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In Afghanistan, We Persist in Futility

The simple fact is that the U.S. is not winning the war.

The ceasefire in Afghanistan came to an unmistakable end Wednesday when 30 Afghan government soldiers were killed in a Taliban attack in a western province. You may not have noticed the end of the ceasefire because you may not have noticed the start of the ceasefire, just a few days earlier.

You should not feel guilty. Seventeen years after the U.S. invaded, there is still not much reason to pay attention to Afghanistan, because nothing ever changes much. Yet we remain there in the obstinate hope that something will. We stay because we don't know what else to do.

The simple fact is that we are not winning the war—and if you are not winning a war against an enemy fighting on his soil among his people, you are losing. In a protracted stalemate, insurgents are more likely to hang on as long as they have to. We can always go home. They are home.

Our efforts have amounted to an interminable, expensive failure. In May, the U.S. government's special inspector general for Afghanistan issued a "lessons learned" report that was a chronicle of futility.

"The U.S. government greatly overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan," it said. "The large sums of stabilization dollars the United States devoted to Afghanistan in search of quick gains often exacerbated conflicts, enabled corruption, and bolstered support for insurgents." In short, we made things worse rather than better.

Our forces have repeatedly pushed boulders uphill and then watched them roll back down. "Successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians," said the report.

Under Donald Trump, the U.S. has been dropping a huge number of bombs—three times more in 2017 than in 2016, under Barack Obama. But the insurgents now control more of the country's territory than ever before.

Afghan civilians have been dying at a near-record pace this year, as they did in 2016 and 2017. Production of poppies, used to make heroin, set a record last year, even though the U.S. has lavished $8.6 billion since 2001 trying to wipe it out. "These numbers spell failure," said the special inspector general.

Gen. Austin Miller, the new U.S. commander there—the ninth, if you're counting—couldn't disguise the reality when he testified before a Senate committee Tuesday. "Military pressure alone is not sufficient to achieve a political solution to the Afghan conflict," he admitted. "I can't guarantee you a timeline or an end date."

Regardless, he argued, our presence serves the vital purpose of protecting our people by denying the enemy a refuge. But in November, the right-leaning Institute for the Study of War in Washington concluded that Afghanistan is, yes, "a safe haven for terrorist plots against the U.S. homeland."

ISW analyst Caitlin Forrest told The New York Times, "The Afghanistan war is almost old enough to vote, and we have more groups that want to launch attacks against the U.S. operating there than we did when we started," One of them is the Islamic State, which didn't even exist when the war began.

Seated behind Miller at the hearing was his son, 2nd Lt. Austin Miller of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division. Recalling his first deployment to Afghanistan, the general said ruefully, "I never anticipated that his (age) cohort would be in a position to deploy (to Afghanistan) as I sat there in 2001 and looked at this."

Lately, there has been talk of a negotiated settlement. The ceasefire was initiated by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who hoped to lure the Taliban into peace talks. But the rebels spurned his request to extend the truce, and they say they won't negotiate with the Kabul regime.

They insist on direct engagement with the U.S. government, which has so far rejected the idea. Peace talks, if they come, would more likely be the result of U.S. exhaustion, not victory.

As in Vietnam, their purpose would be to allow us to leave with at least a hope that our client regime would survive. But in this war, as in that one, hope is usually unjustified.

Last month, The New Yorker profiled Patrick Skinner, who was deployed to Afghanistan several times as a CIA counterterrorism agent. Eventually, he attached a note to his ballistic vest in case he was killed. It said: "Tell my wife it was pointless."

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  • DajjaI||

    True and the basic fallacy is peace through security. This is false, as it creates only a temporary equilibrium. So what's the solution? Same as in the USA: freedom. They must establish freedom of speech, religion, press and association, and we should support a faction only if they espouse these ideals. Otherwise there is no hope for peace, and we must abandon them. Also Western countries must stop undermining freedom activists and bloggers.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Of course, the problem seems to be that not enough people want those freedoms and rights enough to fight for them compared to those who reject that philosophy. Saying that is what needs to happen is easy, it is finding a oath there that is the problem.

  • Mickey Rat||

    "...finding a path..."

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Of course, the problem seems to be that not enough people want those freedoms and rights enough to fight for them compared to those who reject that philosophy.

    Shit, you could say that about our own country at this point.

  • Cy||

    Good luck with that in an Islamic country.

  • Oli||

    Afghanistan was a pretty modern country at some point. Just because a nation's people are muslims doesn't automatically mean they're hardcore islamists.

