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Trump Isn't Winning in Afghanistan

He's repeating the mistakes of Bush and Obama

|||Chris Kleponis/CNP / Polaris/NewscomChris Kleponis/CNP / Polaris/NewscomThe Trump administration is optimistic about Afghanistan. Since the president a year ago introduced his plan—putting more U.S. boots on the ground and committing to our fifth round of re-entrenchment in America's longest war—the conflict has been punctuated by a key milestone: its first ceasefire since 2001.

That brief pause in hostilities "really unleashed the Afghan people's desire for peace and an end to violence," Gen. John Nicholson, commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, told reporters from Kabul last week. "I believe [Trump's] strategy is working," he continued. "So, the strategy was announced about a year ago. Within six months, we had two peace offers on the table."

But the Pentagon's own assessments of Afghanistan are bleaker.

As Foreign Policy summarizes in a new report, recent months have seen the "Taliban maintain their grip on much of the country, and the civilian death toll has reached a record high." The Afghan branch of the Islamic State remains active and has executed high-profile attacks on civilian targets. And the Taliban "are using the rural terrain to conduct attacks within major urban areas," undermining tactical gains that were expected to accrue from denying them city bases.

The Pentagon report tactfully suggests it is "difficult to fully assess the overall progress under the [administration's] strategy." A more trenchant observer would conclude President Trump's escalation in Afghanistan, like the four ordered by presidents before him, has failed. It is not making Afghanistan more stable. It is not routing out terrorism or raising ordinary Afghans' quality of life.

This is not surprising, because though he framed it as innovation, President Trump's Afghanistan strategy was always more of the same. He doubled down on what Washington has been doing in Afghanistan for 17 years—in the words of military historian Ret. Col. Andrew Bacevich, "pursuing the bad guys, trying to create Afghan forces and an Afghan government that demonstrate a modicum of competence; seeking to curb corruption and opium production; imploring Pakistan to stop making mischief; hoping that the Taliban and other anti-government forces will tire of the struggle and lay down their arms." That approach, Bacevich adds, "hasn't worked so far, indeed, hasn't come close." It won't start working now, and saying the contrary doesn't make it true.

And yet Nicholson is right that an opportunity for peace exists. Where he is wrong—and dangerously so—is about its cause. To the extent that there is an opening to move Afghanistan toward some semblance of stability, it is not to be credited to the Trump administration's bombs. Credit is due to Trump's willingness to talk.

Nicholson's own words point in this direction. Under Trump, the "U.S. is prepared to work with the parties to reach a peace agreement and political settlement to bring a permanent end to the war," he said in Kabul. "At the end of the day, any negotiations over the political future of Afghanistan will be between the Taliban and the Afghan government. This must be an Afghan-led and Afghan-owned peace process, with Afghans talking to Afghans. And the U.S. is prepared to support, facilitate, and participate in these discussions."

This is exactly right, and it is this, not the inevitably futile military escalation, that has created a possibility of progress in Afghanistan. Diplomacy—difficult and tedious though it will be—is the sole viable option to bring a desperately needed end to this conflict.

Rather than fiddling with troop levels and repeating reckless errors of the past in a vain attempt to win an unwinnable war, the United States' chief occupation in Afghanistan now must be negotiating for peace.

Photo Credit: Chris Kleponis/CNP / Polaris/Newscom

Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a contributing writer at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Relevant Magazine and The American Conservative, among other outlets.

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  • Rev. Arthur L. Kirkland||

    In the left-behind, shambling backwaters, the Trump administration's results in Afghanistan qualify as "winning."

    Of course, we are discussing people who consider scoring a handful of street pills and still having enough cash for smokes as "winning," getting through the first day of school without seeing any new "foreigners" in the building as "winning bigly," and hitting the daily lottery for $500 as cause for a two-handle celebration of just how great America used to be.

  • Brian||

    Let's look at the bright side: once we achieve pure 100% racially equality, you won't have anything to talk or think about anymore, and you can go back to watching television.

  • Aloysious||

    He stopped?

  • Fancylad||

    and you can go back to watching television downloading yaoi.

