• A.J. Manuzzi

Afghanistan's Long, Bright Dark

"You have the watches. We have the time."

A saying among Afghan locals, reflecting decades of foreign intrusion, attributed to a captured Taliban fighter. It means that the foreign forces will one day leave, while the locals will always stay.

Last month, a series of previously unpublished memos and interviews regarding the United States-led military intervention in Afghanistan were made public in an article published by The Washington Post. These interviews and documents, like the Pentagon Papers that preceded them by half a decade, revealed a new, unflattering history of the American role in the conflict and offered new explanations for why successive presidential administrations of both parties failed to deliver on their promises to end the war. They suggest the damning conclusion that there was no U.S. consensus on the objectives of the war and no consensus on how to get out of Afghanistan. Yet, this war has continued for almost two decades, as if on autopilot. As U.S. officials constantly claim the war was “turning a corner,” one is left to note that we are actually, in fact, going in circles.

The costs of a continued American military commitment in Afghanistan vastly outweigh the gains that U.S. forces have achieved. Extremism in Afghanistan and Central Asia is increasingly resilient; Pakistan is actively playing both sides of the war, thus increasing the burden on the U.S. while undermining its counterterrorism grand strategy; and the war is undermining America’s ability to pursue more important national interests. Continued involvement in the war is a mistake.

The logic of this claim is complex. In an ideal world, the value of an enduring military commitment to Afghanistan would be the installation of a stable and democratic government that respects international law and the eradication of the terrorist forces in the country. However, this war has not transpired in an ideal way. While the initial objective of bringing Osama bin Laden to justice was successful, the equally important goal of wiping out his terrorist syndicates has failed, and anti-American sentiment fueled by this protracted violence has inspired new villains.

Secondly, because Pakistan shelters some of the terrorists the U.S. seeks to destroy, the U.S. is being forced to carry more of the burden. Devoting more resources to Afghanistan means fewer resources are available elsewhere. A political objective that declines in value with time should only be pursued when a state has the resources (including allies) and the desire to engage in unlimited conflict (ending in unconditional surrender or regime change) that will reshape global or regional order. Otherwise, states will leave themselves ill-equipped to govern the aftermath. As Afghanistan is arguably a secondary interest in the region to the India/Pakistan dispute and the aims of the Afghan war were intended to be more limited (as opposed to the global War on Terror’s less limited goals), the benefits of a continued military commitment do not outweigh the costs of such an entanglement.

The Taliban’s Resurgence Despite U.S. Intervention

In the early days of the American invasion in 2001, the Sunni Islamic fundamentalist political and military organization the Taliban were on the ropes, with many fighters either dead or fleeing to sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan. Yet the organization rallied, spending the next few years regrouping and preparing for guerilla war before launching an insurgency campaign in 2006. Today, the Taliban holds sizable territory and either controls or contests slightly under half of the country’s territory. The Taliban’s resurgence complicates the conflict by undoing years of progress made by the American troops and their Afghan partners.

Since this resurgence, it has become more evident that the contribution the U.S. forces can make in fighting the Taliban is limited, if not entirely futile, and thus not worth the cost in lives, money, and political capital that could have better been spent addressing other interests. Because the coalition forces have struggled to deter the Taliban and its associated organizations from capturing territory and diversifying its holdings, these extremist groups have been increasingly effective at striking in Kabul and other major metro areas, allowing them to continue to inspire fear in the entire country. Through this diversification of tactics and targeting of major cities, the Taliban is able to maximize both casualties and exposure, which builds fear in the public and deters locals from taking up arms against the Taliban. This fear then complicates the U.S. mission by presumably depleting the coalition of potential Afghan recruits, thus shifting the burden even more on the U.S.’s shoulders.

The more the U.S. has to carry the coalition, the more protracted and bloody the war is likely to be. This spells more trouble for the U.S. than the Taliban because conventional theories of insurgency such as Mao Zedong’s assertions in On Protracted War argue that radical insurgent groups are able to recruit true believers and unite party, army, and sympathizers, inspiring them to continue fighting long after they have lost much. On the other hand, counterinsurgencies have finite resources, competing factions within coalitions, and competing interests that may incentivize them to withdraw or be divided enough to fail to achieve their stated goals. As a prime model of the Maoist insurgency, the Taliban’s ability to recruit Pashtuns and make even a coalition victory so protracted as to exact exceptional costs would ensure that any gains from a victory would be so far removed from the beginning of the war as to be effectively meaningless.

