the conflict amounts to sending military personnel they don’t know from states they don’t visit to fight a war they don’t understand in a land they don’t know. President Donald Trump ran against just such an approach. His administration should wind up America’s longest war.