Sixteen years. It has now been over 16 years since the United States began military operations in Afghanistan. At the beginning of those operations, as I watched friends deploy to the initial fighting, I would have found the idea that I would deploy there at the beginning of a massive buildup of American troops in 2009, or that we would still be there in 2017, inconceivable. But like Vizzini, the evil mastermind and kidnapper from Princess Bride, I had a lot to learn about the meaning of “inconceivable.”
If repeated deployments to Afghanistan were inconceivable to me, the idea was entirely preposterous to my civilian friends. In 2009, many thought we were already done with Afghanistan, and despite a spike in interest commensurate with the surge of 2010–2012, by 2015 most had forgotten the war altogether. Rarely mentioned during the presidential campaign of 2016, it seemed like an unwritten political rule to avoid discussing the war altogether.
It is this ongoing lack of interest and engagement in the war that made the actions of Secretary of Defense James Mattis prior to the roll-out of Trump’s August speech on Afghan strategy all the more interesting. Given authority to increase troop numbers earlier this year, Mattis waited to send additional troops until the president approved and announced an overall strategy for the war. It was an admirable move as further commitment of troops in Afghanistan should come with a clearly articulated strategy and ownership of that strategy among our elected leaders. Unfortunately that effort failed.
Trump’s strategy speech, which he gave in August, was notable as both an aggressive endorsement of the status quo and for foisting all responsibility for Afghanistan upon the American military. As Trump made clear, he only reluctantly embraced a renewed commitment to Afghanistan and made none of the hard choices required for an actual long-term plan. Without detailing how these additional troops might do what over a 100,000 could not, Trump relied instead on the idea that so long as the military was “unleashed” then victory was certain.
Beyond reinforcing why we continue to fail in Afghanistan, the plan as laid out by Trump has troubling implications for how Americans engage with the war and our military. We are well beyond the point where most Americans feel any meaningful connection with the armed forces and have only a sense of respectful indifference to the institution and those who serve. This has been on full display with the varying responses of shock and outrage to the tragic deaths of four U.S. troops in Niger from policymakers who didn’t even know we had troops on the ground, although the United States has had a presence there for nearly five years.
More worrisome is the fact that we have entered an era where most Americans are comfortable with expansive use of the military overseas, yet have no inclination of actually serving themselves.
The result is a military increasingly viewed as some kind of magical, mercenary panacea that can solve complex political problems via overwhelming firepower, at no cost or commitment from the rest of the country. At one point, Mattis was a voice against that notion, having stated while in charge of U.S. Central Command that, “If you don’t fully fund the State Department, then I need to buy more ammunition.” Unfortunately, it is clear that the administration has decided on more bullets, and that only lip service is being paid to diplomatic solutions or a “whole of government” approach to the conflict in Afghanistan.
Without the civilian and diplomatic resources deployed across Afghanistan that we had eight years ago, the Afghan government struggles for legitimacy against the Taliban outside of Kabul. This means that future military successes may be for naught as many Afghans continue to see the government as predatory, if not wholly illegitimate. A similar dynamic is taking place at the international level, where for all the talk of taking a new approach and hard line against Pakistan, the administration has yet to appoint an ambassador to manage that troubled relationship.
Instead, we have embraced military solutions to prop up a faltering Afghan state, and our generals appear to be happy with that course of action. Gen. John Nicholson, the top military commander in Afghanistan, apparently got everything he wanted with the new strategy, which appears to hinge on papering over the weakness of the Afghan government with a “tidal wave of airpower.”
And so we are in Afghanistan for the long(er) haul. We once again await the next decisive fighting season and are settling in for, in Nicholson’s words, at least another five years. Inconceivable that we would still be in Afghanistan in 2017?
Welcome to the idea of still fighting there beyond 2022.