    Fixed that for you. As his pseudonym indicates, Kirkland is big on gay cartoon porn.

  • Juice||

    Well, at least you managed to find the worst take possible on this story.

  • Red Rocks White Privilege||

    In the left-behind, shambling backwaters

    But enough about Arthur L. Hicklib's inner-city neighbors.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Of course, we are discussing people who consider scoring a handful of street pills and still having enough cash for smokes as "winning," getting through the first day of school without seeing any new "foreigners" in the building as "winning bigly," and hitting the daily lottery for $500 as cause for a two-handle celebration of just how great America used to be.

    Enough about your mom already.

  • John||

    This is exactly right, and it is this, not the inevitably futile military escalation, that has created a possibility of progress in Afghanistan. Diplomacy—difficult and tedious though it will be—is the sole viable option to bring a desperately needed end to this conflict.

    If we make it clear we are going home anyway, what reason do the Taliban have to make peace? If and when we ever do go home, the Afghan government is finished. The Taliban know this. So, the only way to get them to agree to peace is to make it clear that we are not going to leave until there is peace and they know we will come back if necessary.

    The author of this peace seems to think the Taliban will give us what we want if only we are nice enough to them. Sorry, it doesn't work that way. If you want us to leave and are fine with the Taliban taking over and murdering everyone who ever worked with us, then be honest and say that. But don't feed your readers this bullshit about how we can have peace if only we stop escalating. It is fucking retarded and insults the readers' intelligence.

  • Tony||

    I'd expect you at least to understand why we're still in Afghanistan. It's not because the Taliban remain our mortal enemies.

  • Brian||

    Right: Obama.

  • Jgalt1975||

    Right: Obama.

    Weird that Obama is still giving the Pentagon orders to remain in Afghanistan more than 18 months after leaving office. Someone should check into that because it seems like some sort of violation of the chain of command....

  • John||

    The Taliban have said that they will kill everyone who ever worked with the US backed Afghan government down to the people who swept the streets. They mean it. If they ever took over Afghanistan it would be a Khmer Rouge style bloodbath.

    You don't know anything about this topic Tony. Normally your ignorance is just tiresome and slightly amusing. It is less so here. You don't know anything and you don't want to know anything. Go back over and comment on some Trump thread. That is more your speed and at least is a topic where your being ridiculous can be amusing.

  • Ron||

    and we have historic precedent of us leaving Vietnam as proof that after we leave everyone who worked with us is hunted down and killed. It s a common practice of savages

  • mtrueman||

    " It s a common practice of savages"

    But America will be more than welcoming to all the Afghan collaborators seeking refuge in America.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    We allowed hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese and the Hmong 'Hill People' to seek asylum in the USA.

  • Tony||

    So this is John endorsing perpetual involvement of American armed forces in the welfare of a country that poses no threat whatsoever to Americans. Hey, we can spare the resources, so why not?

    But we're not there to protect anyone from the Taliban. Not really.

  • mtrueman||

    "But we're not there to protect anyone from the Taliban. Not really."

    The Afghan refugees, when they come, will be protected by granting them asylum in America.

  • Just Say'n||

    Your candidate endorsed perpetual involvement in all of our military adventures overseas and wanted to expand it to Syria.

    You can't just re-write history, while your team plays footsies with neocons

  • Tony||

    I don't believe I've made an endorsement of any particular foreign policy decision here.

  • Just Say'n||

    My mistake. But, you're right to suggest that we should leave, if that is what you were suggesting

  • ||

    So this is John endorsing perpetual involvement of American armed forces in the welfare of a country that poses no threat whatsoever to Americans.

    I don't mean to speak for John, but you may've inferred an aversion to Khmer Rouge-style bloodbaths that does not exist. At the very least, once aggression has been initiated, finding your way out of the quagmire is a bit of a Trolley Car-type problem.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    Are the Pashtuns and other USA backed groups fulfilling their obligations to the USA? What incentive do they have if we continue to provide money and support to address their issues? Why should they become competent if it means losing out on billions from the USA? The same incentives that you claim keep the Taliban at bay also keep our partners soft. At some point the Afghan government needs to take control of their country or lose us as a partner. People will die no matter what we do, sadly.