  • Chereth Cutestory maritime aty||

    It was? Outside of Kabul, they've pretty much been primitive sheep herders and the like for thousands of years.

    You sure you're not thinking of Iran?

  • Shirley Knott||

    Better, we should stop meddling.
    Leaving people alone is pretty much always a good idea.
    Sadly, we've meddled so hard for so long that the problem is how to productively disengage.
    Abstract notions about what we should have done avail us little. When we're up to our ass in alligators, arguments about why or how we entered the swamp won't help. How do we best exit the swamp?

  • Just Say'n||

    "They must establish freedom of speech, religion, press and association, and we should support a faction only if they espouse these ideals."

    There are exactly zero factions who support that. And that shouldn't matter. Our presence and interference only makes the situation worse.

    We should allow in all refugees from Afghanistan, since we helped destroy that country, but by no means should we impose our own morals on that country.

  • Mickey Rat||

    Who is a refugee and who is a Taliban operative?

  • Devastator||

    We don't have the social safety net to take in 20-30 million Afghanees.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Yeah, cuz blogging will make Afghanistan peaceful and happy.

  • mtrueman||

    "and we should support a faction only if they espouse these ideals."

    We support the royal family of Saudi Arabia in their various wars. These ideals are just pretext, like WMD.

  • Douglas Proudfoot||

    Wars, especially guerrilla wars, are won by logistics. We beat the Plains Indians by killing almost all the American buffalo, their source of food, clothing and shelter. We hunted American buffalo almost to extinction. The Indians were starved onto reservations. We beat ISIS by bombing their oil transport trucks, refineries and oil fields. ISIS went broke, unable to buy weapons and ammunition or pay their soldiers.

    In order to win in Afghanistan, we have to target the Taliban's main source of income, opium poppy production. The best way to do this is to develop alternative sources of income that pay better and are less dangerous, such as mineral production or raising flowers for export. However, weed killer would be a great idea for all Taliban controlled poppy fields. It should be clear. If you are under Taliban control, your fields get sprayed with weed killer. If you are under regime control, your fields don't get sprayed. If farmers ruled by the Taliban go broke, this might provide incentive for people to fight the Taliban. I'm sure we can destroy the crops if we put our minds to it. We need to stop worrying about hearts and minds. We need to cut off the Taliban's operating revenues. We are already targeting the Taliban's distribution network for opium. We need to target their banking connections as well. The only way to beat the Taliban is to bankrupt them, no matter what difficulty that causes the people under their control.

  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    Hey, a guy auditioning for Libertarians For Authoritarian Military Belligerence and for Libertarians For The Big-Government Drug War!

  • Douglas Proudfoot||

    Spreading freedom has nothing to do with it. The Taliban are winning by being violent and oppressive. If we won't do the needful to win, destroying the opium poppy production in Taliban controlled areas, then we need to continue to "mow the lawn," as the Israelis call it. If we don't keep killing terrorists in Afghanistan, they will come to America and kill us here. In Afghanistan, terrorists helpfully gather into groups we can target with tactical bombing. We can kill them without too much risk to American lives, particularly to American civilians.

    An American withdrawal from Afghanistan will be seen as a sign of Allah's favor to all Jihadist fanatics everywhere, a sign of God's will that the Americans can be killed everywhere. It will not stop the world wide war against Islamic extremists. It will only encourage Jihad to move to new battlefields.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    Futility is a the national spirit of Afghanistan.

  • Sanjuro Tsubaki||

    I'm secretly hoping we'll pull out and China will invade the country next.

  • gaoxiaen||

    (Opium) Pipe dreams. NTTAWWT. The normal Afghan soldier only smokes hash and fucks tea boys. There's something wrong with that.

  • perlchpr||

    Probably the best way to ensure that they fall apart.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    Standard statist response to failed statist endeavors (i.e. all of them): "It will succeed if we just do it harder!"

  • Iheartskeet||

    Open and sincere question: What would be the proper Libertarian response to 9-11 ? Go to Afghanistan until you've hunted down and killed OBL then leave ? Letters of Marque (per Ron Paul) ? Some other idea ? Nothing at all ?

    What we are doing looks pretty fucking dumb, but everything should be judged by its realistic alternatives.

  • Longtobefree||

    A proper Libertarian response would require a foreign policy that acknowledges a nation's security interests must extend beyond its physical borders.
    You must determine if the terrorist attacks (all of them, not just the big one), from group(s) that have declared 'war' on you, are to be treated as a military matter, or a police matter. Then you must acknowledge that current international law does not address 'war' against an armed force that is not the national army of a nation state.