The Taliban also resembles another successful historical insurgency. In their appeals to the Afghan people, the Taliban sew distrust of NATO and the Afghan government by offering “a form of justice with less corruption” than the Afghan government. They have also begun to emphasize Pashtun nationalism more since their 2006 insurgency campaign. This is reminiscent of the way that the guerilla insurgency in Vietnam sought to undermine the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem during the Vietnam War. The guerillas expressed to the public in their Dau Tranh campaign that the South Vietnamese regime was kleptocratic, bigoted against Buddhists, nepotistic, and corrupt to turn soft regime supporters into apathetic neutrals. The insurgency followed these statements up with small raids against the government to depress South Vietnamese morale and alter public opinion to view the Diem regime as inept.

While the Taliban has not engaged in the same types of small raids to expose governance issues, its appeals to Pashtun nationalism and emphasis on government corruption make for an effective strategy. This is because it allows them to target both true believers and those on the fence who may dislike both sides but could be compelled to dislike the government more if they perceived it as corrupt. This tactic and the Taliban’s borrowing of Maoist insurgency strategy indicate that the Taliban is well-organized and adept at earning sympathy. This should worry American strategists because it could garner allies and sympathizers who could fund the (already well-funded) Taliban’s activities and disrupt international consensus condemning the Taliban, undermining American strategy.

The Taliban’s wealth and organization make it unique. While an estimated 90-95 percent of insurgencies are ultimately defeated, various factors may shape the duration of an insurgency. According to the RAND Corporation’s Ben Connable and Martin Libicki, the longest-lasting insurgencies tend to be well-funded, foreign-backed ones that can find safe haven in a nearby country. Also, in the Taliban’s favor is an established trend that weak and developing democracies are less likely to defeat insurgencies. The Taliban meets each of these criteria.

First, the Taliban has exploited the booming drug trade and Afghanistan’s status as the opium capital of the world to finance its operations and continues to do so despite the U.S. having spent over $9 billion on eradication programs. Secondly, Pakistan has served as a safe haven for members of the Taliban, especially during their recalibration before their 2006 insurgency. With the opium trade continuing to boom and Pakistan’s continued defiance of U.S. requests to do more on counterterrorism, the Taliban is likely to only solidify these advantages, thus increasing the duration of the conflict even more and thereby decreasing the value of the political objective for the U.S. Unless the U.S. is willing to do more to confront Pakistan on the issue of counterterrorism, the Taliban will be able to extend the conflict and break U.S. morale.

The Pakistan Problem

A second major issue that should make the U.S. wary of continued intervention is that a regional partner is playing both sides of the war. Often described as “Best Frenemies,” the U.S. and Pakistan have taken an increasingly confrontational tone lately on the issue of counterterrorism. The main problem with the U.S. Af-Pak strategy is that it has tailored its policy towards the Pakistan it wants rather than the one it has. Current strategy requires Pakistan to abandon its policy of safe haven for the Taliban, especially the Haqqani network (the Taliban’s Pakistan-based offshoot guerilla group) while continuing to support the counterinsurgency as the main supply route for the U.S. and NATO. But Pakistan, already facing trouble from its east with an increasingly aggressive India, is reluctant to make more enemies or back a U.S. strategy that it envisions as doomed to fail. Pakistan’s lingering doubts about the durability of the Afghan government also give it a reason to sit tight.

Yet the U.S. has been unable to change Pakistan’s conception of its national interests. In fact, it has done its fair share of alienating Pakistan through its actions. Inaccurate American drone strikes that killed civilians have offended Pakistan while on the other side, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) intelligence agency has been found to have deeper ties to the Taliban than previously thought. As such, the U.S. finds itself in a bit of a quagmire. It finds itself needing support from Pakistan to defeat the insurgency but well aware that its previous support for Pakistan had been exploited to undermine the very strategy they were supposed to be cooperating on. It finds itself ever more dependent on Pakistan whenever it becomes more ambitious in Afghanistan. The uncertainty that could arise from a nuclear weapon owning ally on the border of another nuclear state behaving in a way that threatens regional stability means that the only solution to this problem is to control what can be controlled and engage Pakistan on issues where it is more firmly on America’s side.

