There is No Afghanistan Strategy
President Trump’s foreign policy (or lack thereof) has been shown to be wildly inconsistent. It seemed to most citizens that Trump’s “America First” policy would result in less engagement abroad, and even a possible shake-up regarding whether America would continue in its commitment to lead the liberal world order. But that assumes they could discern any sort of “Doctrine” from Trump’s utter ignorance of foreign affairs and his rambling statements. While some on the right were disappointed by Trump’s Syrian missile strikes, it is actually fairly common for candidates to speak in more isolationist tones during campaigns and then move away from them once actually governing.
While some of Trump’s foreign policy shifts, such as being warier of Putin and accepting NATO, are more orthodox and welcome, I had personally somewhat hoped that he would take a more skeptical approach to American action abroad. In any case, one foreign area has been almost completely overlooked by citizens, scholars, and the press: Afghanistan. There was very little mention of it on the campaign trail and Obama seemed to hope that everyone would forget about the conflict, even as it became America’s longest war.
Afghanistan has cost us hundreds of billions of dollars and thousands of casualties. Yet even political leaders who lavish praise onto our veterans would rather not discuss Afghanistan or what our military strategy is there. That’s because there essentially is not one.
No doubt you have heard about the “Mother of All Bombs” that killed 90 or so ISIS militants a few weeks ago, in part because the media loves to salivate over our military weapons (Brian Williams, anyone?). But as Afghan envoy to Pakistan Omar Zakhilwal has stated, “If big bombs were the solution we would be the most secure place on earth today.” Needless to say, Afghanistan is not a secure state.
Far from being a “mission accomplished,” the Taliban at this moment “controls or exerts influence over areas holding about one-third of the Afghan population.” Is this what we have to show for over 15 years of war? America has already lost. Afghanistan remains one of the poorest and most corrupt nations in the world. General John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan, has recently asked Congress for five thousand more troops to assist in the fight. But troop levels now are far below the heights of the “surge” in 2011 and that effort failed. How can any troop level succeed now? The short answer is that it cannot.
So, we cannot win the war in Afghanistan, but we would lose too much face if we were to admit this and pull out. Apparently, policymakers do not want to face the shame of another Vietnam. We may have the strongest military in the world, but it is not a magic wand. Even so, losing the war would undermine much of the justification that hawks in Congress and the Pentagon use to maintain our absurdly large “defense” budget. In Afghanistan, then, we are left with the same terrible options that Obama had. He clearly wanted to leave, but he embarrassingly had to keep delaying the final date of troop withdrawal again and again as it became clear that we would never turn the tide. Technically, our “withdrawal” was completed in 2016, although I certainly do not remember hearing much about it, and about eight thousand troops remain with no plans to bring them home.
It is time to face the inevitable and cut off our losses in blood and treasure now. Keeping it out of public sight is not enough. We should admit that the war has been lost and bring our troops back. This outcome can only be delayed, not avoided. Why not now?