“None of us would say that we are on a course to success here in Afghanistan,” said Senator John McCain, speaking for a five-member bipartisan Senate delegation at a Kabul press briefing on July 4. The senators didn’t have to skip the July 4 parades to discover that. The United States continues its longest war–now in its 16th year–without a clue about how to win or how to get out. President Trump shows no sign of changing course: At the end of this month, he is slated to sign off on sending a few thousand more troops to Afghanistan.
Since invading in 2001, the United States has poured more than $117 billion into Afghanistan, one of the world’s poorest countries. The United States has also suffered the loss of 2,400 American soldiers’ lives and over 20,000 wounded. We’ve spent $11 billion in equipping the Afghanistan National Army, which is still unable to defend itself. The United States has had as many as 63,500 “boots on the ground” in Afghanistan; about 8,800 remain today. Afghani casualties are estimated at over 225,000, with a staggering 2.6 million Afghani refugees abroad, and another 1 million displaced internally.
The war has enjoyed bipartisan support from the beginning. Bush launched it. Obama began his administration approving a “surge” of 30,000 troops for what he called the “good war.” His hopes of bolstering the government, training a competent military, and getting out were dashed. Now, with the Taliban back in control of about a third of the country, Trump is reportedly about to repeat the surge–adding 3,000 to 5,000 troops–enough, at best, to avoid losing.
The United States went into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks to get bin Laden, quash Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban for harboring them. Bin Laden is dead; Al Qaeda has metastasized across the region; the Taliban have been hunted for 16 years. No administration, Democratic or Republican, has the stomach for dispatching the number of troops or wreaking the level of violence necessary to have even a shot at suppressing the armed resistance. Afghanistan is not called the “graveyard of empires” for nothing.
With no exit plan, we get babble instead of strategy. The McCain delegation criticized Trump for not filling diplomatic posts in Afghanistan, as if another permanent ambassador or a special representative might make a difference. Asked to define winning, McCain offered up only gaining “an advantage on the battlefield.” He elaborated: “Winning is getting major areas of the country under control and working towards some kind of ceasefire with the Taliban.” But we’ve had major areas under control before, and the Taliban continued to resist, while corruption and division continued to cripple the Afghan government.
Even the normally sensible Senator Elizabeth Warren, accompanying McCain, served up platitudes. Criticizing Trump for not articulating a clear strategy, she said, “This trip only reaffirmed my belief that we need comprehensive, whole-of-government strategy. Nobody on the ground here believes there is a military-only solution.… The administration owes it to the American people and to our men and women putting their lives at risk, to provide that clear vision of where we’re headed.” But it is quite clear “where we’re headed”—to more years of endless war without victory, wasting more lives and resources.