  • John||

    I don't think it is an unreasonable position to throw our hands up and walk away and leave the Afghans to their own devices. What is not reasonable, however, is to pretend that doing that will result in anything other than genocide and barbarity.

  • mtrueman||

    "What is not reasonable, however, is to pretend that doing that will result in anything other than genocide and barbarity."

    Genocide and barbarity we have now. After the Yankees go home, there will probably be a well needed pruning of traitors and collaborators who worked for the foreigners. The media won't cover it so nothing to see...

  • SIV||

    Then genocide and barbarity it is!
    I might feel a little bad for the guy who is sweeping the streets but quite a few of our "Afghan partners" deserve it. So much that it might not be a bad idea to shoot them ourselves on the way out.

  • mtrueman||

    So much that it might not be a bad idea to shoot them ourselves on the way out."

    There's too much money in smack for such feel-good gestures.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    I don't pretend, I know that they will keep on killing each other until one party is in power. Just like they did after the Soviets left. What they really need is for their neighbors and world powers to leave them alone so they can learn to run their country on their own. The problem is ISIS now though as unlike the Taliban they are globalist jihadi's meaning they want to attack western powers. So if we can reach an agreement with the Taliban that says we will leave the country as long as they use their military might to crush ISIS; I am fine with that.

    By the way have you read 88 Days to Kandahar? Really good book by the CIA station chief in Islamabad about the run up to the Afghan War. Only problem is that it is written by a CIA station chief so you don't know how much too belief because of the nature of the job.

  • mtrueman||

    ISIS is just a pretext. America invaded Afghanistan years before ISIS existed. Ask any of your careerist friends in the military.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    I understand we invaded because of Al Qaeda. But if ISIS pulls off a high end terrorist opt like 9/11 and planned it from Afghanistan then we will be right back to invading the country (what I don't want). Best to try and get the Taliban to put an end to their country being a launching platform for terrorists before we leave.

  • mtrueman||

    Afghanistan was not a launching platform for 9/11. Isn't it Florida where the training took place? The Taleban were not involved in any terror operation on US soil as far as I know. Most of the terrorists came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, valued partners of the USA. Not one from Afghanistan. The ISIS terrorists seem to be mostly disaffected young people from Europe, not even particularly interested in Islam or its teachings.

  • ||

    As much as it pains me to agree with mtrueman, this is true. The only connection between Afghanistan and 9/11 was that Osama bin Laden happened to be in Afghanistan hosted by the Taliban at the time that 9/11 happened. People forget at this distance that there was never any very firm connection drawn between ObL and 9/11, and that he probably wasn't the "mastermind" behind it.

    It seems pretty clear to me that containing Iran was the point of all of that, as neither the invasion and ongoing occupation of Afghanistan or Iraq made much sense in response to 9/11, but make a lot of sense as staging points from which to breath down Iran's neck.

  • mtrueman||

    "It seems pretty clear to me that containing Iran was the point of all of that..."

    Maybe, but Iran actually assisted US in their invasion, granting flyover privileges etc. Iran also benefited greatly by the removal of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and his replacement by Shia parties with a history of collaboration with Iran.

    Bin Laden's role was mostly financing, wasn't it? As far as I know, the only money trail to be uncovered leads to Saudi Arabia's ambassador, 'Bandar Bush,' as he is affectionately known to his friends. The Taleban actually offered to extradite Bin Laden to the US if the Americans could have provided evidence of his involvement with 9/11. The offer was rebuffed.

  • ||

    Maybe, but Iran actually assisted US in their invasion, granting flyover privileges etc. Iran also benefited greatly by the removal of Saddam Hussein of Iraq and his replacement by Shia parties with a history of collaboration with Iran.

    This is true, and Iran was not fond of the Taliban, either. They couldn't really have stopped the US either way, but the fact that the US was replacing more hostile and unpredictable enemies on their borders with, well, the US made cooperation more attractive, given that they must realize the US public has less will to invade Iran than either the Iraqi or Afghani publics. A stronger but more reticent enemy on their borders.

