Donald Trump’s administration is now engulfed by so many self-inflicted scandals, which arise on such a regular basis, that it’s hard to imagine the President has any time left for governing. Nevertheless, as commander-in-chief Trump remains the leader of a military force that operates in more than a hundred countries around the globe, forcing him to act with some frequency in matters of life and death for millions of people, nearly all of them non-Americans. Since May, the military officers who serve Trump have been clamoring for an injection of new troops into Afghanistan, and last week the Pentagon announced that Trump’s generals would get what they want. America has been at war in Afghanistan for nearly seventeen years (three years longer than the Vietnam War, hitherto the country’s longest foreign war). The goal of this new “surge” is to address the unstable and deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan, the same situation that prompted Obama to send 30,000 additional troops to that country in 2009. That the problem persists eight years down the line should tell you something about how Obama’s surge went, but military advisors understandably tend to propose military solutions to the problems they confront.
Trump’s decision highlights a destructive and complicating feature of American foreign policy, which is the unspoken but ironclad prohibition against admitting military defeat. It’s not only diplomats and congressmen who are bound by this prohibition. Growing up, I was taught in (a very good) public school that America had never lost a war, and that the only war it hadn’t won outright, Vietnam, had been fought to a tragic stalemate. The truth, of course, is that America’s defeat in Vietnam was total. The US entered the country with the goal of preventing it from unifying under a communist government; when it left the country a decade and a half later, Vietnam unified under a communist government. It doesn’t get much clearer than that. But from the moment the inevitability of that defeat became obvious to Washington, the Nixon administration did everything possible to avoid calling defeat by its name, opting instead for the euphemistic phrase “peace with honor” in the 1973 speech in which Nixon announced the final withdrawal of US forces from the country.
Not much has changed over the last four decades, and while it is easy to be profligate in drawing parallels between Vietnam and the war on terror, here’s one parallel it would be reckless to ignore: as in Vietnam, one of the main reasons for the duration of the war in Afghanistan is America’s refusal to acknowledge that it has lost. In 2007, George W. Bush addressed the American Enterprise Institute and stated the goals of the war in Afghanistan: “to help its people defeat the terrorists”—he meant the Taliban as well as al Qaeda—“and establish a stable, moderate, and democratic state that respects the rights of its citizens, governs its territory effectively, and is a reliable ally in this war against extremists and terrorists.” Four years later, announcing a drawdown of US troops that would conclude in 2014, Barack Obama claimed that many of these goals had been achieved or were on their way to completion, but he acknowledged one outstanding task. “The goal that we seek is achievable,” he said, “and can be expressed simply: no safe haven from which al Qaeda or its affiliates can launch attacks against our homeland, our allies.” Today, Afghanistan is neither stable nor moderate, and the mutual allegations of fraud that surrounded its disputed 2014 election call into question whether it is democratic. As for the Taliban and al Qaeda, both are active and thriving, a situation made worse by the fact that the country’s elected government is riven with internal conflict and failing to carry out promised reforms that would shore up the country’s political stability. Sixteen years on, America has accomplished none of its stated goals in Afghanistan.
The reasons for this monumental failure are not mysterious—they were elegantly and convincingly described in Anand Gopal’s 2014 book No Good Men Among the Living. Gopal focuses not on America’s successful initial effort to expel al Qaeda from Afghanistan (it was a rout), nor on its destruction of the Taliban (complete by 2002), nor even on its failure to track down Osama bin Laden (which was not of much consequence to the larger war), but on what happened afterward. Unlike the Communist Party in Vietnam forty years earlier, the Taliban was not an organization that enjoyed anything like a stable base of social or political legitimacy. It was instead made up of fanatical thugs who destroyed public life as such in Afghanistan. These thugs recognized the hopelessness of opposing the US military, and so in 2001 and 2002, they simply laid down their weapons, disbanded, and returned to their homes. Most Afghans were happy to see them go. (One of the best things about Gopal’s book is that it tells the story from the perspective of the Afghans; aside from his own, American voices are largely absent from the narrative.)
Afghanistan now had a real opportunity to reorganize its system of government, but that opportunity could only succeed if the US was sufficiently careful and perceptive to respect and work with the country’s underlying political complexities. It wasn’t. To take just one example, the US has repeatedly made the mistake of treating the Taliban as an outside agitator in Afghan political life, citing the fact that many of its key members were educated at extremist madrassas in Pakistan. While this is true, the boys who were educated there were hardly foreigners. They were simply Afghans who had no domestic prospects for education whatsoever, as the country’s civil war of 1992–1996 had resulted in the destruction of many Afghan schools. Those who returned from Pakistan and went on to make up the Taliban may have been radicalized abroad, but they were very much native sons. By failing to treat the Taliban as a homegrown political phenomenon, and by assuming that military force alone would be enough to drive it out, the US ensured that the Taliban would be able to regroup again and again.
