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The convoy of MRAPs (Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles) slumbered across the moonscape of central Helmand Province, the epicenter of America’s futile, half-century-long effort to remake Afghanistan in its own image. Generations of American developers and soldiers intended to transform this austere landscape into a breadbasket and bastion of democratic values. Instead, they created the world’s largest opium poppy plantation, the heartland of the thriving Taliban-led insurgency.
Beginning in 2009, 20,000 U.S. troops fought bloody, though inconclusive battles in Helmand, before withdrawing in 2014. During that withdrawal, a team of soldiers and I were buttoned up inside the massive armored gun-trucks, juddering down rutted tracks as Pashtun men beside the road scowled and glared at us. The Afghans clearly weren’t valuing the American efforts. The navigator suddenly pointed—“IEDs.” Veering right, the MRAP driver managed to use “fuck” as a verb, adverb, adjective and noun in the same sentence. The tribesmen, yet un-subdued, were just waiting for their time.
The Taliban-led insurgency has grown at double-digit rates annually since 2005. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) just reported to Congress that security incidents throughout 2016 and continuing into the first quarter of 2017 reached their highest level since 2007. The insurgents now control about half of the country. Taliban shadow governments operate in virtually every province, and control several of them, including Helmand. Insurgents are pressuring government centers across the country, including besieged Kabul, where a suicide bomber blew up a U.S. military convoy on the doorstep of the U.S. Embassy this week.
Afghanistan today remains the largest U.S. military foreign engagement. From the peak of about 100,000 boots on the ground during the Obama-era surge, there are still almost 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, plus up to 26,000 highly paid contractors for the Department of Defense and other agencies. Each soldier costs about a million dollars a year. Economists estimate the Afghan war has already cost U.S. taxpayers around a trillion dollars. For the 2017 fiscal year, U.S. military and State Department operations in Afghanistan are costing about $50 billion—almost a billion dollars a week. (As a reference, the initial budget request for operations against ISIS in Syria was only $5 billion.)
Now the U.S. military is re-escalating in Afghanistan. The Marines are back in Helmand Province. In April, the Pentagon requested “a few thousand” more troops, since upped to 5,000. The booms are getting bigger, too. On April 15th, U.S. forces dropped the 22,000-pound MOAB, the largest non-nuclear bomb in the arsenal, on ISIS fighters in eastern Afghanistan. It is Surge 2.0.
As the Pentagon requests more troops and drops more and bigger bombs, it’s important to assess the dangers of another surge. And to consider whether another U.S. escalation can turn around an unwinnable war. Will Surge 2.0 be consequential, relevant, sustainable? Or will it be another futile chapter in an unwinnable war?
Re-escalation faces a grim reality. After more than 15 years of U.S. warfare and “nation-building,” Afghanistan’s oxymoronic National Unity Government is a case study in dysfunction. Contorted by the enormous illegal opium industry, the Afghan government ranks among the world’s most corrupt; 9th on the Fragile States Index that assesses states’ vulnerability to conflict or collapse. The World Justice Project’s 2016 Rule of Law Index ranked Afghanistan 111 out of 113 countries assessed. The poorly commanded and deeply infiltrated Afghan security forces are losing the war.
Despite more than $117 billion of U.S. development appropriations since 2002, Afghans remain near the bottom of virtually every column of the U.N.’s Human Development Index—infant mortality, life expectancy, caloric intake, per capita income, literacy, electricity usage, etc. Increasingly alienated Afghans know they are being victimized by “phantom aid,” wasted by pernicious greed in both donor and recipient countries. A USAID billboard in Kabul proclaiming women’s rights in English and Dari inadvertently illustrated the failure: After more than a decade of billions being spent on mismanaged aid programs, only about 10 percent of Afghan females could actually read the billboard.
An Afghan museum director told me, “I believe in our government, but not our leaders. They are mafia, all mafia. And I am sorry, sorry, but your government did that. Mafia.”
There is the human cost to again expanding the war in Afghanistan. Tens of thousands of Afghan combatants were casualties in 2016. Caught in the crossfires and bombings, Afghan civilians are dying in increasing numbers. The U.N. reported that in 2016 there were 12,000 war-related civilian casualties, including 923 children killed and 2,589 wounded. In 2016, 600,000 Afghans were displaced by the conflict, adding to the refugee crisis. Many Afghans blame the presence of foreign troops, strengthening popular support for the insurgents.
