What the heck are we doing in Afghanistan right now?
I ask this very important question because President Donald Trump’s senior advisers are proposing sending thousands of additional US troops there so they can “start winning” again, according to one official who spoke with The Washington Post.
That would be great if the word “winning” could be defined.
Let’s put this into perspective: Since October 2001, the United States has had a military presence in Afghanistan.
We have paid a heavy price for a loosely defined end.
After 9/11, we went into Afghanistan to root out Al Qaeda and the Taliban so we could deny them a safe haven. But in 2004, when I was on the ground as a US Marine, the job I was given was a simpler one: drive around in the hope you get shot at. That’s how we found the enemy.
Fortunately, Trump has been deeply skeptical of his top military advisors — and that’s actually a good thing. As I expressed recently on Twitter, the generals will give you rosy assessments; the sergeants will give you the truth.
A reality check
For years, we have been offered rosy assessments from the military’s top commanders in Afghanistan. Gen. John Abizaid said in 2005 that “interesting progress” had been made. Gen. Dan McNeill said in 2007 that we were making “significant progress.” And Gen. David Petraeus highlighted the progress made in 2010.
In 2013, Gen. John Allen said we were “on the road to winning” in Afghanistan.
Reality check: We’re not. And we probably never will be. The war in Afghanistan has been a lost cause for a long time.
It’s not a “stalemate,” as the Pentagon has taken to characterizing it. The latest assessment from the Institute for the Study of War, released in February 2016, shows the situation has been deteriorating, especially since troop levels were lowered significantly after 2011.
Sending in 3,000 more troops, as the Trump administration is reportedly debating, would do little, especially when the 100,000 boots on the ground during President Barack Obama’s “surge” didn’t result in “winning.”
I remember driving around Kabul in early 2005. We were stuck at an Army base near the city getting some Humvees repaired, so my gunnery sergeant decided to take us on a little tour of the city.
We drove through the bustling streets, went to the “boneyard” of old Soviet planes and tanks, and visited the training academy for Afghan National Army soldiers. Soon after the invasion, he said, he had helped set up the academy to train Afghan troops.
The US military can train a civilian off the street and turn them into a highly capable soldier or Marine in about three months. But we still can’t claim Afghan security forces are a “strong, sustainable force” after training them for 15 years.
It’s hard to see that changing anytime soon.
I don’t want to “lose” in Afghanistan. There may still be options to turn the situation around, though its nickname as the “graveyard of empires” may prove true once again. But the way forward is not to send in a few thousand more soldiers who would inevitably feed failure.
The war requires a full, independent review of the situation — and, most importantly, realistic goals and a clear strategy for achieving them.
This is our forever war, and I can guarantee those 3,000 troops would slowly but surely increase, just as our troop levels have increased in Iraq and Syria since 2014.
When “the enemy is digging a hole, don’t stop them,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told an interviewer in 2014. “Let them continue to dig themselves into the hole.”
We should not, as Mattis knows, keep digging ourselves into a hole we can never get out of.
I don’t know how or if this war will end. But I know what comes next: more flag-draped coffins landing at Dover, mothers crying over children they have lost, and tribute posts for years to come in honor of our brothers and sisters who never came back.
That’s not a strategy in Afghanistan.
But it is the reality.
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