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The Futility of Failure in Afghanistan

Words: Stephen Miles
Pictures: US Department of Defense

A week ago, the Afghan city of Ghazni, a strategic crossroads less than 100 miles from the capital, Kabul, was on fire. At least 400 people reportedly died before a “conditional” ceasefire was announced, including fighters on both sides and more than 150 civilians caught in the crossfire of the Taliban and Afghan security forces latest battle for “control” over an Afghan city. At the same time about 300 miles away, in the northern Afghan province of Ghormach, Taliban forces overran an Afghan military outpost, killing and wounding dozens of the 140 soldiers present and capturing dozens more. After a three day siege, the Afghan soldiers ran out of bullets and with no signs of reinforcements, the Taliban were able to seize the base, taking with it at least 8 American-supplied Humvees and undoubtedly scores of other American-supplied military equipment.

Seventeen years in, the lessons of the futility of America’s foreign policy in Afghanistan are once again plastered in the headlines of every major news outlet.

Through three presidents and 17 years, the US war in Afghanistan has seen pretty much every style of American war-making. The initial battles (recently glorified in a Hollywood blockbuster) included covert operations relying on small groups of American operatives fighting side-by-side with local militants. The light footprint occupation of the Bush years was followed by the surge up to 100,000 American forces and tens of thousands more from NATO allies of the Obama years. And lately, the Trump Administration has doubled down on the latest fad in American war-making, training and equipping local forces to lead the fighting, supported by American ‘advisers,’ and massive amounts of American aerial bombing.

This is what failure looks like, and it’s time to accept that sacrificing more blood and more treasure won’t change that in America’s longest running war.

This is what failure looks like, and it’s time to accept that sacrificing more blood and more treasure won’t change that in America’s longest running war.

The tragic story of America’s longest war is one of the hubris that accompanies the twin pillars of American exceptionalism and empire. The ever-present belief that America stands alone atop history has allowed a generation of policymakers from every corner of the ideological spectrum to ignore the lesson of the British and Soviets before, that Afghanistan is not a place to be easily conquered by foreigners. At the same time, the unique attributes of an American empire — one that demands that Washington’s word hold sway from the peaks of the Hindu Kush to the banks of the Helmand river — mean that the energies of both the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom tend to be over-focused on increasing the ‘control’ of the regime the US has installed in Kabul.

The simple truth is that no amount of making war is going to bring peace to a country that has seen four decades of conflict. From the Soviet invasion of 1979 to the latest mini-surge of President Trump, every last effort to bomb Afghanistan into peace has failed. It’s time to try something different.

Thankfully, we might soon get just that chance. Recent reports indicate that the Trump Administration has, finally, begun engaging the Taliban in direct negotiations. Efforts at similar talks made by the Obama Administration failed thanks to a combination of factors on both sides, and we must avoid a repeat of that missed opportunity. The belief that underpinned America’s thinking was that we had to ‘bomb the Taliban to the negotiating table,’ and it was all too easy to believe we just hadn’t bombed them quite enough. The corruption and general ineptitude of the Afghan government was a further factor, and one that may yet again prove challenging in the months ahead.

Yet today, the Taliban seems to have collected itself enough to negotiate, fueled in part by a challenge from the so-called Islamic State. Meanwhile, Donald Trump has indicated he prefers to walk away from Afghanistan as fast as he can (though is likely more than happy to continue endless aerial bombing). And Afghan President Ghani seems more committed to a peace process, including having helped initiate the historic Eid truce earlier this year.

It is into this backdrop that Congress must enter the fray. While Republicans in Congress are unlikely to challenge a Republican president, or the current status quo, it increasingly appears likely that Congress will see a significant shift in the midterm elections, putting Democrats in control of the House of Representatives. Should Democrats indeed find themselves back in power, at least partially, they will – whether confronted with ongoing talks or stalled diplomacy – have the opportunity to break a legislative logjam which has seen House Republican leadership refuse even the most basic of votes on Afghanistan-related legislation for several years.

Should that come to pass, the choice for Democrats will be simple: double down on diplomacy, use the power of the purse to finally end America’s endless war in Afghanistan, and invest instead in peacebuilding and humanitarian aid, or give more war one more try. The futility of our failure in Afghanistan is evident to anyone who can read today’s news. Let’s hope the Democrats, should they get the chance, can see it too, and finally choose peace over war in Afghanistan.

Stephen Miles

Board Member

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