Who Will Be the Last to Die for a Lie?: The Afghan War Drags On

We have to fight "them" (read: "terrorists") there so we won’t have to fight them here!

You’ve probably heard that tired old trope. Whenever someone dares suggest that after eighteen years of fruitless wars perhaps it’s time for Uncle Sam’s losing war machine to de-escalate in the Greater Middle East, you can expect some version of the worn out platitude of "here" and "there" justification. Utterly simplistic and regularly debunked by existing evidence, the cliché remains ever so pervasive and (for some) persuasive. As a facile, fear-based rationalization it’s rather effective. It’s very superficiality seduces a populace that is utterly apathetic towards U.S. foreign policy – and make no mistake, the owners of this country count on that indifference to wage profitable (for shareholders and CEOs) forever wars in places few Americans could find on the map.

Still, with three more US Marines killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan – all reservists from a Massachusetts-based unit (so much for that one weekend a month deal) – its time to tear down the intellectually dishonest rationalizations for America’s longest war. The Taliban – which is really a coalition of impoverished young nationalists dedicated to drive out the American occupier – simply is not heading to the US to kill your family anytime soon. There were no Afghans on the 9/11 planes and even though the Taliban regime had harbored Osama Bin Laden no Afghans had directly attacked America.

The September 11th attack was a singular event. The catastrophic outcome – the towers collapsing – doubtlessly surprised even the Al Qaeda organization. Critical was America’s militarized response, the original sin of the war on terror, especially the decision to maintain the occupation of Afghanistan once the Taliban was deposed. Shifting gears from counter-terror to counterinsurgency and nation-building was the true turning point, the moment when any sort of American "victory" became impossible. (As if it ever truly was!)

That decision was based upon a series of lies. The lie that if done "right" counterinsurgency can remake whole societies (faux military "intellectuals like that one in particular); that Afghanistan could be transformed into a Jeffersonian republic at the point of a foreign bayonet; that trapped inside every Afghan there’s an American just dying to escape. But the biggest lie is the notion that if the USdoesn’t transform that country or keep our military in place indefinitely, the result would be another 9/11. Taliban fighters – think scruffy farm boys really – are highly unlikely to travel to America and attack our cities. They can’t read, hardly afford to travel, and inhabit a narrow world centered on village and district life. Their goals have always been much more circumscribed and limited to ruling Afghanistan. Anything else is grandiose fantasy. Taliban does not equal Al Qaeda, or ISIS, and it never has.

Make no mistake, the Taliban movement is largely abhorrent and brutal. Still, this doesn’t mean they present a existential strategic threat to the Homeland. Nor does this mean they’re easily beatable since, like it or not, the Taliban is popular in large swaths of the country. That inconvenient fact must drive any sober assessment of the costs and benefits of perpetual US military intervention in Afghanistan. Is the US presence in the country making us any safer? What if our foreign occupation actually generates a nationalist backlash and drives young men into the ranks of the Taliban? These are the sorts of hard questions that sober strategists must consider before asking another young American soldier to fight and potentially die in a war with no end in sight.

To its credit, the Trump administration is now attempting to negotiate with the Taliban, but such peace attempts have dragged on before (during the late Obama years) and, frankly, the Taliban holds the stronger hand. Don’t be surprised, then, if the Taliban ends up getting most of its demands, especially if the peace process is protracted. Which is a scary notion – because we’ve seen this before, in Vietnam.

There, President Nixon, like Mr. Trump, inherited a losing war. Trying to save face, Nixon refused to accept most North Vietnamese demands and kept American soldiers fighting, training, and bombing for long four years. Then, in the end, Tricky Dick went ahead and conceded to the biggest North Vietnamese demand and allowed the communists to keep their military forces within South Vietnam. Some two years later the South fell to those same North Vietnamese troops. The tragedy is that Nixon could have essentially taken the same deal four years before. If he had, 20,000 American troops would not have been killed; neither would perhaps a million Vietnamese. Nixon had only prolonged the inevitable.

In Afghanistan, no matter what deal Trump ends up making (if he does!) it will be amenable to the ascendant Taliban. American fighting, killing, and dying in the interim since Trump took the helm – or even when Obama ran the show – is unlikely to garner Taliban concessions. When America folds and negotiates a weak deal, or once the Taliban again marches on Kabul, all the casualties suffered in the intervening years will have been a tragic waste.

There’s little left for the US military to do in Afghanistan besides to kill, die, and, ultimately, lose the whole war. A massive troop surge under Obama couldn’t "defeat" the Taliban; training and advising the Afghan Army hasn’t worked either – allied Afghans are dying at unsustainable rates and can’t be replaced indefinitely. Rather than admit this fact, the Trump administration simply classified it! Then there’s the Afghan economy, which utterly reliant on foreign aid. Kabul can’t even fund its own security forces. The Taliban control a larger proportion of the country than at any time since 2011. If the mission is hopeless, then, one wishes the US government would at least admit as much; but it won’t.

Trump’s only "new" plan was to keep the American troops in place (against his “instincts” mind you) and simply increase the bombing, including removing civilian casualty restrictions of the Obama years. The result: an 87% annual increase in strikes, five times as many as American airpower unleashed n 2015. Nonetheless, the bombing bonanza has had nearly no effect on the strategic situation in the country. Sure, many more civilians were killed in the strikes – but who really cares about dead brown folks anyway? They’re not people; they’re "collateral damage."

Listen very carefully: so long as the Taliban maintains the support (or fear) of the people in the South and East of the country; a finds safe-haven across the Pakistani border; and possesses the fervent determination to resist foreign occupation, the US military will not succeed – whatever that means anymore – in Afghanistan unless it commits a near genocide of the people or invades and occupies nuclear-armed and heavily populated Pakistan in perpetuity. There are so-called Islamist terror groups across the Greater Middle East from West Africa to South Asia, so why undertake indefinite ground combat in Afghanistan? It defies logic. Maybe that’s the whole point; the sunken costs, corporate profits, and militarized diplomacy that keeps the US at war is intrinsically absurd.

We’re through the looking glass, Alice. Our country no longer fights for any tangible, measurable goal. Wars aren’t linked to discernible threats. Fear sells wars which are fought based on the twin demons of the military welfare state and a toxic martial cult infusing our politics. We don’t fight in Afghanistan because we must, but because we can; the Taliban doesn’t fight in Afghanistan they hate us, but because we are there. It is the perfect formula for forever war. Through it all, the US is not winning. No amount of bombs or troops or time seems capable of altering that uncomfortable truth. This much I know: if I were sitting at peace table – I’d want to hold the Taliban’s hand!

The shame is that someone’s son or daughter will be the last American to die for a mistake, for a lie. And some number of the dead will have been killed long after it mattered and well after it gained negotiators any leverage. For that reason, and especially for our collective apathy, we are all complicit in a great crime against the troops we so celebrate – yet another contradiction in a nation now defined by them!

Danny Sjursen is a retired 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.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen