The U.S. in Afghanistan: An 18-year strategic failure
The sudden movement toward ending the war in Afghanistan isn’t entirely due to President Donald Trump’s determination to withdraw all U.S. troops from that country. American negotiations with the Taliban are driven as well by a painful admission buried in the Pentagon’s most recent report on the war. Quietly, it acknowledged that after 18 years of struggle, the investment of $942 billion , the loss of 2,400 American dead and 20,00 wounded, and the sacrifice of millions of military families, the war is at “an impasse.”
It’s a belated recognition that scattered bands of insurgent fighters with primitive and makeshift weapons, with no sophisticated communications or logistics network and no air force, has fought the most powerful military force in the world not just to a standstill but to strategic failure.
The Americans we sent to war fought honorably and well. Defeat — if a failure to attain official U.S. goals can be called that — lies directly with the senior generals and civilian politicians accountable for the management of the war. Not that any have stepped forward to acknowledge their responsibility.
The Pentagon’s official strategy now is to try to hold on while diplomats struggle for a face-saving exit. (In official Pentagon language, “The principle goal of the South Asia Strategy is to conclude the war in Afghanistan on terms favorable to Afghanistan and the United States.”)
Reports from the diplomatic front indicate that means trusting the Taliban not to allow terrorists to operate from Afghanistan after the 14,000 U.S. troops currently deployed there are sent home and the Taliban are in charge.
It will take a while to absorb what happened to the lofty American goals once envisioned for Afghanistan, and no doubt there will be plenty of finger-pointing (the revolving door of top commanders comes to mind: There have been 15 American generals in charge of the war in the past 17 years).
But here’s a significant piece of the failure: Our military commanders, contractors and politicians never did figure out a way to achieve what they described as the ultimate U.S. exit plan: building a strong, professional and noncorrupt Afghan security force capable of securing the country without outside help.
To take just one recent illustration, American taxpayers today are supporting the gift of 159 Blackhawk UH-60 helicopters to the Afghans, at a cost of $5.75 billion to $7 billion. Sixteen choppers have already been delivered — but there aren’t enough Afghan pilots to fly the helicopters, and the Defense Department has neglected to train Afghans to maintain the aircraft. As a result, contractors will be hired to keep the choppers running, at a cost of $2.8 billion for starters. And the aircraft will only fly from limited secure locations, because contractors aren’t allowed to work in dangerous places (i.e., where the Afghan helicopters will be needed to transport troops, ammo and the wounded).
We know this not because the Pentagon has reported it — there’s no mention of the problem in its latest report. It comes from an office that Congress set up in 2008 to monitor U.S. spending in Afghanistan, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction. SIGAR operates in Washington and Afghanistan with teams of sharp-eyed investigators, and reports directly to Congress and the public.
It also turns out that Afghan generals are misusing the helicopters they do have, carting around civilian VIPs and ordering up other noncombat jaunts.
Astonishingly, the U.S. command resorted last year to imposing fines of $100,000 per flight hour on Afghan generals in a last-ditch effort to stop the practice. It didn’t stop, so the fines recently were raised to $150,000 for every hour the choppers were sent off on nonessential missions.
It’s been a gargantuan task to create capable Afghan security forces, one that the U.S. command cavalierly assured us was within our capabilities. It proved not so. In his memoir in 2010, President George W. Bush acknowledged, “The task turned out to be even more daunting than I anticipated.”
Certainly the Afghans themselves bear some responsibility. But for all their faults, concludes Anthony Cordesman , senior strategist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “the lack of consistent, effective United States efforts is probably as much to blame.”
Wherever the blame lies, the American failure to stand up the Afghan security forces will inevitably cast a dark shadow over Afghanistan’s future as it struggles to emerge as a free and democratic state.
David Wood is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan extensively. He lives in San Antonio.