As of October, the U.S. has been fighting a war in Afghanistan for fully 17 years. Young men who were not even born when the war started are now almost of an age to serve and be deployed. And if that’s the case with our forces, you can just imagine how many of today’s Taliban are younger than the war they’re fighting. Whatever we have been doing in the graveyard of empires for the better part of 20 years, it has only succeeded in giving us a new generation of enemies. Yet we stay because no one imagines the government of Ashraf Ghani or any other American client would last more than a year without us. So much for counterinsurgency doctrine, to say nothing of nation-building.
Would a Taliban-run Afghanistan be an uncontainable threat? Not exactly. The fear that Washington policymakers invoke is of Afghanistan becoming once again a terrorist magnet and haven, from which more plots like the 9/11 attacks could be hatched. But as an alternative to occupying Afghanistan for a century, perhaps the better way to prevent another 9/11 would be to welcome fewer Saudis into our own country and its flight schools. Most of the 9/11 hijackers were here on expired or otherwise faulty visas. An immigration policy that took national security seriously would have dealt with them. Instead, we keep our own borders permeable and try to police those of Afghanistan.
Other factors continue to complicate the situation in Afghanistan, too: pipeline politics, Pakistani interference, strategic stakes that interest several other regional players, India included. The country will be a den of intrigue no matter what. But none of those intrigues is worth the lives of American men and women, nor the treasure of our mulcted taxpayers. Voters have expressed their discontent with this endless war by electing two presidents, one from each party in succession, who gave some indication of being willing to call an end to it. But Barack Obama failed to follow through, and so far Donald Trump has not followed his own instincts, instead deferring to the experts who have failed to win this war for 17 years. The cold reality is that the bad p.r. any administration is likely to get after the country reverts to Taliban rule outstrips the political cost of remaining indefinitely, so long as U.S. casualties continue to accumulate at a slow enough rate. George W. Bush had negotiated the timetable for U.S. troops to withdraw from Iraq, and the Iraqis insisted that his successor stick to the plan. But after most of the troops came home during the Obama administration, Republicans accused him of a premature drawdown—a charge they redoubled with the rise of ISIS. Democrats, needless to say, would not scruple to make exactly the same partisan argument if Donald Trump were to pull out of Afghanistan. To our political parties, this is all a game, played for domestic effect.
It’s not a game for fighting men like Sgt. James Slape, however. On October 7, caught in the blast of an improvised explosive device, the North Carolina National Guardsman became the seventh American to die in combat in Afghanistan this year. Within a 24-hour window of that day—ten years to the day since the U.S. mission began—some 54 Afghans (including 35 members of the security forces and 19 civilians) died in incidents around the country. One of these days, if Americans stay long enough, a president’s luck will run out: Instead of suffering one or two fatalities at a time, U.S. forces will take a bigger hit, and then voters will take notice. What seemed like a painless open-ended war with just a trickle of casualties will suddenly be a flashpoint for criticism. But until then, what incentive does Washington have to admit that Afghanistan will never be saved?
The loss of lives like Sergeant Slape’s is unacceptable, or would be if we put our citizens before our policymakers’ ambitions. For the policy elite, there is a benefit to the endless war that is in direct relationship with the harm it inflicts on our republican traditions. This low-intensity, think-nothing-of-it war inures Americans to other unending exercises in global meddling—such as the undeclared, small-footprint wars we’re fighting on the African continent. Wars used to be things you fought in order to win. Now wars are a way of life, even a project of generations. Afghanistan may be the graveyard of other empires, but the country has become a nursery for our own.
Leave a Reply