Here we go again! Years after most Americans forgot about the longest war this country ever fought, American soldiers are again being deployed to Afghanistan. For almost 16 years now, at the command of three presidents and a sadly forgettable succession of generals, they have gone round and round like so many motorists trapped on a rotary with no exit. This time their numbers are officially secret, although variously reported to be 3,500 or 4,000, with another 6,000-plus to follow, and unknown numbers after that. But who can trust such figures? After all, we just found out that the US troops left behind in Afghanistan after President Obama tried to end the war there in 2014, repeatedly reported to number 8,400, actually have been “closer to 12,000” all this time.
The conflict, we’re told, is at present a “stalemate.” We need more American troops to break it, in part by “training” the Afghan National Army so its soldiers can best their Taliban countrymen plus miscellaneous “terrorist” groups. In that way, the US military—after only a few more years of “the foreseeable future” in the field—can claim victory.
But is any of this necessary? Or smart? Or even true?
A prominent Afghan diplomat doesn’t think so. Shukria Barakzai, a longtime member of the Afghan parliament now serving as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Norway—herself a victim in 2014 of a Taliban suicide bomber—told me only weeks ago, “The Taliban are so over! They just want to go home, but you Americans won’t let them.”
She reminded me that the Taliban are not some invading army. (That would be us.) They are Afghan citizens, distinguished from their countrymen chiefly by their extreme religious conservatism, misogyny, and punitive approach to governance. Think of them as the Afghan equivalent of our own evangelical right-wing Republicans. You find some in almost every town. And the more you rile them up, the meaner they get and the more followers they gain. But in times of peace—which Afghanistan has not known for 40 years—many Taliban most likely would return to being farmers, shopkeepers, villagers, like their fathers before them, perhaps imposing local law and order but unlikely to seek control of Kabul and risk bringing the Americans down on them again.
Few Afghans were Taliban sympathizers when the United States overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001. Now there are a great many more and they control significant parts of the country, threatening various provincial capitals. They claim to be willing to negotiate with the Afghan government—but only after all American forces have left the country.
For the Trump administration, that’s not an option. (Think what a negotiated peace would mean for our private arms manufacturers for whom America’s endless wars across the Greater Middle East are a bonanza of guaranteed sales.) Instead, the president has put “his” generals in the Oval Office to do what generals do. Those in charge now—James Mattis, H.R. McMaster, and John Kelly—are all veterans of the Afghan or Iraq wars and consequently subject to what Freud labeled the “repetition compulsion”: the blind impulse to repeat earlier experiences and situations, often in the expectation that things will turn out differently. You’d think these particular generals, having been through it all before, would remember that very little or nothing ventured in Afghanistan (or Iraq) by “the greatest military the world has ever known” has worked out as advertised. As Freud pointed out, however, “The compulsion to repeat… replaces the impulsion to remember.”