Approved by the president in August, we have a “new” plan in Afghanistan. It will increase the U.S. troop strength to approximately 14,000 service members. Those 14,000 troops will be expected to achieve what 140,000 U.S. and allied troops could not achieve when the Taliban was weaker, al-Qaeda lay broken, and ISIS did not exist.
When all the countless, blindingly detailed briefing slides are done, what we have is not a plan built upon rigorous and cold-blooded analysis, but an emotional response to failure. Our vision for Afghanistan, after we made the fateful and foolhardy decision to remain in strength after our necessary 2001 punitive expedition, took account of what we wanted, but not of what Afghans needed. We really believed that, on some profound level, all human beings must desire what we desire of life. But they don’t.
Now, with the bill above a trillion dollars and thousands of young Americans killed or maimed, the Taliban are resurgent and the Afghan National Army, despite our largesse and encouragement, still cannot match the resolve and strategic effectiveness of ill-equipped guerrillas with minimal foreign backing. Our counterinsurgency doctrine, politically correct and irrelevant, assumed that we would be in support of a government that could and would win the allegiance of its people. But successive governments in Kabul, where we turned pickpockets into crime lords with our wealth, have failed to excite the loyalty-unto-death of the Taliban’s core volunteers.
Nor is the oft-heard excuse that the Taliban have a safe haven in Pakistan a sound explanation for its successful reconquests—the Taliban could not have survived and fought on without a committed local constituency. Caressed by artful sycophants in Kabul, we cannot accept that a substantial portion of Afghanistan’s ethnic-Pashtun majority simply prefer the Taliban to us. And, of note, our sycophants, while willing to transfer our money to Dubai, are not themselves willing to fight or send in their children.
Our generals, good and honorable men, followed orders, accepted political restrictions, and did their best for sixteen years. Now they cannot bear the thought that all was for little or naught, that their soldiers, Marines, airmen, and Navy corpsmen gave life and limb for clans of rapacious whores who swore they loved us.
We focus on the moral issue of abandoning Afghanistan and “our” Afghans. But the true moral and ethical question is whether American service members should die for a foreign government when its own citizens won’t.
For all of our military’s well-intentioned reading lists (which backfired by encouraging intellectual conformity), for all the translations of Clausewitz, which few officers ever finished, or the good parts skimmed from Thucydides, we failed to learn the immediate lesson of failure in Vietnam: Our well-intentioned, lavish generosity corrupted the government and armed forces we sought to aid. Ultimately, the North Vietnamese beat us because they were poor.
Now we have committed ourselves, again, to the longest last stand in modern history. And we have the wealth and power to sustain it—although our forces could better be employed elsewhere, given that Afghanistan is strategically worthless dirt. Our casualties won’t be high. We’ll hold or retake the key cities and the age-old caravan routes, before allowing the Afghans to lose them again. But Afghanistan and Afghans will not change. (Added to which, the best-educated and highest-skilled Afghans have emigrated, leaving little with which to build our dream of a “better” Afghanistan.)
It seems to this long-term observer that the wiser course would have been to reduce our troop commitment to between 3,000 and 5,000 troops, with a strict focus on counter-terror operations—while continuing to equip the Afghans, but not to bleed for them.
If Afghans will not stand and fight for the Kabul government, we can keep it on life-support indefinitely, but the ultimate outcome is foreordained.
Ironically, the Soviets, during their Afghan years, did a better job of modernizing Afghan society and infrastructure than we have managed to do (they weren’t at the mercy of contractors who had mastered the art of grand theft within the law). Blinded by the Cold War, we failed to see that the Soviets were the good guys in that struggle.
We and the Russians believed that changing a government could change a deep-rooted culture. We and they were foolish, enraptured by our own measurements of power. Now a few thousand more Americans will seek to accomplish what even Alexander could not sustain.
Perhaps our greatest folly—and that of those Soviets we helped fanatics drive out—was to believe that we were exempt from history.