With Gen. John Campbell’s tour of duty in Afghanistan finished, a new commander has taken over. Admittedly, things did not go well during Campbell’s year and a half heading up the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) there, but that’s par for the course. In late 2015, while he was in the saddle, the Taliban took the provincial capital of Kunduz, the first city to be (briefly) theirs since the American invasion of 2001. In response, US forces devastated a Doctors Without Borders hospital. The Taliban are also now in control of more territory than at any time since the invasion and gaining an ever-firmer grip on contested Helmand province in the heart of the country’s poppy-growing region (and the staggering drug funds that go with it). In that same province, only about half of the “on duty” Afghan security forces the United States trained, equipped, and largely funded (to the tune of more than $65 billion over the years) were reportedly even present.
On his way into retirement, Campbell has been vigorously urging the Obama administration to expand its operations in that country. (“I’m not going to leave,” he said, “without making sure my leadership understands that there are things we need to do.”) In this, he’s been in good company. Behind the scenes, “top US military commanders” have reportedly been talking up a renewed, decades-long commitment to Afghanistan and its security forces, what one general has termed a “generational approach” to the war there.
And yes, as Campbell headed offstage, Gen. John Nicholson Jr., beginning his fourth tour of duty in Afghanistan, has officially taken command of ISAF. Though it wasn’t a major news item, he happens to be its 17th commander in the 14-plus years of Washington’s Afghan War. If this pattern holds, by 2030 that international force, dominated by the United States, will have had 34 commanders and will have fought, by at least a multiple of two, the longest war in our history. Talk about all-American records! (USA! USA!)
If such a scenario isn’t the essence of déjà vu all over again, what is? Imagine, for a minute, each of those 17 ISAF commanders (recently, but not always, Americans, including still resonant names like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, as well as those like Dan McNeill and David McKiernan, already lost in the fog of time) arriving at yearly intervals, each scrambling to catch up, get the big picture, and run the show. Imagine that process time after time, and you have the definition of what, in kid culture, might be called a do-over—a chance to get something right after doing it wrong the first time. Of course, yearly do-overs are a hell of a way to run a war, but they’re a great mechanism for ensuring that no one will need to take responsibility for a disaster of 14 years and counting.
How to Play Do-Over
For journalists, when it comes to 21st-century American war, do-overs are a boon. From collapsing US-trained, funded, and equipped local militaries to that revolving door for commanders in Afghanistan to terror groups whose leaderships are eternally being eviscerated yet are never wiped out, do-overs ensure that your daily copy is essentially pre-written for you. In fact, when it comes to American-style war across the Greater Middle East and increasingly much of Africa, do-over is the name of the game.