Worse yet, killing Taliban did not endear the American troops to the Afghan population. The people knew the U.S. troops were temporary and so were very reluctant to take the side of the Americans or even the Afghan government. Rarely did the civilians seem grateful for the roads, schools, or bridges the Americans built or for the Taliban presence they reduced.
This company’s experience and mentality was not unusual. Regardless of which part of Afghanistan I traveled to, the soldiers I met all had nearly the same opinion: This mission is absurd and can’t be realistically accomplished; our men were dying or having their limbs blown off—a staggering 20,500 to date—for no gain to our country; the Afghan troops are almost entirely incapable of engaging the enemy on their own; and the Afghan people are wary of us no matter what we do.
Recent reports indicate that even as of 2019 the ANA has not materially improved in the nearly eight years since I last served in Afghanistan, and they continue to suffer unsustainable levels of casualties that dwarfs ours. Though exact numbers are kept secret, the numbers of Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF) troops killed is in the tens of thousands.
Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies recently wrote that even after more than fifteen years of focused American training, “Afghan forces are years away from being able to stand on their own, and [are] now critically dependent on U.S. and allied support.”
They were “years away” from being capable in 2011. They were “critically dependent” on the U.S. for combat support when I was deployed. Nearly a decade later, nothing has changed. And that stasis is indicative of the core problem with our eighteen-years-and-counting mission: We are trying to force a square peg into a round hole.
The American military cannot force the Afghan military to become capable or their government to cease being corrupt. They either do it on their own—or it’ll never happen. Either way, our continued military presence won’t help the situation.
Where We Go from Here
Pompeo said on Sunday the discussions with the Taliban are currently dead. As pointed out in painful detail earlier, predicating our security and participation in this war on the shifting moods of the Taliban is tantamount to saying we will never leave or end the war. Trying would condemn U.S. service personnel to perpetual sacrifice in a war that can never be won and which would provide no improvement to the security of our country.
The Afghan people, the Taliban, and their government must make the hard choices and take the difficult actions necessary to end this war and one way or another end this civil conflict. The path there may be rocky, it may be chaotic, and yes, it may be bloody. But consider this: our perpetual presence there for eighteen years has not only failed to end the war, it has failed to stem the violence.
The American homeland is protected from terrorism by our unparalleled ability and willingness to track and attack threats directly via missiles and raids and through our ability to deter groups like the Taliban from harboring anti-American terrorists.
U.S. nation-building efforts have failed, but the U.S. military retains the ability to do substantial harm to any adversary—an ability the Taliban have seen firsthand—at any time, in any location on the planet. Those assets and capabilities will protect Americans with or without a deal with the Taliban. The security of our homeland does not require a permanent deployment of U.S. combat forces in Afghanistan—or anywhere else, for that matter.
The most appropriate and rational course of action, then, is for the president to order an immediate and methodically executed full military withdrawal. We could give the Afghan government an additional twelve months at current levels of military support, but then over the following six months withdraw all combat troops (minus embassy security personnel).
That gives the Afghan government a year to get its house in order, an opportunity to conduct direct negotiations with the Taliban, and get its military in a position to provide the best security possible. The United States will continue to provide support funds and diplomatic and economic assistance, but no more combat support.
Though it may sound harsh to present such stark options to the Afghan people and government, the truth is what it has always been: only the people on the ground who have to live with the results can chart a course for the future of Afghanistan.
This plan is not one any American would prefer, but it offers the only realistic hope for ending the war. Maintaining the status quo of never-ending and permanently unwinnable war in Afghanistan guarantees more futility and the continuation of the senseless loss of American and Afghan lives.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.