The Hell of Good Intentions

Through the lens of nation-building, the war in Afghanistan cannot be viewed as anything less than a complete failure with little future prospect of success. The United States military can do many things like win wars (or at least it did prior to Vietnam) and forge coalitions, but it cannot turn Afghanistan into a stable and functioning state, much less a modern, Western-style democracy (as some advocated) in a timely manner, even at the cost of $45 billion annually. Doing so would have required forging a political culture that would be entirely new to a country that has never had a tradition of liberalism or democracy. The Taliban has continued to undermine Afghan elections through the targeting of election facilities and campaign rallies for violence even as the American security presence has increased, and American investment in rebuilding the Afghan security forces has increased. Progress on establishing a stable government and society has, in turn, receded in recent years.

Moreover, the Kabul government controls less territory and insecurity, corruption, and inequality continue to plague the country, a byproduct of continually weak state institutional capacity. Transparency International ranks Afghanistan 172nd out of 180 countries in anti-corruption. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) warns that, “Corruption has eroded state legitimacy, weakening the government’s ability to enlist popular support against the insurgency, discouraging foreign investment and economic growth, as well as seriously diminishing Afghan military capability.” Washington “failed to recognize that billions of dollars injected into a small, under-developed country, with limited oversight and strong pressures to spend, contributed to the growth of corruption.” This institutional weakness and failure has served as a catalyst for continued violence as well, as the UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) reported a record high number of civilian casualties from July to September of this year, a 42 percent increase in just one year. It has become clear that Afghanistan has become a more fractured, unequal, and insecure country as a result of the U.S. military presence.

At the same time, the costs of a continued military and nation-building presence are escalating. According to SIGAR and the Department of Defense (DoD), American casualties in Afghanistan have reached a five-year high and insurgent casualties are increasing as well. Billions have been spent on this project in frustration that the counterterrorism and state building goals had not been met. Yet in reality, those goals were never realistic to begin with. The value of the political objective in Afghanistan was so difficult to discern because the political objective itself was next to impossible. Recognizing this reality will allow the U.S. to pivot to interests that are more attainable and contribute more to global peace.

The Need for America?

Some scholars and practitioners of international relations claim that terrorism poses a unique risk to national security and therefore whatever benefits may be derived from withdrawing would improve the morale of American extremist foes, helping them grow and foster instability. Although the Afghan government only holds slightly over half of the country, this presence prevents the Taliban from training al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups in these places. With the Afghan government almost certain to fall if the U.S. were to withdraw, these scholars and pundits argue that the Taliban would come to power and begin hosting terror groups again. They believe a low-cost counterterrorism effort in Afghanistan is a necessary use of American resources and tools of foreign policy.

According to DoD, there are at least 20 terrorist organizations already that reside in Afghanistan. Additionally, the rise of the Haqqani network within the Taliban raises concerns because it is closely tied to international terrorism. These groups, opponents of withdrawal argue, will have space to operate without the threat of airstrikes or intelligence gathering against them on the ground, allowing them to more effectively hide, train, recruit, create propaganda, and carry out smaller scale attacks.

Of course, given the circumstances under which the U.S. declared this war, one would be remiss not to consider the possibility that the American homeland or U.S. regional allies could be endangered by any of the terrorist networks in Afghanistan. The Islamic State and al-Qaeda have a lengthy history of carrying out attacks on the U.S. and both control ever-increasing swaths of territory in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region. Experts at RAND conclude that a U.S. withdrawal would widen the civil war, creating new opportunities for these major extremist terrorist organizations to hold local territory, allowing them to become better organized. At least some high-ranking American military officials appear to take the potential threat of another 9/11 if the U.S. withdraws quite seriously. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford argued to keep American troops in Afghanistan, stating that “were we not to put the pressure on Al Qaeda, [the Islamic State], and the other groups in the area that we are putting on today, it is our assessment that, in a period of time, their capability would reconstitute, and they have the intent and they, in the future, would have the capability to do what we saw on 9/11.” If the U.S. loses the desire or ability to counter these groups in Afghanistan without enlisting a trusted and viable Afghan partner, the argument goes, terrorist groups will be undeterred and will be able to obtain the resources and time to plan and carry out larger, more global attacks like 9/11.