America’s endless wars are ravaging our country’s military sons and daughters, many of whom have endured multiple deployments. The VA is overwhelmed with post-9/11 wounded and disabled vets: more than 1,600 amputees from the wars; 327,000 vets with traumatic brain injuries; 700,000 vets who are 30 percent or more disabled. PTSD is rampant. Female veterans have suicide rates two to five times higher than civilian women.
U.S. soldiers on the ground in Afghanistan are increasingly frustrated with a lousy mission in a benighted country riven with tribal feuds and opium wars. In Hopeless but Optimistic, my second book on the Afghan conflict, I tell tale after tale of American soldiers out on dangerous missions with no overall strategy; no end game in sight; just endless, life-crushing war. One grizzled sergeant said to me, “You ask probably any of these infantry guys, and they’ll say let’s get the fuck out of here. This is a fucked place. What the fuck are we doing here?”
And there is the question of fiscal priorities for an administration that pledged “America First.” Additional U.S. troops will require additional appropriations. Wasting more American blood and treasure on Afghanistan drains resources from other pressing national security needs, among them North Korea, ISIS in Syria and threats in cyberspace.
Soldiers I met in Afghanistan complained about billions being spent on often-spurious development projects, while their own families back home were struggling. I encountered many officers desperately trying to reconcile their sense of duty with contempt for the extravagant U.S. support for the predatory Afghan government. I heard stories of officers leaving the service, seeking counseling to resolve their cognitive dissonance.
One commander told me, “The U.S. military and the State Department and USDA and other agencies have definitely given this country a chance to form a government, to form an army, to form a police department and to provide some kind of governance to the people.” He concluded enough was enough: “Now it’s up to them. It’s their country and they need to decide how they want to run it.”
There is a truism that generals always fight the last war, but in the case of the unending Afghanistan war, the last one is still this one. It appears the generals want to re-escalate with the same failed 21st-century way of war, which governmental and corporate beneficiaries have perverse incentives to continue. Military, intelligence and development corporations need contracts. And elected officials need campaign contributions from those corporations’ lobbyists.
But there are major challenges to continue the war. When Pentagon spokesmen requested more troops, they neglected to explain how a few more thousand soldiers could win the war when 100,000 didn’t—especially with the increased threat of green-on-blue attacks by demoralized and infiltrated Afghan security forces. Beyond their short-term tactical impacts, the MOAB and other increased bombings are proving inconsequential. Indeed, the increased bombing may have the unintended result of further estranging the Muslim world from the U.S., as well as enflaming the insurgency.
Even basics like logistics supply are perilous. Landlocked in a very bad neighborhood, Afghanistan is a quartermaster’s nightmare. Supplies, including $600-a-gallon petrol and the weekly surf-and-turf dinners the troops have come to expect, have to come through Pakistan, with its bizarre ally-enemy relationship with the U.S., or through the northern routes controlled by regimes demanding extortionate recompense.
The Trump administration has yet to formulate a strategy for Afghanistan. After the well-documented “nation-building” failures in Afghanistan and Iraq, counterinsurgency is now a discredited doctrine. “Counterterrorism light,” as the current military operations are sometimes known, is less a strategy than a bundle of tactics with unknown outcomes.
After 15 years of failed war with duplicitous partners and often self-delusional strategies, more of the same won’t yield a different outcome. The Afghan insurgency has continued to grow in strength and territorial control through it all; through years of measured U.S. military pressure; through the Obama-era full-bore counterinsurgency Surge 1.0 with a hundred thousand troops and billions of dollars of “nation-building” aid; then through the last years of the robustly resourced counterterrorism campaign with billions of dollars of equipment, supplies and training for the Afghan security forces.
None of it has worked. Fighting the popularly supported Taliban-led insurgency has been like hammering mercury. As Gen. Stanley McChrystal said, “You can kill Taliban forever, because they are not a finite number.” It’s a cheap war for the insurgents, waged with soldiers who cost a few dollars a day, armed with old Soviet weapons and farm-fertilizer bombs, fighting on a home front of intractable mountains and searing deserts.
And the insurgents are patient. Taliban commanders have long told their fighters, “The Americans have the watches, but we have the time.”
While no one in Washington power circles is yet willing to officially say it, there is nothing the U.S. can do now to change the inevitable course of events. All that can happen is good money is thrown after bad; more lives destroyed after so many have been ravaged. It is time to accept the obvious: The war in Afghanistan is unwinnable. It is time for the U.S. to withdraw its troops, and let the Afghans sort out their own problems.
[Douglas Wissing, who has embedded three times with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, is a journalist who has contributed to The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Foreign Policy, The Hill and other outlets. He is the author of Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan and Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban.]