  • Shirley Knott||

    This is, IMNSHO, the biggest flaw in libertarian thinking.
    No, not "what's the proper libertarian response to a point event in a long chain of intertwined events?" but the general question of 'how do we get there from here?'
    I doubt any libertarian thinks 9-11 would be a probable outcome of libertarian policy.
    I feel confident no libertarian supports the massive transfer of money in Social Security, Medicare, Food Stamps, etc. nor 'US as World Cop' With the massive military-industrial-government complex.
    But we have a world with these things in place and people who, rightly or wrongly, depend on them. For some of those people there are no alternatives. [yeah, go ahead, tell the 85 year old to get a job]
    So how do we transition? Turning the programs off overnight is not going to happen.
    We're not going to be the ones deciding how best to deal with a 9-11 type event.
    How do we propose to transition?
    How do we propose to realistically, palatably, transition?
    That seems to be missing from our discussions. We focus on 'after the transition', which is all well and good, but how do we get there from here?

  • Cynical Asshole||

    How do we propose to realistically, palatably, transition?

    Ask Kaitlyn Jenner.

  • Just Say'n||

    It's good to see that Chapman has finally arrived at the same conclusion that we all did circa 2010 when President Obama began the surge. I really don't think some people realize how much they thoroughly discredited themselves over the past nine years.

    Anti-war when it's politically convenient is the mark of a coward

  • Inigo Montoya||

    Not only do I believe government is incompetent, it is also becoming increasingly so.

    The way I see it, the US, with some help from allies was able to utterly defeat both Nazi Germany and imperial Japan — on their home turf (Europe and the Pacific) at the same time, in barely four years. Here we are at the 17-year mark, and even with some allies and local help, unable to beat a bunch of bearded illiterates who drag around donkey carts. Yes, we should withdraw. And we should also think twice before any future fights. Next time, wait till the knuckle-dragging 7th-century throwbacks actually invade the homeland (good luck, when they have no navy or airforce) and then fight them.

  • John||

    It is not incompetence it is lack of will. We defeated Japan and Germany by breaking their will to fight. We did that by inflicting enormous casualties on them until finally there was not anyone left in the society who was willing to fight us anymore. We could do the same to Afghanistan today. We just lack the will and the stomach to do so. We managed to convince ourselves that war was easy and never involved moral compromises such that we could fight it in a civilized manner and still win. That was always a fantasy. The ongoing war in Afghanistan just shows what a fantasy it is. The irony of it is that had we fought the war with the proper resolve and will to begin with, we would have ended the war long ago with fewer overall casualties than our endless human war has produced. Somehow, forever bombing a country until they understand we are serious is supposed to be more humane and moral than doing whatever is necessary to end the war as quickly as possible. That too is a fantasy.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    ""We could do the same to Afghanistan today"'

    The big difference is we were at war with Japan and Germany. We have never been at war with Afghanistan, but just one political group in Afghanistan, the Taliban. It's much more of an anti-insurgency campaign than an out right war. When we were dropping bombs on Dresden, we were not trying to win the hearts and minds of the Germans in an attempt to repeal the Nazis among them. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and pretty much every campaign since WWII, we were fighting to make the country better for those who live there. Or at least so we thought.

    Our country's policy with Syria for example. We want to remove who we call a dictator on behalf of the Syria people so they can have democracy. However, I've never believed you can force democracy upon a country. It must come from within.

  • John||

    No, you cannot. And that goes to a similar issue we have in that we do not have proper ends in mind to our wars. We didn't wage war against Japan and Germany to make them democracies. There was serious thought to never allowing Germany to be a nation again after the war. The fact that they made themselves democracies was a happy development after the war. But it was not an end sought by the war nor would it have been a proper one had it been so. We can defeat Afghanistan and make it so painful for them that they will never again dream of supporting an attack on the United States. What we cannot do is make Afghanistan into a democracy. Only the people of Afghanistan can do that.

  • mtrueman||

    "We can defeat Afghanistan and make it so painful for them that they will never again dream of supporting an attack on the United States."

    How do you stop Pakistan, China, and other enemies swooping into defeated Afghanistan after the US has left and setting up shop?

  • John||

    You can't. You have to depend upon deterring them from attacking you if they do. And you have to deter them anyway since they can attack us without going into Afghanistan. Frankly, if China or Pakistan want Afghanistan, I wish them luck.

  • mtrueman||

    "Frankly, if China or Pakistan want Afghanistan, I wish them luck."

    You'll never graduate from Imperialism school at this rate.

  • Dan S.||

    Did the people of Afghanistan ever support an attack on the United States to begin with? I strongly doubt it.

