In Afghanistan, Trump Is Poised to Re-Escalate a Hopeless War

Barely anyone in the United States is paying attention.

U.S. soldiers near Forward Operating Base Fenty in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan on December 19, 2014
U.S. soldiers near Forward Operating Base Fenty in the Nangarhar province of Afghanistan on December 19, 2014 (Lucas Jackson / Reuters)

Republicans are supposedly becoming more nationalistic, less willing to bear the burdens of global empire. Democrats are supposedly moving left, abandoning the “indispensable nation” hawkishness favored by the Clintons. American politics, we are told, is turning into a battle between Breitbart and Bernie Sanders.

So how come America is reportedly considering escalating its war in Afghanistan? Donald Trump, who as a candidate pledged that “If I become president, the era of nation-building will be ended,” may in the coming days decide to send several thousand more troops to take part in a war that has been going on since some of them were toddlers. Democrats, who denounce Trump multiple times before breakfast, will mostly look the other way. And the longest war in American history will grind on, despite the fact that almost no one believes America can win.

How is this possible? Because except for the families whose sons and daughters come back maimed, traumatized, or dead, barely anyone in the United States is paying attention.

It is hard to exaggerate how politically irrelevant the Afghan war has become. Donald Trump did not mention it in his convention acceptance speech. He did not mention it during his three debates with Hillary Clinton. He did not mention it in his big foreign-policy speech last August in Youngstown, Ohio. He did not mention it in his inaugural address. He did not mention it in his speech to a joint session of Congress. And it’s not just Trump. Twenty-seven senators sit on the Armed Services Committee. Together, they barely mentioned Afghanistan while grilling General James Mattis during his hearings to become secretary of defense., which aggregates surveys from different pollsters, does not record a single one about Afghanistan since 2015.

Which is lucky for Trump. Because if more Americans were paying attention, they’d realize that the war he’s escalating is pretty close to hopeless. Since most U.S. troops left the country in 2014, the Taliban has been rapidly gaining ground. In November 2015, according to the federal government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the Afghan government controlled 72 percent of the country’s districts. By February of this year, that had dropped to 52 percent. Unofficial estimates are even worse. Douglas Wissing, the author of Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan, reports that, “I’ve had some intelligence analysts tell me they’re [the Taliban] controlling 90 percent of the countryside.”

The Taliban are unpopular. But they have two big advantages. First, the Afghan army lacks motivation. Karl Eikenberry knows that firsthand: He led NATO troops in Afghanistan before becoming America’s ambassador in Kabul. Last month he told The New York Times that, “The American military has tried for 15 years to help Afghanistan build a professional army. It has always assumed that its own goal of defeating the insurgency is shared by Afghan Army leaders.” But “this is often not so.” The average Afghan officer, he explained, was frequently more concerned with “ensuring the welfare of his family and supporters, staying aligned with political patrons, and avoiding combat so as to preserve his unit, which is a source of revenue.” As a U.S. military official told The Washington Post last year, “There’s a real will-to-fight issue.”

Corruption is deeply intertwined with this unwillingness to fight. The Taliban’s second-biggest source of revenue, after the opium trade, is the American taxpayer, who sends billions in arms and supplies to the Afghan military, much of which ends up in the Taliban’s hands. “We hear story after story of [Afghan] commanders who steal the fuel, sell it to the Taliban, who take the weapons we—you—pay for and sell it to the Taliban,” explained John Sopko, America’s special inspector general for Afghanistan, earlier this year. “The irony of it is, the terrorists are at the end of our supply chain.” Last month, in what’s believed to have been their largest attack on an Afghan military base since the war started, the Taliban stormed an army outpost in northern Afghanistan and killed 170 people. How did they pull it off? In part, because they were wearing Afghan army uniforms, traveling in Afghan army vehicles, and carrying Afghan army-issued M-16s.

The Taliban’s second major advantage is their support from Afghanistan’s neighbors. In a 2014 essay in the Small Wars Journal, Bruce Reider, assistant professor at the United States Army Command and General Staff College, noted that, “The evidence from historical analysis and scholarly research overwhelmingly demonstrates that external support is a decisive factor in determining the outcome of an insurgency.” U.S. military leaders concur. In February, General John Nicholson, commander of the U.S.-led coalition in Afghanistan, acknowledged that, “It is very difficult to succeed on the battlefield when your enemy enjoys external support and safe haven.” The Taliban do, reportedly from three of Afghanistan’s neighbors: Pakistan, Russia, and Iran.

That’s unlikely to change. Russia and Iran are America’s adversaries. They don’t want a permanent American military presence—supported by a strong, stable, U.S. client—on their border. Pakistan’s leaders are less worried about Afghanistan becoming a client of the United States. But they’re terrified of Afghanistan becoming a client of their powerful archrival India. Supporting the Taliban keeps New Delhi from consolidating its influence in Pakistan’s backyard.

It’s unlikely the United States can change Iran and Russia’s calculus, especially since America’s relationships with both governments are getting worse. As for Pakistan, the Obama administration couldn’t convince its government to abandon the Taliban when the U.S. had 100,000 troops in Afghanistan and diplomatic legend Richard Holbrooke was in Islamabad virtually every week. Are Rex Tillerson and his non-existent assistant secretaries really supposed to succeed just because America raises its troop level from 8,400 to 13,000? As former U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan Richard Olson said last month, “Fundamentally, I think Pakistan sees the Taliban as a core strategic asset. I don’t think there’s much that the United States can do to get them to change their core strategic perception.”