Worse than this basic political misreading, however, was America’s failure to account for the way its military presence in Afghanistan would distort the country’s politics. That the appearance of the mightiest army in world history in an economically undeveloped country—one organized to a large extent around tribal allegiances—would have a seismic effect on that country’s politics should not have been any kind of a surprise. Yet the US military was blindsided again and again by the effects of its own presence. Gopal details how in the wake of the Taliban’s disappearance, anti-Taliban warlords exploited the US military’s mandate to keep finding and killing terrorists even if there weren’t any left to kill. One of these warlords, a man named Gul Agha Sherzai, made himself wealthy by funneling supplies to the Americans and renting them land on which to build military bases. Having embedded US military infrastructure in his territory, Sherzai put it to work. For months, his network of operatives fed the Americans intelligence on the identities and whereabouts of terrorists. Of course, these weren’t actual terrorists—those had already fled across the border into Pakistan or simply gone home. The people Sherzai directed the military to target were simply Sherzai’s enemies. American soldiers were turned into excessively well-armed death squads and unwittingly thrust into local political disputes, with the obvious destabilizing effects down the road.
The US army also, through a combination of historical ignorance and disastrous blundering, failed to populate Afghanistan’s post-invasion government with the people who could have given it a chance at real stability. The US pretended as though the Afghan civil war had never occurred, and allowed mujahedeen and warlords who had terrorized the country throughout the 1990s to assume positions of political power, which did not endear Afghans to their new rulers. Meanwhile blindly targeted raids often eliminated key American allies. Gopal describes one instance in damning detail, a January 2002 raid carried out by the US in Uruzgan, a province north of Kandahar, that killed “twenty-one pro-American leaders and their employees . . . the core of any future anti-Taliban leadership—stalwarts who had outlasted the Russian invasion, the civil war, and the Taliban years but would not survive their own allies.” It was as if, “in a single night, masked gunman [in an American city] had wiped out the entire city council, mayor’s office, and police department.”
This manner of governance continued for years, and slowly the Afghan political system reorganized itself not around the needs of the Afghan people but around the distorting gravitational pull of the US military. Proximity to international aid became the key determinant of economic influence and power. Serving up enemies to American forces became the surest way to guarantee yourself a seat at the table. At no point did the US focus primarily on encouraging the development of a state that would be able to survive on its own, without enormous quantities of military and economic support from the US. And so the Taliban’s insurgency thrives today, with the group controlling outright or at least seriously contesting 253 of the country’s 400 districts (those numbers were reported in March by the Taliban itself, but they were described as a “conservative estimate” by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal). The Islamic State (IS) is now active in Afghanistan as well.
So, on the one hand, the US has a sixteen-year legacy of upending Afghan society in many different ways through the use of military force. But on the other hand, the prospect of the US leaving Afghanistan entirely does not engender the kind of wary optimism that would have been justified when the US pulled its last soldiers out of Saigon in March 1975. In that case, it was obvious the country would unify under the communist government that should have been ruling the country for years. Afghanistan has no similarly obvious organization or party ready to take the reins and usher in stability. What it has instead is a slightly more autonomous-than-usual puppet government that cannot survive on its own, plus a rebellion of authoritarian theocrats who control more than a third of the country. Forget nation-building and political miscalculations for a minute. What Afghanistan needs now, immediately, is to be protected from the terrorist groups that are running amok inside its borders. Why not just send a few thousand more troops?
There are a few problems with that line of argument. First, it sidesteps the fact that military occupations have negative consequences by definition. Whatever good an occupying army does, it also kills people, and you can’t regularly kill people in a foreign country without at least semi-regularly killing the wrong people. Those killings will make people angry and scared, and they will destabilize the social and political bonds that tie a place together. That fact raises the second problem with continuing the military occupation, which is that the only way to counteract those inevitable negative consequences is to be simultaneously implementing a plan for political reconciliation and reconstruction, hoping as you go along that the positive consequences of that plan will manage to outpace the negative consequences of the occupation. Trump doesn’t have such a plan. Neither did Obama, and neither did Bush. The previous two Presidents both tacitly accepted the fracturing and destabilizing of Afghanistan as a price worth paying to deny al Qaeda a base of operations, and Trump’s decision to send more troops shows that he has reached the same conclusion. Our continued military presence in Afghanistan will certainly be able to disrupt the Taliban, al Qaeda, IS, and whatever new groups rise out of their ashes, but it will also entail the continued destruction of Afghan society.
The US may have had a chance to oust the Taliban and supervise the emergence of a stable democracy in Afghanistan in 2001 and 2002—albeit a very, very slim one—but it blew that chance, and the US now has no prospects for improving the stability of Afghan politics through military force. It was US military aid that supported the mujahedeen in their fight against the Soviets in the first place, which led directly to the Taliban’s taking power and sheltering al Qaeda. It was the invasion of Iraq that helped to birth IS, and it was the toppling of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya that turned that country into North Africa’s preeminent terrorist haven. Whatever group succeeds IS as the West’s terrorist bogeyman, you can bet it will have come to prominence by seizing opportunities presented to it by the US military. While the US should do all it can via diplomacy and economic assistance to promote stable government in Afghanistan, that requires a President with the capacity for thinking in diplomatic terms, a luxury we do not presently enjoy. In the absence of that luxury, the US should at the very least, finally, withdraw its military forces from Afghanistan.
Here is a good indicator of just how dire the state of America’s foreign policy decision making has become: at the moment, the best prospect we have for any kind of military drawdown in the Middle East would be for Trump to belatedly act on the isolationist beliefs he expressed throughout his campaign, to choose crude, reflexive isolationism over his generals’ deluded insistence that additional military force can now accomplish what it has failed to accomplish over the last fifteen years. The best we can do, in other words, is place our hopes in Steve Bannon.