Groundhog Day, or How to Fumble Through War

Sixteen years.  Sixteen.  We’ve sunk nearly $1 trillion into those sixteen years of war in Afghanistan, and have but dust to show for it.  Trump’s “new” plan, which is just a continuation of Obama’s faltering efforts, is no more a path forward to victory than a simple shuffling down the same worn ruts of failure.

The war in Afghanistan will not end well. We will not leave an Afghanistan that fondly remembers the Americans and other internationals who helped build the country together.  We need to start preparing for this eventuality.  However, the leader who could break this hard truth to the American people (and thus signal to NATO it is past time to bail) necessarily would have more spine than Trump–so, instead, four more years of the same.

Four more years of stalemate.  Four more years of hoping somehow the Afghan government starts to care.  Four more years of the Taliban simply waiting us out.  Four more years of handing the keys to whatever warlord happened to shake our hand that day.  Four more years of errant air strikes and babies with limbs blown off.  Four more years of just…not…quite…but…almost…there.

When Trump trumpets about new rules of engagement, I wonder if America can stomach being more brutal than the Soviets (they lost).

When Trump gloats about killing terrorists, I wonder if he even has spent any time thinking about this war.  He misquotes how long we’ve been in Afghanistan, doesn’t know the system of government, plays fire between India and Pakistan (though I assume they’ll both just ignore the little tyrant)–pretty obvious the amount of “work” he puts in.

When Trump states he is using all instruments of American power, does he understand how he plans to gut most of those instruments?  Or the disconnect between launching multi-million dollar weapons systems at guys with AKs in the desert?  Or that this approach is literally nothing new?

Now we are conditions-based.  Okay, but conditions will never allow for our leaving.  The Afghan government is a venal, corrupt, vampire feeding off its citizens and protected by the might of ISAF–do we think they will announce conditions are ripe for our departure?  We’ve empowered the drug lords and killers that the Taliban first opposed–do we think they will want to face the Talibs again?

And what are these conditions?  Economic growth?  Military control in X amount of districts?  Governors in every province?  Functioning public services?  Healthy markets?  A protected border?  Can these metrics even make sense of a nation as complex as Afghanistan?

So our new policy is we will stick it out.  There will be some troops over there.  And there should be some conditions.  And rah, rah, military.  Forgive me if I am not impressed.

But it does give Trump a “war time decision maker” label.  And Americans are so disconnected from the military, we will hardly notice any minuscule troop increase.  And 3,000 or 4,000 or 5,000 men and women will go suffer in the heat and cold of Afghanistan with no clear end state, and eventually they will redeploy home, and others will take their place, and they’ll then redeploy, and then we will hit year seventeen, eighteen, nineteen.

Sometimes I think about what we considered lost opportunities.  Partnering with the Northern Alliance.  The Karzai government.  Running away to Iraq.  The surge.  But then, I recognize how distinctly American (and ISAF) focused these failures are.  They discount the Afghans living through the last sixteen years.   And they are highly counterfactual–if the US doesn’t leave for Iraq, why do we think we wouldn’t be in exactly the same place right now?  If Karzai is never President, which strongman takes his place?  The beauty of this “new” strategy is that we can continue to revisit these failures over and over again, a crucible of blood.

A friend and new dad once told me he was fighting in Afghanistan so his son never would have to.  This was in 2011.  We have sixteen years to go.

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