    Bin Laden's role was mostly financing, wasn't it?

    Supposedly. That and having once said something to the effect of "I'd like to see those towers fall." I seem to remember some talk at the time, though, that he almost certainly had nothing to do with actually planning the attack, and was probably several degrees removed from the people who did. In fact, there was some fellow in Iraq who was captured back in 2003 who was trotted around for a little while as the "mastermind of 9/11" but his name escapes me at the moment.

  • Tony||

    I believe that dogmatists with power are a cancer on humanity and should be cut out if we know what's good for us, and that includes religious nuts but also political nuts like Nazis and Republicans.

    Whether guns and bombs are the right tool for that purpose is a good question, and I don't believe they are, not unless we're willing to go all the way. Total destruction--and then total commitment to rebuilding. It's the only thing that's turned backward societies around. And it takes a lot of tax dollars.

  • loveconstitution1789||

    ISIS is different than Al Qaeda or the Taliban.

    ISIS is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This is the Mesopotamian region of the historic Ottoman Empire. The Muslims ran that area as one nation but Turks were unpopular leaders of that Islamic State. Plus, they lost to the Allied powers in WWI, so the Ottoman Empire was broken up.

    If you people dont understand the basics of history about these regions, you will never have a firm grasp on why Muslim religious leaders are pushing for what they are pushing.

    All the Muslims that think alike want a giant Islamic State rather than Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Jordan, etc. Under division, they are easily conquered. They think that having a giant Islamic State will allow them to destroy the infidels (The West). They want the Persian Empire. They want the Ottoman Empire. They want all those large empires under Islam.

  • Tony||

    It's okay when Christians do it.

  • Juice||

    But they'll never have it because they're always at each other's throats and will be for the foreseeable future.

  • ||

    If you people dont understand the basics of history about these regions, you will never have a firm grasp on why Muslim religious leaders are pushing for what they are pushing.

    lol

    ISIS is the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. This is the Mesopotamian region of the historic Ottoman Empire.

    Iraq = Mesopotamia. "The Levant" = Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan (al-Sham).

    The Ottoman Empire was centered around modern Turkey. Iraq has, through most of its history, been part of the Persian Empire.

    All the Muslims that think alike want a giant Islamic State. . . . They want the Persian Empire. They want the Ottoman Empire. They want all those large empires under Islam.

    You're only half understanding Islamism. Islamists don't consider the Ottoman or Persian Empires to have been "Muslim Empires." That's why the Persian Empire was ruled by a Shah and the Ottoman Empire was ruled by a Sultan, rather than either being ruled by a Caliph. Islamists want a Caliph, a Caliph being a "first among equals" in a stateless society ruled by Shariah.

    If you people dont understand the basics of history about these regions, you will never have a firm grasp on why Muslim religious leaders are pushing for what they are pushing.
  • Bubba Jones||

    So.... give everyone an ak 47 and bug out.

  • perlchpr||

    This is my thought. Maybe even provide some training to anyone who wants some, and I don't have much sympathy for anyone who knows that genocidal maniacs are coming for him and won't seek training.

  • Juice||

    Maybe even provide some training to anyone who wants some

    LOL.

    They've been doing that this whole time. The "recruits" tend to favor opium to doing any actual work.

  • perlchpr||

    Maybe so, but that makes it not my problem when we stop protecting them and they get eaten.

  • perlchpr||

    It is from a functional perspective.

    We leave, the Taliban mangle the Provisional Afghanistan Gov't, the President looks like a fool. That can't be allowed, so, we're not leaving.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    If you want us to leave and are fine with the Taliban taking over and murdering everyone who ever worked with us, then be honest and say that

    Fair enough. But those who advocate us staying need to be equally honest and admit that this will be forever (or near enough) and let the American voters decide if that's acceptable. American voter, will you commit to having your grandchildren pull tours in Afghanistan with no victory ever in sight?

    And I think it's fair for the American voter to ask: is this our strategy? Just stay there and hope something good happens? Hope isn't a strategy.

  • John||

    Very true. There are no good options. Neither side should pretend otherwise.