  • John||

    Yes they did. They hated the Taliban. Beyojnd that, who cares? They attacked us.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    How do you break the will of people who think that war is normal? And how do you get people who live in technically primitive conditions (and have for generations) to see what war costs in terms of how they live, compared to Germans in 1944?

  • John||

    You kill all of their young and committed people such that they don't have anyone left to fight. People talk a lot about breaking a society's will to fight without really explaining what that means. What it means is you kill all of the people who for whatever reason would rather fight and die than make peace or kill enough of them to where the ones left over are not numerous enough to make much difference.

  • Rhywun||

    Our efforts have amounted to an interminable, expensive failure.

    Who could have possibly seen this coming seventeen years ago? Oh, wait a minute... everybody.

  • Conchfritters||

    We beat the Taliban with a few special forces guys riding horseback with the Northern Alliance warlords with some laser designators and air support. Just fucking leave that shithole country, and if the Taliban come back, do what we did before and then leave again a day later.

  • TrickyVic (old school)||

    In some respects, that's is our strategy. The Taliban just keep coming back so you need assets in place to bomb them again tomorrow.

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    As soon as a wartime anti-war candidate(e.g. Obama y Trump) is elected, it becomes a WAR PRESIDENT. Such creatures do not back away from a fight because SUPPORT THE TROOPS, American exceptionalism, 911 terrors, poppies, legacy, stare decisis or just plain old USA USA USA! The moral weight of declaring that the dead have died in vain is a weight no selfless politician should have to bear. Have a heart.

  • creech||

    Nailed it. Were Trump to withdraw, the media would be caterwauling with "they died in vain" stories, weeping soldier widows who have "been betrayed by gutless, hard-hearted Trump" and photos of new atrocities committed on women and children by Taliban barbarians.

  • John||

    Very true. And If Trump ever took the step necessary to win the war, the media would do the same caterwauling about the horrible immoral warmongering Trump. The media had a complete meltdown over Nixon's Christmas bombing campaign in 1972, even though it forced the North to end the war and likely saved thousands of lives on both sides.

  • mtrueman||

    "The media had a complete meltdown over Nixon's Christmas bombing campaign in 1972, even though it forced the North to end the war and likely saved thousands of lives on both sides."

    The war didn't end in 1972 but later, with the reunification of Vietnam under communist terms.

  • John||

    Yes it did. It ended in 1973. The invasion of the South in 1975 was an entirely new war.

  • mtrueman||

    "It ended in 1973. "

    With a glorious victory celebrated throughout the Free World!

  • John||

    It actually was. Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize for it.

  • mtrueman||

    I can't figure it out. War in Vietnam had been going on for decades. But you say these were a series of wars punctuated by Nobel Prize ceremonies. I doubt you can find anyone to agree with you.

  • John||

    They were. Kissenger won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1973. There were three different Vietnam wars. The first, was when the French lost and the place was divided. The second was the US involvement and ended in 1973 and the third was in 1975.

    And everyone who knows the facts agrees with me.

  • mtrueman||

    What was the date this second war ended?

  • Leo Kovalensky II||

    I suspect the generals at the Pentagon are quite loud and persistent voices in the President's ears. Also, the President becomes immediately privy to intelligence reports which are being put together by hawks at DoD, CIA, etc. Not to mention Neo-Cons infiltrating both parties in advisory roles. I suspect both Trump and Obama meant well, based on their campaign rhetoric but then were corrupted by all of these pro-war forces once in office. How is a community organizer or business man going to argue with 5 star generals on the subject of war?

    I don't think it's the politics of patriotism, as you allude to per se. Both Obama and Trump ran successful campaigns on ending the wars (a popular idea among voters). Why would the uber-patriots have significant more political pull after the election than they did before the election?

  • John||

    Mostly what happens is that they come to understand that there are no easy options. It is easy to claim we should just go home when you are not in charge. Once you are in charge and will be held responsible for the results of doing that, it becomes a lot harder.

    We stay in these wars for so long because our leadership is forever looking for an easy answer that does not involve taking the grave steps necessary to win or absorbing the consequences of losing. So, we end up meandering through them. It is what we did in Vietnam. Johnson and then Nixon spent six years refusing to fully unleash the American military hoping that if we just did a little bit more the North Vietnamese would see the light. They ended up accomplishing nothing except extending the war for years. When finally Nixon did unleash the full might of the American military without any restraint during the Christmas bombings of 1972, he quickly deprived the North Vietnamese of the ability and will to fight and got them to give us basically everything we wanted at the negotiating table. Johnson could have accomplished the same thing in 1966 and saved countless American and Vietnamese lives but refused to do so thinking there was a way to end the war without being too nasty about it.

