Afghanistan, 17 Years Later: This Is What Winning Looks Like

Analysis
U.S. Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis departs Kabul, Afghanistan, Sept. 7, 2018. Mattis met with Afghan and coalition members during the previously unannounced visit to the country.
DoD photo by Lisa Ferdinando.

The distance between Resolute Support headquarters and the Afghan presidential palace in Kabul can’t be more than 50 feet, yet it is too dangerous to walk across the street from one to the other.


Your friendly Pentagon correspondent and other journalists traveled that short distance by vehicle to wait for Defense Secretary Mattis to meet Afghan President Ashraf Ghani during Mattis’ recent stop in Kabul, part of a week-long trip ‘round the word with the defense secretary that saw stops on San Diego, New Delhi, and Abu Dhabi.

Task & Purpose is not allowed to describe any of the security procedures involved in moving to and from the presidential palace, but rest assured that it felt just like going outside the wire — even if only briefly. And if you wanted a metaphor for how much progress the United States has made in Afghanistan after 17 years, look no further.

As yet another anniversary of the September 11th attacks comes and goes, the war in Afghanistan began nearly a generation ago and shows no sign of ending any time soon. Mattis told reporters on Monday that he senses a widespread yearning for peace when he met Afghan leaders, noting that 2019 marks 40 years since the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. The country has not known peace since.

“Forty years is enough,” Mattis said.

Unfortunately, history does not bear out his hypothesis. Colombia’s civil war dragged on for 50 years; in Europe, the Hundred Years War lasted for 116 years. And the Afghans know how to hold grudges. “I waited 100 years before taking my revenge – and then, when I did, I cursed myself for my impatience,” an Afghan proverb says.

The U.S. government is pinning its hopes on the Taliban and Afghan government reaching a peaceful accommodation, Mattis told reporters on Sept. 4 while flying to India.

“The fourth ‘R’ in our ‘4R’ strategy is ‘reconciliation,’” Mattis said. “We are still believers that there is a way forward for the Taliban to reconcile in an Afghan-led, Afghan-owned reconciliation process. We do expect that we and the international community will support the Afghan government in this in all ways.”

Related: Mattis: Afghan Forces Are Increasing Their Efforts To Stop ‘Green On Blue’ Attacks »

As it turns out, your middle-aged Pentagon correspondent was on the same plane 10 years ago with then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who said the U.S. military would try to peel off “reconcilable” elements of the Taliban, just as it had worked with Sunni tribes against al Qaeda in Iraq.

“What we have seen in Iraq applies in Afghanistan,” Gates said on Oct. 6, 2008. “What is important is detaching those members of the opposition who are reconcilable and willing to be part of the future of the country from those who are irreconcilable and have to be dealt with militarily.”

To be fair, the idea did not originate with Gates either. Afghanistan’s last communist ruler Najibullah began an aggressive campaign of reconciliation with the Mujahideen even before the Soviets left in 1989. When the Taliban captured Kabul in 1996, Najibullah was violently murdered and his castrated body was dragged through the streets.

Despite the apparent lack of progress, retired ambassador Ryan Crocker told Task & Purpose it is still in U.S. national security interests to prevent the Taliban from allowing al Qaeda to use Afghanistan as a base to plan terrorist attacks.

Related: Never Forget The Day After 9/11»

The Taliban gave up Afghanistan rather than cut ties with al Qaeda when the United States invaded in 2001, and the two groups have remained close since, said Crocker, who served as ambassador to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012.

Crocker is concerned with the media reports that the U.S. government could negotiate directly with the Taliban because doing so would undermine the Afghan government, he said.

“We’re going to be talking about Afghanistan and the Afghan government is not going to be in the room,” he said. “It’s not just that we’ve seen this in Vietnam, the way we negotiated surrender, but we saw it in the run up to World War II.”

So U.S. troops will likely be committed to Afghanistan for the foreseeable future. But given that an American citizen born on September 11th, 2001, is now old enough to fight in the war that day spawned, it’s possible that the last service member to return home from Afghanistan hasn’t even been born yet.

Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 13 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P;, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at schogol@taskandpurpose.com or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.

WATCH NEXT:

(New Line Cinema)

The Marine Corps has tapped a new Silicon Valley defense firm to develop a "digital fortress" of networked surveillance systems in order to enhance the situational awareness of security forces at installations around the world.

Marine Corps Installations Command on July 15 announced a $13.5 million sole source contract award to Anduril Industries — the two-year-old defense technology company and Project Maven contractor founded by Oculus VR founder Palmer Luckey and several former Palantir Technologies executives — for a new Autonomous Surveillance Counter Intrusion Capability (ASCIC) designed to help secure installations against "all manners of intrusion" without additional manpower.

This is no standard intrusion system. Through its AI-driven Lattice Platform network and 32-foot-tall autonomous Sentry Towers, Anduril purports to combine the virtual reality systems that Luckey pioneered at Oculus with Pentagon's most advanced sensors into a simple mobile platform, enhancing an installation's surveillance capabilities with what Wired recently dubbed "a web of all-seeing eyes, with intelligence to know what it sees."

Read More Show Less

The Marine Corps' dune buggy drone jammer may have downed two Iranian drones in the Strait of Hormuz, U.S. military have officials announced.

The amphibious assault ship USS Boxer was transiting the Strait of Hormuz on July 18 when two Iranian drones came dangerously close, according to U.S. Central Command.

"This was a defensive action by the USS Boxer in response to aggressive interactions by two Iranian UAS [unmanned aerial systems] platforms in international waters," CENTCOM spokesman Army Lt. Col. Earl Brown said in a statement. "The Boxer took defensive action and engaged both of these platforms."

Read More Show Less

On July 17, Army Sgt. 1st Class Richard Stayskal briefly met with President Donald Trump at a rally in Greenville, North Carolina to discuss the eponymous legislation that would finally allow victims of military medical malpractice to sue the U.S. government.

A Green Beret with terminal lung cancer, Stayskal has spent the last year fighting to change the Feres Doctrine, a 1950 Supreme Court precedent that bars service members like him from suing the government for negligence or wrongdoing.

Read More Show Less

The Pentagon is no longer topless. On Tuesday, the Senate voted to confirm Mark Esper as the United States' first permanent defense secretary in more than seven months.

Esper is expected to be sworn in as defense secretary later on Tuesday, Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman told reporters.

"We are grateful for the Senate leadership and the Senate Armed Services Committee's willingness to quickly move through this process," Hoffman said.

Read More Show Less
(Paramount Pictures via YouTube)

The new trailer for Top Gun: Maverick that dropped last week was indisputably the white-knuckle thrill ride of the summer, a blur of aerial acrobatics and beach volleyball that made us wonder how we ever lost that lovin' feeling in the decades since we first met Pete "Maverick" Mitchell back in 1986.

But it also made us wonder something else: Why is Maverick still flying combat missions in an F/A-18 Super Hornet as a 57-year-old captain after more than 30 years of service?

Read More Show Less