  • perlchpr||

    And if that is what we're going to do? Then for god's sake, say fuck it and go full colonialist and take the fucking place over and run it competently. Or at least more competently.

  • ||

    say fuck it and go full colonialist and take the fucking place over and run it competently

    At which point, realize that the US is not the first major world power to attempt that in Afghanistan, but it is the farthest removed geographically.

    The Pashtun have been holed up in the mountains of Afghanistan for literally centuries. No one from outside is chasing them out of there.

  • perlchpr||

    Oh, sure. I think it's a terrible idea. I don't think we should have gone to Afghanistan in the first place; I think we should leave right now; but if we're not going to do that, then stop fucking around.

  • ||

    Agreed, at least according to the nation-building narrative.

    Which comes back to the "we're only there to have a base next to Iran" view, in which case no one cares about the Taliban as long as they're not actively causing too many problems. I mean, it's not like wiping out the Taliban would cause the various tribes of the place we call Afghanistan to suddenly embrace modern democracy.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    But none of these "kill 'em all and let God sort 'em out" types are willing to pay the price. It couldn't be done with the relatively small number of troops available to a volunteer military. They'd have to go all the way, start conscription up. None of those tuff guys will stick their head into that hornet's nest.

  • marshaul||

    I would merely point out that:

    1. The Soviets had conscription, and even with all their manpower they couldn't tame Afghanistan.

    2. In general the leadership of the armed forces, despite the fact that they are tasked with carrying out these seemingly unwinnable wars, do not want conscription. They prefer professionals, which makes a whole lot of sense given the relative sophistication of modern equipment and tactics.

    Your thinking on conscription seems quite dated, and not at all supported by history in the context of Afghanistan.

  • Dillinger||

    >>>what Washington has been doing in Afghanistan for 17 years

    nothing different than what we've been doing all the other places all the other years.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    I think we're stuck with this quagmire because no President, current or prospective, wants to be the President who "lost Afghanistan". So they figure that "not losing" = "winning".

  • mtrueman||

    Bleeding themselves white is a strange choice for Americans. Stange also is the choice for a militia of part time goat herders to do the blood letting.

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    I think the reason Americans have put up with it this long is that most don't feel the bleeding. I suspect whatever "strategy" any President follows will make maintaining this lack of feeling the top priority.

  • mtrueman||

    "that most don't feel the bleeding"

    Isn't that the purpose of an opioid epidemic?

  • perlchpr||

    I think the reason Americans have put up with it this long is that most don't feel the bleeding.

    Which seems a little weird to me, given that we dragged the National Guard into this, and I figure everyone knows at least someone who got shipped to the Sandbox at some point, now, right?

    Maybe that's just my social group?

  • Enjoy Every Sandwich||

    I'd say that's true in "flyover country" but not as much with people the media and politicians will actually listen to.

  • perlchpr||

    Yeah, OK. "But I don't know anyone who voted for Nixon!"

    I know people who got to go to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

    And multiple people who just ended up going to one or the other of them.

  • mtrueman||

    How many of these people went on to go to college after their stint in the military? My impression is the promise of cheaper education is a big motivation for many who enlist.

  • Just Say'n||

    Trump's first instinct was to leave Afghanistan before the media attacked him for waffling and his advisers convinced him that this time it will be different.

    Criticisms of the fact that Trump has no principle and is therefore malleable and easily convinced to do something is probably the strongest criticism against him, but no one ever makes that argument. Looking forward to Trump signing new gun control when Democrats take back the House.

  • Jgalt1975||

    Criticisms of the fact that Trump has no principle and is therefore malleable and easily convinced to do something is probably the strongest criticism against him, but no one ever makes that argument.

    I've been making that criticism of Trump since before he won the Republican nomination. I repeatedly pointed out that anyone who thought Trump was going to be some sort of principled non-interventionist was smoking crack.

  • mtrueman||

    "Trump's first instinct was to leave Afghanistan before the media attacked him for waffling and his advisers convinced him that this time it will be different."

    Maybe Hilary Clinton told him about the satchels of money that Afghanistan's generous drug lords have lying around the place.

