Ex-US NATO ambassador: The tragic truth about America's longest war

The Taliban bombing in Kabul last ...

Posted: Feb. 2, 2018 10:36 AM
Updated: Feb. 2, 2018 10:36 AM

The Taliban bombing in Kabul last Saturday that killed more than a hundred people could have happened any day in recent years.

On a Friday early last year, for instance, more than 140 Afghan soldiers and officers were killed in a Taliban assault in the country's north. In mid-2016, on a Thursday, Taliban truck bombs killed 30 Afghan police cadets and wounded another 58 near Kabul.

At least 46 people were killed in Kandahar in late 2015 on a Wednesday, and at least 89 people died in eastern Afghanistan in 2014 on a Tuesday. In fact, an average of some 60 security incidents -- armed clashes, roadside bombs, targeted killings, abductions, suicide attacks, and the like -- are reported each day in Afghanistan.

What this grim and unrelenting bloodshed makes clear is that, after 16 years of war, the United States is not winning in Afghanistan. Insurgent strength may grow and shrink over time, but the Taliban are no nearer to defeat today than they were a day or a decade ago. Meanwhile, America's longest war grinds on.

Then again, despite what successive US presidents may have said publicly, our Afghanistan strategy has not been about winning. Instead, for a long time now, our goal has been not losing. Not that any administration would admit as much, of course. But the tell of this no-lose strategy has been to tinker with US war fighting at levels well short of decisive.

Take troop levels. A thousand additional US troops will arrive as early as this month, bringing the total to near 15,000 this year. But this number is a fraction of the 100,000 US troops who were in Afghanistan in 2011, not to mention the additional 50,000 deployed by allies from around the world. No one has explained how a few thousand more troops now will be decisive when more than a hundred thousand a few years ago were not.

The same is true of the use of force. US aircraft dropped more than three times as many munitions on Afghanistan last year than in 2016. But even the uptick last year was only around four-fifths of the peak in 2011. Nor did the increased bombardment in 2017 turn the tide in the war. The Pentagon reported on Tuesday that just 56% of Afghanistan is currently under Afghan government control, down from more than 70% just over two years ago. And a new study by the BBC released on Wednesday reported that the Taliban are openly active in a full 70% of Afghanistan's districts.

Hoping that a little more force is the missing element that will get the Taliban to relent has proved just as misguided as hoping that a few more US troops will. So long as the Taliban leadership is secure in its Pakistan safe havens, so long as it can recruit more fighters to take the place of those lost, so long as insurgents can increase costs on the Afghan government, and so long as the Afghan government is riven by corruption and division, the Taliban can just wait us out. After all, they live there. We don't.

To President Donald Trump's credit, he has at times acknowledged as much. His penchant for talking about winning aside, Trump has voiced skepticism about what the United States is achieving in South Asia. He has spoken with concern about the lives and money already lost. One of his fundamental conclusions from studying the war, he has said, is that the United States should seek in Afghanistan an "honorable and enduring outcome" -- a description that echoes President Nixon's pledge to end the war in Vietnam. In all, Trump's instincts about ending our long-running no-losing strategy seem well founded.

At the same time, however, Trump is apparently not immune to the advice of those in his administration and beyond who want to continue on nonetheless, albeit with some small shift in US war fighting that, they assure, will be decisive. It won't, of course. But echoing such advice, the President has voiced concern about what a defeat would do to America's reputation and what a rapid exit from Afghanistan would do to bolster insurgent groups. These concerns, Trump has said, are core interests guiding his strategy-making in the war.

It's a strategy, in other words, of not losing -- and, therefore, of more of the same, day after day.

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