There Is No Military Path to Victory in Afghanistan

U.S. Army soldiers prepare to conduct security checks near the Pakistan border at Combat Outpost Dand Patan in Afghanistan's Paktya province on Feb. 29, 2012. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Army

Fifteen years of fighting and trillions of dollars has not produced success.

Few will say it, but the facts are indisputable: America’s war in Afghanistan has failed. There comes a time when persisting in a lost cause amounts to foolishness, indeed irresponsibility. That time has arrived.

Washington’s minimal goals were to vanquish the Taliban, root out Al Qaeda and build a stable, effective government whose army and police would eventually fight the Taliban independently and successfully while maintaining law and order across the land. These objectives have not been meet.

Not for want of effort, mind you. The evidence leaves no doubt that the United States has made an enormous effort.

Let’s begin with the investment in time.

Nearly fifteen years and counting, the war in Afghanistan has become America’s longest. Airstrikes against the Taliban government, undertaken along with the British, commenced in October 2001. American ground troops, 1,300 in number, arrived there in November 2001. By 2010, there were one hundred thousand. A steady cutback started in 2011, pursuant to a decision by President Obama, though some 9,800 still remain, despite the responsibility for fighting the Taliban and securing the country having been transferred to the Afghans in June 2013.

American soldiers may no longer be in the thick of day-to-day battle, but they continue to advise and train Afghan security forces, and to conduct “counterterrorism” operations. Moreover, when Afghan units are besieged, as happened most recently in Tirin Kot, the capital of Uruzgun province, they are forced to call in American airstrikes.

Clearly, then, the claim that not enough time has been invested can’t stand.

Yes, the United States and its allies have helped forge the new 343,900-person Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF), which includes the 185,000-strong Afghan National Army (ANA). Yet after nearly a decade and a half of training, the Afghan military and police still cannot hold their own against the Taliban, which has far fewer fighters (25,000-30,000 being the maximum estimate) and much less firepower. The balance on the battlefield has become far less favorable to the Afghan government since 2013. (More on that later.)

The financial ledger points to an equally impressive effort.

The figure that typically emerges in estimates of what the Afghanistan and Iraq wars have cost is $2 trillion. As Linda Bilmes has shown, that sum results from confining the calculations to military expenditures narrowly defined. If current and long-term costs created by health care for the troops—many have suffered serious mental and physical injuries—death benefits to military families, and interest owed for money borrowed to fund the campaigns are included, the eventual price tag will be more like $4–6 trillion. Similarly, Neta Crawford, who adds in expenditures in Pakistan and Syria as well as for homeland security, reckons the cost at $4.79 trillion, as of 2016.

Both wars were touted as essential for our national security. Yet amidst all the patriotic discourse and displays that followed 9/11, American leaders didn’t see fit to insist that taxpayers do their bit, even as American soldiers were asked to risk life and limb. What followed amounts to war by credit card.

It’s hard to pin down the proportion of the $4–6 trillion attributable to the Afghan war, so let's be conservative and assume a 30 percent share. That still amounts to between $1.2 and $1.8 trillion.

Now let’s consider effort defined as America’s share of the contribution of all states that have participated in the fight against the Taliban.

The Afghan war has been presented as a venture by a large coalition, and that’s true in some respects. The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), created under a UN mandate in December 2001, eventually included 51 countries, with NATO assuming leadership in 2003. Initially, ISAF’s assignment was confined to Kabul and its environs. But between December 2003 and October 2006 it expanded in stages to the rest of the country, and included fighting the Taliban, training and advising Afghan units, and protecting the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs).

In 2011, around which time ISAF reached its numerical peak, American accounted for 68 percent of its 132,203 troops. By 2016, the coalition’s numbers had fallen to 12,930, of which 7,006, or 54 percent, were American—not counting the additional US troops operating in Afghanistan outside NATO command. Moreover, in 2016, only six ISAF states (Britain, Georgia, Germany, Romania, Italy and Turkey) provided more than five hundred troops; twenty-seven contributed fewer than one hundred.

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