  • creech||

    "Johnson could have accomplished the same thing in 1966 and saved countless American and Vietnamese lives but refused to do so thinking there was a way to end the war without being too nasty about it."
    Arguably that is what President Goldwater would have done. But he was an insane warmonger, so tens of thousands more had to die in Vietnam because 2,000 shrinks said he was nuts.

  • John||

    Exactly that. Somehow Goldwater saying either fight and end the war as soon as possible or don't fight it at all made him crazy.

  • Earth Skeptic||

    Oh, come on. With the powers of media spin if not outright propaganda, how long would it take to condition 99% of Americans to receive a claim of victory, defined by whatever criteria seem convenient (or expedient)?

  • This Machine Chips Fascists||

    It's a shame such powerful mysteries as YHWH and Allah couldn't find a more, how do you say, godly way of settling their differences. How about a nice game of chess?

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    Maybe they're just using us as the chess pieces and betting quatloos on the outcome.

  • ||

    I believe YHWH and Allah refer to the same deity.

  • jcw||

    Under Donald Trump, the U.S. has been dropping a huge number of bombs—three times more in 2017 than in 2016, under Barack Obama. But the insurgents now control more of the country's territory than ever before.

    Can Reason focus on these types of articles? The shit that matters. Deregulations and wars (and budgets). Good and bad. The stuff that matters. Great article. Thanks

  • mtrueman||

    What's stopping Trump from sitting down with the Taleban and negotiating an end to the conflict? This seems the implied solution, from the article, and has never been tried. Would it help matters along if they got their hands on nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them?

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    I'm all for Trump meeting the Taliban face-to-face.

  • mtrueman||

    They may be preparing the ground work for negotiations right now, given the success of the North Korean talks, and Trump's previous statements on Afghanistan. We should put these futile struggles behind us and prepare for something we can really sink our teeth into like war on Iran, who will fold like a cheap burkha once the shooting starts.

  • jerbigge||

    The people of Afghanistan don't want US soldiers in their country. Just as they didn't like Russians in their country back before we stepped into the picture. Earlier on they fought the British back there at the end of the 19th Century. They also lack gun control which means that they have a lot of young men who have guns and know how to use them. It is also a tribal society like that of a lot of Islamic countries.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "The U.S. government greatly overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan"

    Pat Buchanan was right
    Freedom is not universally valued

  • ||

    In war, it is a lie that there are winning sides and losing sides. On net, taking into account the result of not engaging in the war from the beginning, the so-called winners would have been better off not waring. Or, negotiating non-violently, to achieve the same goal.

    And Patrick Skinner should accept his part in keeping the war going. How is doing the "pointless" ever excused? His actions contradict his assessment of the situation. He is wrong, a loser, even if he survives. And he will have to live with his actions forever. Why do you think drug addiction and suicide are so high among the "honored heroes"?

    In "Saving Private Ryan" the old vet asks his wife at the end of his life, "Am I a good man?" He is hoping for some relief from the war memories that haunt him. He knows what he did was wrong, no matter how many times he is honored, celebrated. He can't talk about the details. The guilt is too painful, too degrading. This is the legacy of war.

    Had I been more haunted by my time, my part in the 'Nam war, I hope I would have been courageous enough to face my guilt and overcome it. I tried to tell my nephews not to join, what a big mistake I made. Two listened, one didn't.

  • josh||

    No need to argue that we're losing, because all some people will hear is that we should do more. Better to argue that we won a long time ago because it's true.

  • BenjaminTheDonkey||

    "The war is not meant to be won, it is meant to be continuous."

    I could win there, it's easy. "Small pox blanket" (insert your biological weapons of choice) the indigenous population, turn it into a penal colony for your junkies.

    History proves the path to victory is extermination of indigenous populations and colonization with your own miscreants. Unfortunately, too much money is being made through military charades for anyone to want a decisive and final victory and no one has the moral and intellectual integrity to advocate the only effective solution, which is genocide. Multiculturalism was embraced to keep the Soviets from being able to utilize disaffected populations in the US, this has lead to a self-conscious moral morass and rejecting of the methods that lead to the creation of the empire in the first place. That turd will have to be flushed before any further expansion can occur and the people making money off the current situation will have to be sold on the expansion as well. If you're making money off the current state of the toilet, why would you want to plunge it without the promise of even bigger turds to come? Afghanistan will have to be a springboard to Iran.

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