The cease-fire in Afghanistan came to an unmistakable end Wednesday when 30 Afghan government soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack in a western province. You may not have noticed the end of the cease-fire because you may not have noticed the start of the cease-fire, just a few days earlier.
You should not feel guilty. Seventeen years after the U.S. invaded, there is not much reason to pay attention to Afghanistan because nothing ever changes much. Yet we remain there in the obstinate hope that something will. We stay because we don’t know what else to do.
The simple fact is that we are not winning the war — and if you are not winning a war against an enemy fighting on his soil among his people, you are losing. In a protracted stalemate, insurgents are more likely to hang on as long as they have to. We can always go home. They are home.
Our efforts have amounted to an interminable, expensive failure. In May, the U.S. government’s special inspector general for Afghanistan issued a “lessons learned” report that was a chronicle of futility.
“The U.S. government greatly overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan,” it said. “The large sums of stabilization dollars the United States devoted to Afghanistan in search of quick gains often exacerbated conflicts, enabled corruption, and bolstered support for insurgents.” In short, we made things worse rather than better.
Our forces have repeatedly pushed boulders up a hill and then watched them roll back down. “Successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians,” said the report.
Under Donald Trump, the U.S. has been dropping a huge number of bombs – three times more in 2017 than in 2016, under Barack Obama. But the insurgents now control more of the country’s territory than ever before.
Afghan civilians have been dying at a near-record pace. Production of poppies, used to make heroin, set a record last year, even though the U.S. has lavished $8.6 billion since 2001 trying to wipe it out. “These numbers spell failure,” said the special inspector general.
Gen. Austin Miller, the new U.S. commander there — the ninth, if you’re counting — couldn’t disguise the reality when he testified before a Senate committee Tuesday. “Military pressure alone is not sufficient to achieve a political solution to the Afghan conflict,” he admitted. “I can’t guarantee you a timeline or an end date.”
Regardless, he argued, our presence serves the vital purpose of protecting our people by denying the enemy a refuge. But in November, the right-leaning Institute for the Study of War in Washington concluded that Afghanistan is, yes, “a safe haven for terrorist plots against the U.S. homeland.”
ISW analyst Caitlin Forrest told The New York Times, “The Afghanistan War is almost old enough to vote, and we have more groups that want to launch attacks against the U.S. operating there than we did when we started.” One of them is the Islamic State, which didn’t even exist when the war began.
Seated behind Miller at the hearing was his son, 2nd Lt. Austin Miller of the Army’s 82ndAirborne Division. Recalling his first deployment to Afghanistan, the general said ruefully, “I never anticipated that his (age) cohort would be in a position to deploy (to Afghanistan) as I sat there in 2001 and looked at this.”
Lately there has been talk of a negotiated settlement. The cease-fire was initiated by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who hoped to woo the Taliban into peace talks. But the rebels spurned his request to extend the truce, and they say they won’t negotiate with the Kabul regime.
They insist on direct engagement with the U.S. government, which has so far rejected the idea. Peace talks, if they come, would more likely be the result of U.S. exhaustion, not victory.
As in Vietnam, their purpose would be to allow us to leave with at least a hope that our client regime would survive. But in this war, as in that one, hope is usually unjustified.
Last month, The New Yorker profiled Patrick Skinner, who was deployed to Afghanistan several times as a CIA counterterrorism agent. Eventually, he attached a note to his ballistic vest in case he was killed. It said: “Tell my wife it was pointless.”
Originally Published in Chicago Tribune