  • Just Say'n||

    Nah. He's just stupid

  • Bubba Jones||

    Something something Land war in Asia.

  • ||

    You do realize that the scene in which that phrase is uttered ends with the character that uttered it dying, right?

    I'm not saying a land war in Asia's a good idea, but that the land war was already under way when he took office and that you're effectively using Rear Window as an argument against private 'invasion of privacy'.

  • Jgalt1975||

    That's true, the war was underway, but Trump has had 18 months to order a withdrawal and I don't see that happening in the foreseeable future.

  • sarcasmic||

    Show me a head of a major defense contractor, and I'll show you someone who retired with a very high rank from some branch of the military. Kinda makes you wonder if it's all a scam to line the pockets of the well connected.

  • Shirley Knott||

    Gee, ya think? I'm shocked, shocked I tell you, to hear suspicions raised that retired high ranking military personnel might be lining their pockets! Next you'll be telling me the VA does not provide best-in-world care to our service veterans.

  • Echospinner||

    Of course it is a scam.

    Slash the military budget in half and we would still have a defense force too powerful for any other nation to even try and attack us.

  • Michael Cook||

    People start out on the wrong foot thinking of Afghanistan as a Nation. I am a retired corrections officer and feel the better analogy is to think of it as a great big prison. Every now and then there will be riots large and small and inmates and officers will be killed.

    The point is, we have been running this huge, open-air prison for 17 years now and it appears to be keeping some of the problems that we have experienced in the past contained.

    What more than that can we ask of it?

    You know, liberals always make the same mistake about incarceration, always. When they (the liberals) are not feeling threatened at home they look at the walls and the towers and think "Hey, those are pretty expensive. Let everybody in there out."

    No explaining it, that is just the way liberal-progressive-Democrats tend to think.

  • mtrueman||

    "The point is, we have been running this huge, open-air prison for 17 years now and it appears to be keeping some of the problems that we have experienced in the past contained."

    You want to see a successful open air prison, look no further than Gaza. Afghanistan's border with Pakistan is unrecognized by the locals and is completely porous. Weapons and money pour in and opium goes out. I don't see what problems have been contained by the 17 year occupation. The Taleban only seem to be growing stronger.

  • Echospinner||

    Gaza. I would not call it success for anyone.

    It is not a well managed prison. It is not a prison at all. Talk with the Egyptians they can have it as they did before '67.

    Hamas came to power, a corrupt terrorist organization that rules to this day and Bush neocons pushed the election, there have been none since, against the wishes of the PA and Israel. It is a catastrophe still. Thank you Bush republicans again.

    Israel withdrew and made defense. Yeah build a wall. It is not so easy.

  • mtrueman||

    Gaza militants can not leave their prison easily. Afghans can. The whole point of prison is to confine people to a restricted area.

  • ohdelilah||

    What is your definition of "prison" if not a place where people are imprisoned? It's not just the border; Israel blockades the coast, too.

  • Echospinner||

    Nobody ever wins in Afghanistan.

    How quickly we forget. In 1842 a British force of 16,000 retreated from Kabul having been guaranteed safe passage. Eight days later wounded assistant surgeon William Brydon reached Jalalabad. When asked where the army was he replied "I am the army".

  • mtrueman||

    "I am the army".

    He was also the model for Conan Doyle's Dr Watson, I believe.

  • Echospinner||

    Thanks for that.

    It fits that Watson had a past he did not talk about much and was a country doctor as it was in those days. He always seemed the type who had experienced something terrible.

    Something Doyle would have known about.

  • GoatOnABoat||

    So now it's Trump's policy while the previous decade and a half was "Washington's" policy but not Bush's and Obama's policies? More than enough blame to go around...

  • mockmook||

    Should have saved my reply and just upvoted yours (well, if there were upvotes).

  • mockmook||

    "Trump Isn't Winning in Afghanistan"

    Wow, never even heard the announcement that Trump had declared war on Afghanistan...that bastard!!!

  • ohdelilah||

    When people keep repeating the same behavior over and over, at some point you have to stop assuming they're making a mistake and acknowledge that the results are intentional. Afghanistan stopped being a mistake a long time ago.

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