For these critics, pulling out would fail to recognize that the value of the political objective is high. Pulling out would represent an admission that the jihadists won the War on Terror, a result intolerable to those who witnessed another superpower, the Soviet Union, fall from power in the proverbial “graveyard of empires” that is Afghanistan. To these critics, the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan helped shape the next ten years of international politics, forcing a reconfiguration of the global order. They fear a second jihadist triumph would do the same today by reducing the credibility of the U.S. to its War on Terror allies.

Critics like General Stanley McChrystal also argue that the state of a stronger extremist presence in Afghanistan as a result of a U.S. withdrawal would lead to greater instability in the region.Because Afghanistan has such powerful and volatile neighbors in the increasingly unstable region of South Asia, an unstable Afghanistan could mean that the various warring extremist factions could flee to Pakistan or India and commit acts of terror in those countries. This could spark a major power war drawing in both of those nuclear powers and their allies, which would be disastrous for the U.S. interest in deterring terrorism in the region and promoting a peaceful resolution to the India-Pakistan conflict and the contentions over the Durand Line that serves as the border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. It is for this reason that proponents of sustained American military commitment view the American role in the region as one promoting stability through fighting terror.

As uncertainty (of the possibility of another 9/11) was both the motivating factor of the war, it makes sense as a natural explanation for why the U.S. should continue to maintain a military presence. It can be paralyzing for a superpower like the United States to observe the fallout of its prospective withdrawal from afar. Thus for defenders of the status quo, the devil the U.S. knows (a continued protracted conflict) is preferable to the devil it does not (an Afghanistan whose stability that the U.S. has little influence on and the state’s potential descent into control by terror factions).

Terrorism is Not the Fear it Once Was

While the argument for a sustained, continued military presence in Afghanistan is logical, its diagnosis of the scale and nature of global and regional terror is not up to date. While 9/11 stands out in the collective memory of Americans for good reason, its use as a barometer for future terrorist attacks could not possibly be less recommended.

First, the notion that al-Qaeda and the Taliban would be in lockstep with each other, hell-bent on installing a state of safe haven ignores that the relationship between the two organizations is more complex and less cooperative than it is said to be. In recent years, the Taliban has become less dependent on al-Qaeda for support. Its involvement in the drug trade and funding by Pakistan, Iran, and Russia, as well as Gulf donor networks, ensure its financial stability for the foreseeable future independent of support by al-Qaeda, which was keeping the Taliban financially afloat back in 2001. Furthermore, when bin Laden visited Afghanistan, the Taliban demanded that he refrain from issuing bombastic rhetoric. The parties also do not appear to be in agreement over relations with other terrorist groups. For example, while neither party supports the aims of ISIS, only al-Qaeda has forcibly challenged their affiliate in Afghanistan, the Islamic State in the Khorasan. While their relationship has been mutually supporting, it has often been uneasy. The two organizations’ disagreements on tactics and scale and decreasing incentives for financial cooperation call into question whether the Taliban would even want al-Qaeda back.

Secondly, the notion that the war has prevented another 9/11 from happening misrepresents how terrorist groups work and the aims of the Taliban. What made 9/11 unique was the scale of violence and the fact that the U.S. was attacked even as it was not at war. Of the ten worst attacks in the past 45 years, 9/11 is the only one to take place outside of a war zone. Once one takes into consideration the various transportation security measures enacted since 9/11 and this fact, it becomes evident that another 9/11 was never going to happen even before the War on Terror and the original 9/11 was an outlier, not a warning of things to come.

The Taliban does not have international ambitions. The vast majority of the its military operations take place in Afghanistan, not the U.S. This is another point of contention between al-Qaeda and the Taliban: the Taliban has never bought into the global jihadist campaign of al-Qaeda. Its goals remain internal and thus pose no direct security threat to the U.S. and little security threat to the region. Therefore, the disproportionate fear and military and intelligence resources proponents of continued intervention call for are misplaced.

Finally, an unlimited borderless war against an ideology rather than a limited intervention against the perpetrators of 9/11 and their backers did not have to be the choice the U.S. made and now represents one of many it could have made, all of which would cost less. For example, the U.S. could have more effectively targeted the financial holdings and supply chains of the terrorist groups to depress morale rather than spend 18 years trying and failing to bully them on the battlefield. Even if one did believe terror constituted a direct threat to the U.S. homeland, the nation could have invested more heavily in intelligence and cooperation with allies. Instead, the decision to fight a boundless war has only depressed American morale while uplifting that of the Taliban and extremists. More of the same strategy will produce more of the same results, and at the cost that America has already paid thus far, there is no cost that would be worth the U.S. accepting for a hollow victory.


