Last week, three U.S. service members were killed in an improvised explosive device attack near Bagram Air Base, an operation subsequently claimed by the Taliban. The deaths of Christopher Slutman of Newark, Delaware, Robert A. Hendriks of Locust Valley, New York, and Benjamin S. Hines of York, Pennsylvania take the number of U.S. troop fatalities in Afghanistan this year to seven.
It’s the latest grim reminder of a war that has proceeded on an almost autopilot for more than a decade and a half. Hitting its 17th anniversary last October, the conflict has gone on for such a long time that new recruits are being reminded by their drill sergeants about why the United States is involved.
The American people are justifiably exhausted by the Afghanistan conflict, which continues every year with little light at the end of the tunnel. U.S. policy has been defined throughout by muddled thinking, hubris about what the United States can achieve, and an endless stream of troop deployments in support of a strategy that holds little if any chance at success.
The amount of resources and attention Washington has allocated in pursuit of the unattainable—a fully democratic Afghanistan free of corruption and patrimony, governed by the rule of law rather than the rule of the gun—would be the stuff of comedies if it weren’t for the price tag attached to the effort: 2,242 U.S. troop fatalities, tens of thousands of additional injuries (many life-altering), and nearly $1 trillion in American treasure.
U.S. officials owe the soldiers and diplomats in the field and the American people at home a realistic appraisal of what Washington can accomplish in a country that has been in the throes of armed conflict for four decades. If we hope to finally reach the day American troops can pack up their belongings and come back to their families, Washington must start viewing the war with clear eyes. Several hard truths about Afghanistan are in order.
First and foremost, what the United States has been doing in Afghanistan for so many years hasn’t been working. The fact this statement even needs to be made is disturbing given the enormous cost in lives and treasure involved.
Given the state Afghanistan is in today after so many years of American military involvement, it should have been abundantly obvious a long time ago that U.S. policy in Afghanistan is like a leaky ship treading rough oceans. Despite the almost unlimited spending Washington has poured into the country, Afghanistan remains stuck in a precarious existence.
The security situation is as bad as it has ever been, and it appears there is very little the U.S. military can do about it. The Pentagon has tried several strategies over successive administrations, running the gambit from nightly joint U.S.-Afghan special forces operations in remote corners of the country to a significantly resourced counterinsurgency campaign in the Taliban heartland. None have produced positive effects beyond a few insurgent leaders taken off the battlefield and a few months of quiet. Indeed, many of the same forward operating bases U.S. troops built during the 2010-2011 surge are now deserted by Afghan forces, left to rot, or occupied by the Taliban.
Secondly, for Afghanistan to have any sense of hope, security, and economic prosperity in the future, military solutions need to be tossed aside and replaced with politics. Neither the U.S. military nor the Afghan security forces have the power to kill every last Taliban fighter or pummel the insurgency into a surrender. The Taliban, also, don’t have the ability to outgun the Afghan government. We are in a stalemate precisely because of these dynamics.
Unless the mindset changes, the stalemate and the violence will merely continue for another four decades. Washington could theoretically deploy 500,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, and it would only have a short-term effect.
An inclusive, Afghan-led and Afghan-owned political dialogue is the only forum through which the fuel of the war can be drained from the tank. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad’s months-long talks with the Taliban hold tremendous promise. After a 16-day negotiating stretch, Khalilzad intimated that the Taliban were willing to formally break their two-decade long relationship with al-Qaeda in exchange for a U.S. troop withdrawal.
The Trump administration’s decision to buck conventional orthodoxy and meet face-to-face with the insurgency in peace negotiations was a daring move, but one that can open doors to a more comprehensive discussion between the Afghans themselves. The peace talks, however, must be anchored around a basic reality: the United States cannot, and should not, insist on a perfect Afghanistan. American troops aren’t responsible for defending Afghanistan in perpetuity or serving as the beat cops of Afghan democracy.
While the United States should deliver a stern message to the Taliban that any peace deal should include guarantees of protection for Afghan minorities, women’s rights, and the rule of law, all of these issues will ultimately depend on the degree to which Afghanistan’s politicians, tribal leaders, fighting factions, militia leaders, and civil society activists can find a compromise everyone can live with.
The United States should do everything in its power to ensure that intra-Afghan talks have the best possible chance of success, including pushing the Afghan government to formalize an inclusive negotiating team to bring Kabul into the talks as quickly as possible. Washington encouraging the U.N. Security Council to temporarily remove travel sanctions on senior Taliban negotiators is the kind of low-cost but necessary accelerant to the peace process.
Last but not least, policymakers in Washington must remember that the United States will continue to be a major player in Afghanistan even without U.S. troops on Afghan soil. American troops sitting in bases may help buy the United States some influence in the country, but it also contributes to the false premise that withdrawing those troops will automatically result in withdrawing American influence.
This thinking is not only dangerous, but shortchanges the non-military tools in America’s arsenal that are just as critical to maintaining U.S. staying power. The talent and experience of America’s diplomats and the relationships U.S. officials have cemented with their Afghan colleagues will all ensure that America retains significant leverage in Afghanistan.
The sooner Washington accepts all of these hard truths, the sooner our men and women in uniform can come home from Afghanistan after so many years at war. Continuing the status quo is not an option.