And if the Taliban retain their external support, why should they stop the war? For years, America has been aiming less to defeat the Taliban than to weaken them enough that they cut a peace deal. But if the Taliban weren’t willing to sue for peace when they controlled 7 percent of the country and the U.S. stationed 100,000 troops on Afghan soil, why should they do so when they control 50 percent and the U.S. stations 13,000 troops? The Taliban think time is on their side. And they’re right. Even Trump’s advisors, who disdain the withdrawal deadlines set by the Obama administration, “do not want a new American commitment to be open-ended,” according to The New York Times.

We’ve seen this movie before. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon kept insisting that just a few more U.S. troops, or a bit more bombing, would force the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong into a peace deal that preserved the government in Saigon. But Ho Chi Minh knew that Washington’s yearning for a peace agreement stemmed from its fatigue with the war. And that the longer the war dragged on, the stronger his position would get.

Given the Afghan war’s bleak realities, why do thoughtful people like Trump’s National Security Adviser, H.R. McMaster, still want to send more troops? The first reason is moral. Conditions have improved in Afghanistan since the Taliban fell. More women work and go to school. Basic healthcare is more widespread. And outside the country’s south, where the Taliban is strongest, most Afghans want coalition forces to stay.

But it’s not clear the U.S. can preserve these gains even if it does send another few thousand troops. (Remember that a percentage of every dollar America spends on the Afghan military winds up in Taliban hands and that Russia, Iran, and Pakistan can match America’s escalation with an escalation of their own.) At best, maintaining these gains requires war as far as the eye can see. The Afghan government will never have the resources to fight the Taliban on its own. Donor aid constitutes two-thirds of its annual budget. Yet Trump officials themselves reportedly reject the idea that American troops will remain in Afghanistan indefinitely.

Escalation doesn’t only mean more dead, injured, and psychologically scarred Americans. It also means a substantial financial expense. According to the Watson Institute at Brown University, the Afghan war has already cost the United States more than three-quarters of a trillion dollars. And it will cost an additional $40-$50 billion more in fiscal year 2017. That’s five or six times as much as the House of Representatives just added to pay for health insurance for Americans with pre-existing conditions.

And in perhaps the cruelest irony of all, it’s not just American failure that would erode the gains Afghan women have made. American success would erode them too. The U.S., after all, is not trying to vanquish the Taliban. It’s trying to convince them to lay down their arms and join the Afghan government. And if the Taliban agrees, Afghanistan’s government will grow less liberal and less supportive of women’s rights.

It’s hard to imagine that Trump cares. His presidential campaign was nakedly hostile to the notion that the U.S. should expend resources improving the welfare of people beyond America’s shores. If he approves another surge, he’ll likely rely on a second argument: that sending more troops to Afghanistan is necessary to keep Americans safe.

But is it? On the surface, the claim seems plausible. After all, the last time the Taliban ran Afghanistan, al-Qaeda used their hospitality to plot the 9/11 attacks. In theory, al-Qaeda—or ISIS, which boasts perhaps one thousand fighters in Afghanistan—could exploit such hospitality again.

The problem with this argument is that a lot has changed since September 10, 2001, when America’s leaders treated the jihadist terrorist threat as a relative afterthought. The United States now devotes vast resources to preventing terrorists from entering, and across the greater Middle East, it regularly strikes terrorists from the air. In ungoverned spaces in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan, al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters congregate. (They do so in Afghanistan already.) Yet they have failed to carry out large-scale plots inside the United States. As the think tank New America reported in a study last year, “the United States today is a hard target for foreign terrorist organizations, which have not directed and carried out a successful deadly attack in the country since 9/11. This is the result of a layered set of defenses including tips from local communities, members of the public, and the widespread use of informants.” Jihadist terrorists have killed fewer than one hundred Americans on U.S. soil since 9/11. And none of those terrorists received training overseas. As al-Qaeda expert Peter Bergen notes, “Every lethal terrorist attack in the United States in the past decade and a half has been carried out by American citizens or legal permanent residents, operating either as lone wolves or in pairs, who have no formal connections or training from terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda or ISIS.”

This doesn’t mean al-Qaeda or ISIS couldn’t launch future attacks from an Afghanistan that they, alongside the Taliban, control. But given that American citizens or permanent residents—radicalized inside the United States—have carried out every jihadist terrorist attack inside the U.S. since 9/11, it’s also possible that escalating the Afghan war, and killing more Afghan civilians, will radicalize more American Muslims, thus making America less safe.

Yet it’s unlikely that Democrats will raise these objections. If Trump escalates the war in Afghanistan, the decision should leave him politically vulnerable. As with his support of the health care bill passed last week by the House, he is embracing a Republican establishment perspective that contradicts the populist themes on which he ran. Trump appealed to white working class voters, both in the primaries and the general election, in part because he rejected entitlement cuts and protracted wars. Now he’s flipping on both.

But while Democrats scream their lungs out on health care, they have remained largely silent on Afghanistan. Military officials have been signaling a troop surge since February. Yet leading Democratic politicians have said almost nothing. Bernie Sanders hasn’t issued a press release on the subject. Neither has Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Chuck Schumer, Tim Kaine, or Kamala Harris.

In part, this may be due to Democrats’ interminable, post-Vietnam fear—still present despite the many military disasters of the post-9/11 era—of appearing weak by opposing America’s wars. In part, it’s the result of a strange, depressing cycle in which politicians ignore the Afghan war, and thus by failing to raise public consciousness, allow themselves to go on ignoring it. Either way, the gap between the Democratic Party’s pugnaciousness on domestic policy, and its timidity on foreign policy, has never been greater.

Afghanistan is a prime example of the insular, unfalsifiable, elite-driven consensus that Trump vowed to overturn. His decision to embrace escalation would give Democrats an opportunity. If they don’t seize it, they will have no one to blame but themselves.