The 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed the House of Representatives by a staggering margin of 420 votes to one. The lone dissenter, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) evoked the ghosts of Vietnam, even after the Gulf War’s triumph: “We must be careful not to embark on an open-ended war with neither an exit strategy nor a focused target. We cannot repeat past mistakes.” Her warning thus far has proven to be prophetic. The War on Terror that President Bush ignited has done preciously little to address the inflated threat of terror facing the U.S. and has transformed from a limited defense of American national interests and America’s own national security into an aggressive grand strategy of reckless military intervention and uninformed national building that has destabilized the Middle East at the cost of millions of lives, American, Iraqi, Afghan, coalition, and many more.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in Afghanistan, the war that is now as old as some of its combatants and has now endured as long as the two world wars, the Persian Gulf War, the Spanish-American War, the Korean War, and the Philippine-American War combined. Eighteen years later, the U.S. is engaged in counterterrorism operations in 80 different countries and on every continent but Antarctica. The price tag of this global effort checks in at some $6 trillion and more than a million veterans who served in a theater of the War on Terror are eligible for disability compensation from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Eighteen years and thousands of American casualties later, Afghanistan’s heavy cost to the U.S. stands in stark contrast to the current state of stalemate, a testament to a grand strategy not attuned to the need to focus America’s limited resources on core strategic issues and absent a coherent exit strategy or theory of victory.

This phenomenon of American policymakers of both parties succumbing to the sunk cost fallacy ultimately has detracted from America’s ability to pursue more central interests and check the ambitions of less interventionist Great Powers. While the U.S. has been mired in conflict and nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan for nearly two decades, China and Russia have aggressively built up their capabilities and exploited these American misadventures, doing all they can to undermine the credibility of American security guarantees in Europe and the Pacific. With the unipolar moment over and American credibility in tatters around the globe, this new era of multipolarity calls upon the U.S. to focus its attention away from Afghanistan.

Fundamentally, the case for staying in Afghanistan is based on the uncertainty of the future of the country and the region after a U.S. withdrawal. At the same time, the case for withdrawing requires a sober analysis of what has happened thus far through 18 years of conflict and recognition of the fact that the United States is not going to win in a swift and decisive manner even if it summoned another surge. As it is evident that the costs of war would have to increase in order to maintain the sort of long-term military commitment that would be necessary to obtain even a shallow victory while the benefits are fewer in number, even a rational cost-benefit analysis would have to acknowledge that this war is not worth continuing to wage.

Morally, it is appalling that American soldiers are being sacrificed for objectives that are either unclear, impossible to be achieved, or dramatically overblown. It should fill every American with rage that their government lied to them and to those soldiers. It should fill every American with rage that they were sent into harm’s way without a coherent strategy for victory in war and peace. It should fill every American with rage that American drones were accidentally killing innocent civilians for years in a war they did not choose to fight and were helpless to flee.

But with every dismissal of the Afghanistan Papers, Americans become more and more desensitized to the grave horror of war and American foreign policy becomes ever more militarized and thus ever more reckless. When America’s role in the Middle East and the world becomes more militarized and war ceases to become a last resort, everyone loses. But turning that tide requires being willing to make difficult decisions and admit failure, as well as challenge the status quo in Washington that says that despite decades of perpetual war, America is always only a stone’s throw away from the peril of “isolationism.” A status quo that sees greater horror in calculated withdrawal than thoughtless destructive deployment. It requires making clear that American values are as important as ever but they cannot come at the barrel of a gun. This alternative worldview is not one of isolationism but rather one of lawful and peaceful cooperation against shared threats to humanity like climate change and inequality. Every dollar spent on endless war in Afghanistan is one that cannot be spent on these noble pursuits. It is time to give peace a chance.

A.J. Manuzzi is a third-year double-major in the School of Public Affairs and the School of International Service. He is Deputy Editor for Domestic Affairs for the Agora.

Image Courtesy U.S. Army, Flickr


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