Afghanistan — What’s Left to Win?
The question isn’t “How long will the treaty last?” but “Why are we still there?”
“A universal peace … is in the catalogue of events, which will never exist but in the imaginations of visionary philosophers, or in the breasts of benevolent enthusiasts.” —James Madison (1792)
In a casual conversation with a former colleague, a national-security advisor, he asked (rhetorically) how long I thought the Taliban “peace treaty” would last. I responded: “Long enough for the Taliban to resupply and reload. What else do they have to do?”
Predictably, within hours of the agreement being signed, Taliban leader Mawlawi Hibatullah Akhundzada’s Islamist rebels resumed their attacks against President Ashraf Ghani’s Afghan government, which is refusing to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners — Ghani’s best bargaining chip. The Taliban did suspended their attacks on Americans — for the moment — but we are nonetheless obliged to defend our peace partners.
Indeed, responding to the attacks, earlier today the U.S. military conducted a series of defensive air strikes against the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The strikes were our first since the signing of a peace deal on Saturday — a loud shot across the Islamists’ bow.
As to the original question, the most relevant query isn’t “How long will the treaty last?” but “Why are we still there?”
That’s a tough question, and one that Donald Trump asked when he was a presidential candidate in 2016 — and has asked repeatedly since then. He believes it’s time to stop putting American military personnel in the crossfire between the Taliban and Afghan government with no clear definition of what constitutes “winning.”
Our mission in Afghanistan, Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF), began 19 years ago, three weeks after the 9/11 Islamist attack on our nation. It concluded, in name at least, in 2014. From that time until Saturday’s peace deal, it became Operation Freedom’s Sentinel.
The original objective of eradicating radical Islamic elements was clear — specifically neutralizing those that posed direct threats to the U.S. and our allies and, of strategic importance, direct threats to regional stability.
But that objective, as is often the case with military operations, drifted — and the resulting mission creep evolved into peacekeeping, nation building, and democratization.
Since OEF was launched, American casualties have mounted. As of today, 2,219 Americans have been killed in Afghanistan (1,833 in combat) and 20,092 wounded. The cost to U.S. taxpayers totals almost $900 billion.
Similarly, Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF), which began in 2003, concluded in name in 2010, but U.S. forces remained for the same triad of noble purposes. In 2014, Operation Inherent Resolve was launched to combat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which had filled the power vacuum created when Barack Obama withdrew American forces. That ill-timed decision also resulted in an epic humanitarian crisis displacing millions of people.
During OIF, there were 4,419 Americans killed (3,481 in combat) and 31,994 wounded.
We have expended a lot of blood and treasure in the region, which makes withdrawal particularly difficult — and raises the question: “Blood and treasure for what?”
And that is what Trump has wondered, as have we, in recent years.
There is, of course, strategic value in peacekeeping, nation building, and democratization, but is the enormous expense, including the expense of American lives and severe injuries, commensurate with the national-security value received, particularly in Afghanistan? The question of “winning” is really a question of “winning what?”
Formulating foreign policy and military strategy is akin to a complex multi-dimensional chess match — except the objectives are rarely black and white, and the targets are constantly moving. That is especially true in the Long War against what we call “Jihadistan” — the borderless nation of Islamic extremists.
As our military analyst Charles Paige, a former combat Marine officer with years of deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq, notes, while Americans want “decisive and definitive assessments, foreign policy in general — and Afghanistan in particular — doesn’t lend itself to binary and linear conclusions. It’s shades of gray, not black and white.”
That notwithstanding, President Trump is clearly much more serious about the security of Americans and our vital national interests in the region than was his predecessor.
Evidence of the Trump administration’s clarity is its endgame strategy with Turkey initiated last October. And unlike the Obama/Kerry “Iran Nuke Deal,” which basically appeased the mullahs by sending them a planeload of cash and allowing them to progress toward construction of the “Islamic Bomb,” Trump’s deal with Iran was much more succinct and terminal.
First, the administration restored sanctions against Iran until it denuclearizes.
Second, Trump authorized killing the terrorist leaders who seek to kill Americans — including the strike against Gen. Qasem Soleimani, leader of Iran’s elite terrorist Corps-Quds forces, and his Iraqi counterpart, paramilitary commander Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes. During Operation Iraqi Freedom, more than 600 U.S. military personnel were killed in Iraq by Soleimani’s Iranian-backed militants.
Apparently Soleimani thought he was more bullet/bomb-proof than Islamic State terrorist leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who we sent to hell last October.
Our presence and operations in Iraq, in regard to Iran and Syria, clearly serve our vital interests in the region. In 2008, then-presidential candidate John McCain was asked how long we should stay in Iraq; he replied, “One hundred years.” He was skewered for that response, but those of us who understand the regional interests understood exactly what McCain meant, and he was right in principle.
But when it comes to Afghanistan, is it better for our military personnel to stand in the gap between the Taliban and the Afghan government, or to leave civilian men, women, and children in that gap? It is questions like these, which venture from national-interest questions deep into moral territory, that make the answer very difficult.
As for the Afghan treaty, the Trump administration has agreed to a 14-month timeline for withdrawing most U.S. forces, if the Taliban will honor their security commitments — which, so far, they haven’t. We currently have 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, and the administration plans to reduce that number to 8,600 over the next four months.
This timeframe falls within the framework of what former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger referred to in the Vietnam drawdown treaty as a “decent interval.”
The Wall Street Journal editorial board notes: “Our forces have denied terrorists a safe haven and protected the homeland from another large-scale attack. We have killed the al Qaeda leadership, including Osama bin Laden. We have assisted a Kabul government that, while far from perfect, is free and democratic. We have brought basic education to millions of young Afghans who never had it. And we have trained and equipped Afghan security forces to defend themselves. No one should diminish the sacrifices that Americans have made with their lives and long deployments by dismissing these achievements.”
Defense Secretary Mark Esper asserts that the treaty “is the best chance we have ever had to end this conflict, to ensure Afghanistan never again becomes a safe haven for terrorists who want to attack America, and to bring our troops home.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared, “We will not squander what they and you have won through blood, sweat, and tears.”
Asked if our planned departure from Afghanistan is similar to the Obama administration’s failed effort to withdraw, Pompeo said: “What we’ve done is fundamentally different than what the Obama administration did. Indeed, we accomplished what they tried to do, but could not. They never got the Taliban to break with al-Qa’ida and they never got a commitment that says, ‘If you execute the following conditions based — that is, if the violence levels come down; that is, if the security posture for the United States of America is reduced — then and only then will we begin to deliver a commensurate footprint inside of your country.'”
Pompeo summed up the threat objective as follows: “Our mission set is to protect America from the threat of terrorism from Afghanistan, to reduce our cost. I was a CIA director. I was a soldier. I want to see fewer Americans having to make their third, fourth, and fifth trip there and fewer Americans coming home injured, maimed, or worse, yet never having a chance to be with their loved ones again. That’s the president’s mission. That’s what this agreement is aiming to achieve.”
Will it achieve those goals? We should all hope so.
And a footnote regarding some of the political opposition: All of those military and civilian contracts represent big dollars in congressional districts and states across the nation. To understand some of the most ardent objections to exiting Afghanistan, follow the money.