America's Afghan Mission Is No Longer Serving Its Purpose
On Wednesday morning in the Afghan capital, a terrorist detonated a massive truck bomb near Kabul’s diplomatic quarter, killing at least eighty and wounding more than 350 others. A NATO statement on the bombing emphasized that “attacks such as these only serve to strengthen our commitment to our Afghan partners as they seek a peaceful, stable future for their country.” Yet even as Kabul and NATO hunt down those responsible, there are bigger questions for U.S. policymakers: are American military measures actually improving security in Afghanistan? Evidence clearly reveals the answer is no. Before the president deploys one more soldier to Afghanistan, a change in strategy is required.
At a press briefing at the Pentagon last December, the commander of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan restated long-standing policy there. “Our main objective in Afghanistan,” Gen. John W. Nicholson told reporters, “is to prevent the country from being used as a safe haven for terrorists to attack to the U.S. or our allies.” While the aspiration is certainly understandable, the policy has been an abject failure for sixteen long years. Without a major change of course, current and future U.S. policies in Afghanistan will likewise fail. There are three critical reasons why.
First, the objective itself is impossible to attain. Afghanistan is a vast, untamed and mountainous country. I served my second deployment there in 2010–11, at the height of President Obama’s surge. During the summer of 2011 there were one hundred thousand American troops fighting in Afghanistan. I traveled extensively throughout the country and can confirm that even with the highest concentration of U.S., NATO and Afghan security forces, major sections of the nation were beyond the troops’ ability to control.
Even then, the Taliban had freedom of maneuver in large portions of eastern, central and southern Afghanistan. Today, the government controls less than 60 percent of its territory. It is impossible, therefore, to set as a policy an intent to “prevent” terrorists from using Afghanistan as a launching pad for planning attacks against the United States. Even with two hundred thousand U.S. troops, it would be impossible.
Secondly, even if theoretically it were possible to drive all the terrorists out of the country, the successful accomplishment of that goal would be meaningless. The reason? As should now be very clear, terrorists in the modern age do not need specific pieces of terrain to conceive and practice attack plans. They use the internet, telephones, text messages and other electronic means to coordinate and plan. In those cases when physical meetings are required, terrorists will convene in locations where the security environment is the most permissive.
Prior to 9/11, Afghanistan was an effective place to plan and practice, because the world paid little attention there. Since that time, however, U.S. and NATO troops have focused a great deal of attention on Afghanistan, Iraq and now Syria. As a result, like cockroaches exposed to the light, they’ll scurry for new places to hide. A quick analysis of some of the more egregious terror attacks in the United States and the West, especially over the past two years, illustrates this fact.
• January 2015: Numerous assailants murder seventeen people in Paris at magazine Charlie Hebdo. Most of the attackers were from Algeria, alleged to have trained in Yemen.
• December 2015: Two attackers from Pakistan and Saudi Arabia kill fourteen people and wound twenty-two at a San Bernardino Christmas party. Planning and preparation took place in California.
• July 2016: Eighty-four people are killed and approximately two hundred wounded in Nice, France when a Tunisian-born French citizen plows through a Bastille Day celebration. It is still unclear what radicalized him.
• November 2016: A Muslim man attacks Ohio State students with a knife, wounding eleven. The attacker was born in Somalia, and radicalized in the United States.
• December 2016: A Tunisian man, allegedly radicalized during the Arab Spring, steals a large truck and drives into a crowded German Christmas market.
None of the attacks were known to have been planned in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, despite the fact that all three countries are teeming with thousands of potential terrorists and engaged by tens of thousands of US and NATO military personnel. Terrorists do not need Afghanistan—or any other specific geographic location—to plan attacks against the United States. Expending billions of dollars and sacrificing the blood of American servicemen and -women towards this objective does not help secure our country.