BRANDON J. WEICHERT | REAL CLEAR PUBLIC AFFAIRS
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, the ruins of 9/11 were still smoldering. Afghanistan was a landlocked country, riven by fierce ethno-religious tribal animosities. Internecine warfare defined every aspect of that society. For its part, the United States military was caught completely flat-footed by the 9/11 attacks. Due to this, the George W. Bush Administration embraced the strategy of deploying a small American force to support the larger forces of the anti-Taliban coalition in Afghanistan, the Northern Alliance.
The plan worked brilliantly.
Inevitably, the U.S.-backed Afghan tribals took Kabul by November of 2001. The war was over before it even began. Yes, the U.S. military proved unable to capture Bin Laden and his cohorts at the infamous Battle of Tora Bora. Although, there was little need for the Americans to expand their presence in Afghanistan after friendly Afghan forces had taken the country, al Qaeda had been shattered, and the Taliban were literally running for the hills. Most Taliban fighters, upon witnessing the prowess of U.S. forces in combat, simply abandoned the war and returned home.
Hamid Karzai, the U.S. government’s preferred choice to lead the newly formed post-Taliban government of Afghanistan, enjoyed widespread popularity in Afghanistan. Steve Coll documents in Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, that in 2002 representatives of the Taliban approached CIA personnel in Afghanistan with an offer: they would abandon their long-time alliance with al Qaeda and give up their claim to power in Afghanistan, so long as their representatives could have a role in the Karzai government. As Benjamin H. Friedman wrote in 2019, “In 2002, a stable peace seemed attainable.”
Not Knowing When to Leave the Party
Instead of packing up and going home, though, the United States implementedplans for long-range nation-building—at the same time that the Bush Administration was moving the bulk of U.S. forces out of Afghanistan and into Kuwait, in preparation for the invasion of Iraq. Concerns abounded about the minority of al Qaeda or Taliban “dead-enders” who might continue to resist the American-backed Karzai government. Washington’s leadership feared that the dead-enders might become a substantial force of resistance in Afghanistan. So, Washington embraced a counterinsurgency strategy to offset whatever influence anti-Karzai elements in the area might have continued to enjoy. Yet, the Taliban’s resurgence as an opponent to the U.S.-backed Karzai regime was not a fait accompli. A failure to understand Afghanistan and the George W. Bush Administration’s foolish approach of either being “with us or against us” prevented real peace from being achieved in Afghanistan.
After all, the United States had attacked Afghanistan in retribution for the 9/11 attacks. The primary American mission, therefore, was counterterrorism rather than counterinsurgency. At some point, though, Washington came to believe that terrorism was merely an outgrowth of a weak state. U.S. war planners reasoned that if the Afghan state could be strengthened; if the Karzai government could have a monopoly on force, then, terrorism would be quelled. And, the only way to accomplish such a lofty goal would be to clear Afghanistan of all remaining Taliban or al Qaeda elements; hold territory to prevent anti-American forces from growing there; and build that territory up in the name of the Kabul government. This was the basis of Obama era “surge” into Afghanistan. It ultimately proved to be a failure. What’s more, it was a wasteful endeavor since U.S. national interests were ill-served by trying to remake Afghanistan into Arizona.
Counterinsurgency “offers a specious way to solve the problem of irresolution and attaches counterterrorism to other governance goals that can make [counterinsurgency] seem more palatable [than counterterrorism.” Counterterrorism, on the other hand, “can successfully keep terrorists on their heels, disrupting the meeting, training, and other acts of organizational maintenance that make them effective purveyors of distant violence.” The American decision to use counterinsurgency over the more limited and cost-effective strategy of counterterrorism has proven to be Washington’s undoing.
Over time, the U.S.-backed Karzai government became mired in a series of corrupt dealings. An already weak central government was further weakened by its own corruption and incompetence. To compound matters, the large (and growing) American presence in Afghanistan became associated with the increasingly unpopular Kabul government. This, in turn, led to increasing levels of resistance against the United States. Afghanistan went from being one of America’s quickest and most brilliant victories to a painful quagmire.
Victory is Not Relative
Recently, it was revealed that the U.S. government engaged in a long-term, systemic cover-up regarding the true costs of the War in Afghanistan to the American people. American leaders consistently proclaimed successes were being enjoyed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan when, in fact, no such successes had occurred (at least not to justify the more than $1 trillion price tag of the ongoing War in Afghanistan). According to reports from the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the US and its allies “struggled to define their mission, that the US does not have a sufficient understanding of Afghanistan, and that the US has wasted massive amounts of money trying to stabilize the still-unstable country.”
Bob Woodward wrote in his 2010 book, Obama’s Wars, that then-President Barack Obama doubted that the United States could ever “understand” Afghanistan. Obama correctly observed that a foreigner trying to understand Afghanistan’s ethno-religious tribal divisions would be akin to a Martian trying to comprehend the dynamic politics of Obama’s hometown of Chicago: no matter how hard an outsider tried, they could never grasp the complexities of such an environment. Therefore, success at changing the political circumstances on the ground would always be fleeting.
Afghanistan: Tag, You’re It!
Due to the inability of U.S. leaders to effectively differentiate between the Taliban, an indigenous group of Afghans representing the majority Pashtun-speaking tribes, and al Qaeda, a band of foreign religious zealots, has ensnared the United States in an unwinnable war. The Trump Administration must now totally reorient itself away from Afghanistan. The country cannot be saved from itself. A political solution must next be tried: one that works the Taliban into the wider political order, such as it is, in Afghanistan. What’s more, Washington must use regional powers, notably Pakistan, Russia, China, and even India to secure a lasting political resolution to the seemingly endless, costly War in Afghanistan. If war is an extension of politics through other means, let us acknowledge that 20 years of warfare is more than enough to create a political solution to the fighting.
The Americans must focus on counterterrorism. Toward that end, small Special Forces and paramilitary teams tasked with preventing the resurgence of al Qaeda or other terrorist groups could remain poised to strike into Afghanistan. Yet, there is no need to maintain a large, lumbering presence of conventional U.S. forces—even as advisers. This is especially true, as the extent of the inefficiency of many of the U.S.-trained Afghan forces becomes apparent. Between the ongoing drone program and the ability of U.S. Special Forces to deploy anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice, keeping U.S. forces in Afghanistan; continuing to help prop up a hopelessly corrupt (and weak) central government in Kabul, is not in America’s best strategic interests.
After more than $1 trillion and nearly 3,000 U.S. troops (as well as nearly 4,000 private military contractors) being killed in the war, it is time for a serious change in U.S. policy in Afghanistan. President Trump must end this endless war—and ensure that Afghanistan becomes someone else’s quagmire. Victory in Afghanistan will mean America getting peace with honor rather than unconditional surrender from its foes. This is what the last two U.S. presidents have left the American people; it’s the best solution that President Trump will get to this untenable problem.