The absurd hopelessness was the worst part. No, it wasn’t the Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) blowing limbs off my boys, or the well-aimed gunshot wounds suffered by others; it wasn’t even the horror of ordering the deaths of other ("enemy") human beings.
No, for a captain commanding 100 odd troopers in Southwest Kandahar province at the height of the Obama "surge" of 2011, what most struck me was the feeling of futility; the sense that the mission was fruitless operationally, and, of course, all but ignored at home. After a full year of saturating the district with American soldiers, the truth is we really controlled only the few square feet we each stood on. The Taliban controlled the night, the farmlands, the villages. And, back in 2011, well, the U.S. had about 100,000 servicemen and women in country. There are less than 15,000 on the ground now.
It’s an uncomfortable, almost un-American, truth – there is nothing more that the US military can do for the foundering government of Afghanistan. And, as the war reached a lamentable 17th anniversary last week, now is the time to once again raise the alarm. Fact: this next year, teenagers born after 9/11 will begin to join the military and, eventually, fight in Afghanistan.
As if that’s not disturbing enough for the ostensible republic, consider this: the Afghan War is failing, failing worse than ever before. Along each line of effort – security, politics, and economics – the metrics point downward despite all the blood and treasure already sunk into America’s longest war.
Let’s begin with security, arguably the paramount measure of success in any war. For nearly two decades, one US commanding general after another has assured the American public that – with just a few extra troops and a little more time – he could achieve "victory" in Afghanistan. The US has tried many approaches: a "light footprint" counter-terror force (2001-08), a massive "surge," or infusion of 100,000 troops (2009-13), and a shift to smaller advise and assist elements training the Afghans (2014-present). Nonetheless, after all that time and effort, the security situation is worse than ever.
The Taliban controls or contests more districts – some 44% – than at any time since the 2001 invasion. Total combatant and civilian casualties are forecasted to top 20,000 this year – another dreadful broken record. What’s more, Afghan Security Force casualties are frankly unsustainable – the Taliban are killing more than the government can recruit. The death rates are staggering, numbering 5,500 fatalities in 2015, 6,700 in 2016, and an estimate (the number is newly classified) of "about 10,000" in 2017.
The question at hand is this: what can (or should) the US military do that it hasn’t already tried? Despite all of its sustained commitment and sacrifice (to the tune of 2,416 dead as of early September 2018), the US military and its Afghan partners have not meaningfully stanched the tide of Taliban gains. So, what can some 15,000 U.S. troops accomplish in 2018 that 100,000 could not achieve in 2010-11?
Politically, there are serious questions about Afghan government legitimacy and effectiveness. As a recent US Congressional report concluded, "Afghanistan’s…political outlook remains uncertain, if not negative, in light of ongoing hostilities." Recent trends indicate that the U.S.-backed federal government is fragmenting along ethnic and ideological lines. This should come as little surprise. The last two presidential elections – in 2009 and 2014 – have been wracked by allegations of fraud, and the Parliamentary elections (scheduled for October 2016) have been delayed until at least late 2018. Corruption, fraud, waste and abuse have also been rampant in Kabul. Without a legitimate, stable political partner, no external military force of any size can meaningfully "win."
Finally, there are the strict economic limits of the entire enterprise. Simply put, the Afghan economy does not generate enough income to fund its annual expenditures or even pay its military. For 17 years now, the US has picked up the tab, to the tune of of $762 billion and counting. The economic bottom line is as simple as it is stark: The Afghan GDP, largely based on foreign aid and domestic revenue, is insufficient to even fund the security sector (which runs at $5 billion annually against $2 billion of domestic, annual Afghan revenue). This is an unsustainable formula for perpetual US involvement in the conflict. It just doesn’t add up!
Make no mistake, the departure of US troops from Afghanistan will be ugly; what comes next is difficult to predict. That said, Afghanistan has been at war with itself and others for 39 years – the US intervention is but a part of a war without any discernible end. There is no military solution to the Afghan War. An Afghan settlement to the ongoing Afghan conflict will be messy, but this is an inevitable, irreversible reality the US must accept and mitigate without a costly and futile indefinite intervention.
When announcing his "new" strategy in August 2017, President Trump candidly admitted that his "original instinct" was to pull out of Afghanistan. He was correct – and should consider following those sound instincts. Nonetheless, the US military remains in place and has even conducted a mini-"surge" of advisors this year.
It is time to end this intervention, extract the US military from an unwinnable war, and refocus those assets (of blood and treasure) on training for great-power conflict and genuine homeland defense.
So it is, and so the violence churns on. Last month, an Army Sergeant Major was shot to death by the very Afghan police officers he was there to train. This was a so-called insider attack – an occurrence more common than we’d like to admit. The Sergeant Major was the seventh American soldier killed this year.
And mark my words – there will be another. I’d hate to be the officer assigned to explain to a widow or mother, just what, exactly, he or she died for.
Danny Sjursen is a US Army officer and regular contributor to Antiwar.com. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.
[Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author, expressed in an unofficial capacity, and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the US government.]
Copyright 2018 Danny Sjursen