The war in Afghanistan is now the longest in American history, and it's not going particularly well.
"A slowly deteriorating stalemate," is how Army lieutenant general, retired, Daniel Bolger recently described the situation to VICE.
"Every day that goes by, we lose a few more square miles," added Bolger, former commander of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013 and author of Why We Lost, a book about US military leadership's failures in the Middle East. (The general is now affiliated with West Point's Modern War Institute.) The Taliban is "still not ready to march on Kabul," he conceded, "but it's like watching air go out of a balloon."
Now that he's taken office as president, Donald Trump has a few months—as winter keeps the conflict more or less frozen—to consider his options in Afghanistan. There is some hope among American military personnel, Afghan officials, and even Taliban leaders that a Trump presidency will offer a breakthrough in the conflict. But other than vague commitments to keep troops in the country, it's not clear what direction a Trump policy will take. And once temperatures rise, the fighting season will start again. At that point, whether he leaves it on the course set by Barack Obama or tries to chart a new one, Afghanistan will be Donald Trump's war.
Back in the early 2000s, Afghanistan looked like a major win for the United States. The initial American invasion accomplished most of what it set out to, destroying al Qaeda's stronghold and either killing or displacing many of its leaders. Meanwhile, the majority Pashtun Taliban was routed by a coalition of militias from Afghanistan's non-Pashtun ethnic minority groups, known as the Northern Alliance, backed by US ground forces and air power.
Then the tide turned. Partly it was because US forces were preoccupied by Iraq, a war Obama called a "dangerous distraction" when he was first seeking the White House back in 2008. Partly it was just the nature of insurgent warfare, in which a smart enemy only has to wait out a technically superior force—easy for the Taliban to do given their ability to cross the border into Pakistan. The Pakistan problem was one that bedeviled American and Afghan military planners and policy makers from the start: What to do about the fact that al Qaeda and the Taliban were thought to be backed, to varying degrees, by the deep state intelligence service of the country next door, which also happened to be a nominal US ally and nuclear power? That problem has never been solved, even if the assassination of Osama bin Laden almost brought it to a head.
By 2009, the Taliban was resurgent and threatening key Afghan cities with new bases in the country's north and a worsening situation on the eastern border with Pakistan. President Obama reluctantly agreed to a limited troop surge aimed at re-winning "the good war," deploying 33,000 additional military personnel (and even more Pentagon and private contractors) to re-establish security. If the surge worked, it would buy the new Afghan forces breathing room and allow the US to extricate itself.
When the surge ended in 2012, violence was, in fact, trending downward. This was around the time I showed up in the country as a member of the Army National Guard. It took me most of our first month to figure out what we were supposed to be doing there. Should we focus on trying to train the Afghan forces, on transferring responsibility to them, on getting them fuel and other supplies, which was often their priority? Or should we focus on improving security as much as we could, so when left they'd have a bit of a head start before the Taliban hit them full on? Of course, we only got to ask those questions because it was relatively peaceful where we were, near the Iranian border.
There was a phrase used a lot back then by the unit we replaced and others trying to dispel the confusion. They'd say that Afghanistan was now a "postgraduate" war, an implicit contrast with the experiences some of us had on earlier deployments, when it was still a shooting war. But it strikes me now that if we were like post-grad students, it wasn't in the way soldiers usually meant it—it's because we were having elaborate arguments about what to call things right in front of us while, at the same time, we were trying to reshape the world.
At some point around the four-month mark, in mid 2012, things began to make more sense. Or at least it felt like we had started asking the right questions. But not long after that, our deployment was unexpectedly cut short from nine months to a little over five. I don't remember any complaining as we loaded up our bags and went home.
A year after we left, as troop levels dropped, violence ticked back up again. At the start of 2013, there were 65,000 troops, which dropped to 40,000 in 2014, and then to 9,800 in 2015—about the same level where they hover today. The modest, hard-won gains of the surge were lost as areas taken over by Afghan security forces reverted to Taliban control. Civilian deaths reached an all-time high in 2014, most of them caused by insurgent attacks. By late 2015, the situation had deteriorated to the point that the Obama administration had to cancel its plans to withdraw all forces from the country.
Which brings us back toward the present. Earlier this month, the Pentagon announced that around 300 Marines would be deployed back into Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan as part of an advisory mission partnering with Afghan forces. The situation there had simply become untenable.
"The Afghan 215th Corps in Helmand disintegrated in late 2015," according to John Sopko, the special inspector general for reconstruction in Afghanistan, known as SIGAR. "The corps' failure," Sopko explained to me recently, "was in large part due to the number of nonexistent, or, 'ghost,' soldiers on its payroll and a resultant overestimation of its capabilities."
Philip Smith, president of the DC-based NGO the Afghanistan Foundation, echoed Sopko's account. "The Afghan security forces are engaged in widespread desertion with large numbers of their officers going AWOL despite billions of dollars in US assistance," he told me. As a result of that, Smith added, the Afghan force's "morale is extremely low and the corruption levels are extremely high." And that's not even to mention other problems, like Afghanistan's own ISIS franchise.
Efforts to recruit and build new national institutions in Afghanistan represent the "largest expenditure to rebuild a single country in our nation's history," according to SIGAR. Despite that effort, without continued US support, there would be almost no Afghan state to speak of. After an investment of $70 billion in the Afghan security forces and a massive training mission carried out by US and NATO forces for more than a decade, "only 63 percent of the country's districts are under Afghan government control or influence," SIGAR reported, while foreign aid accounted for nearly 70 percent of Kabul's budget.
Check out our HBO report on ISIS in Afghanistan.
Trying to predict what Donald Trump will do about Afghanistan as president is not easy. In 2013, he tweeted, "Let's get out of Afghanistan. Our troops are being killed by the Afghans we train and we waste billions there. Nonsense! Rebuild the USA." During the campaign, he and Hillary Clinton both avoided the topic, which was mentioned just once during their three debates.
In early October, Trump seemed to reluctantly endorse keeping American forces in the country.
"Are they going to be there for the next 200 years?" he asked. "We made a terrible mistake getting involved there in the first place... At this point, you probably have to [stay] because that thing will collapse about two seconds after they leave." Later that month, he denied calling the war a mistake but doubled down on the need for US forces to remain, citing Pakistan's nuclear arsenal. "Do I love anything about it? No," Trump said. "I think it's important, number one, that we keep a presence there and ideally a presence of pretty much what they're talking about—5,000 soldiers."
One indication that President Trump may take a harder line on Afghanistan comes from his choice for defense secretary, retired Marine general James "Mad Dog" Mattis, who was confirmed by the Senate on Friday. Mattis, who served several tours in Afghanistan including as a Marine brigade commander in 2001, criticized the Obama White House in 2014 for its original plan to withdraw all forces from Afghanistan by the end of this past year.
Whatever Mattis's preference, the current Troop level, in Bolger's view, is unlikely to bring about any kind of decisive change to the conflict. The priority now, according to the general, should be lifting the "crazy rules" put in place after combat operations were declared over in 2014. That already happened once last year, when President Obama lifted some restrictions on US troops in Afghanistan, a tacit acknowledgement that—declarations aside—they are still involved in the fighting there.
Bolger believes the new president may go further.
"If you're going to only have 10,000 guys, you want them to be effective," Bolger said. "They should be able to advise at any level. If they need to go out and call in artillery or airstrikes, they should be able to do that. To me that's the kind of opportunity that might arise with the change of government."
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