It is nearly 18 years since the United States invaded Afghanistan, and neither the United States nor Afghanistan is better for it.
The U.S. has lost thousands of lives, trillions of dollars, and all sense of prudence and purpose in our Middle Eastern foreign policy. We are stuck, as military historian Andrew Bacevich put it, in a grueling “pattern of promiscuous intervention” in which new military commitments are accrued more by automation than strategy, “oblivious to the possibility that in some parts of the world, U.S. forces may no longer be needed, whereas in others, their presence may be detrimental.”
Afghanistan remains mired in chaos, poverty, and terror. By 2014, our government had spent more money, adjusted for inflation, on Afghan reconstruction than it spent on the entire Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe in the wake of World War II. Still, Afghanistan ranks at or near the bottom of every measure of human development: Security is low; economic vulnerability is high; life expectancy is just 60 years. The refugee crisis rages on. More than 100,000 Afghans are estimated to have died in this 18-year fight, and after all that bloodshed the Taliban is once again on the rise. By mid-2016, the terrorist group’s territory was at its highest since 2001. Taliban fighters took control of 15 percent of the country in a single year.
It is this morass into which the Trump administration is expected to send another 1,000 U.S. troops by spring, bringing the total U.S. military presence there to somewhere around 16,000, excluding about 28,000 American contractors also on the scene. But Defense Secretary James Mattis has yet to sign off on that plan. And he should not do so.
Another 1,000 U.S. troops will not “fix” Afghanistan. Neither will another 5,000, or another 10,000 or 20,000. In 2010 and 2011, at the peak of foreign intervention in Afghanistan, there were about 140,000 outside forces in the country, 100,000 of them American, plus 112,000 U.S. contractors. What will 1,000 soldiers do now that hundreds of thousands failed to do then? Why will this time be different?
The difficult truth for a Washington addicted to doubling down on its mistakes is that there is no good answer to these questions. The problem in Afghanistan is not one of troop numbers. Our foreign policy does not suffer from passivity or half-heartedness, and its errors cannot be corrected by jiggling the controls until something clicks. It will never click, because this intervention is a failure of concept, not execution—though the execution has been dismally corrupt and wasteful, too.
Rather than sending another 1,000 Americans into harm’s way and prolonging our country’s longest war, Mattis would do well to consider a course at once more dramatic and more prudent: End the intervention. Refuse to repeat the ineffective escalation of years past. Acknowledge that a new surge will not bring Afghanistan to a point of peace or even stability, because external military intervention has for 18 years proved incapable of imposing order on Afghanistan’s internal political turmoil.
None of this is to suggest that turmoil is not real, that the Taliban is not evil, or that the suffering of the Afghan people does not deserve our attention. It is merely to say that American military intervention is indisputably not the solution to these woes, and it is dangerous to behave as if a little tinkering is all we need to win.
The Trump administration has shown itself willing to question political orthodoxies, and Afghanistan policy is an area where Mattis could put that skepticism to good use. If he doesn’t—if he is content to allow Afghanistan to remain our forgotten forever war, constantly recycling old failures and futilities—then we are like to find ourselves in the same place 18 years from now, still pouring blood and treasure into a hole that will never be filled.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities.
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