Small Wars Journal

Time for America to Leave Afghanistan

Tue, 06/26/2018 - 2:10am

Time for America to Leave Afghanistan

Richard A. Carrick

As the United States enters its eighteenth year in its war against the Taliban in Afghanistan, the U.S. military remains no closer to ending this conflict. In April the Taliban rejected the latest peace proposals by the Afghan government, and now it appears the war is moving steadily against the U.S. supported Afghan government. President Trump has given the U.S. military one last chance to implement a new strategy to end the conflict. For him, the American people, the Afghans, and the U.S. military the decisive point in this long conflict is rapidly approaching.

Although no reliable poll exists, there is strong evidence that most Afghans after almost forty years of civil war do not care who rules in Kabul as long as the never-ending death and destruction finally stop. There is no doubt that ending U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan has the overwhelming support of most Americans. It appears it is only the senior U.S. military commanders who refuse to acknowledge it is time to leave.

The heart of America’s Afghan war dilemma is rooted in two fundamentally wrong assumptions. The first is the belief the U.S. military can ultimately find a strategy to, if not totally defeat the Taliban, at least force them into some type of peace talks with the Afghan government. The other more emotional factor is for many Americans the 9/11 tragedy is connected to the Taliban, who allowed the terrorists to use Afghanistan to plan their attack. The assumption is that to again allow the Taliban to rule in Kabul would increase the threat of terrorist attacks on America. 

“War is too important to be left to the Generals” is a famous comment made by Georges Clemenceau, premier of France during World War I. He learned along with many other civilian leaders that leaving a war to the generals can be a recipe for disaster. The generals convinced Obama they needed far greater U.S. troop levels in order to finally crush the Taliban. He agreed and doubled the U.S. troops to 100,000. That strategy failed at a cost of thousands of lives. Undeterred, in August of last year the U.S. military this time convinced President Trump they had another plan for success. The generals said they needed Obama’s restrictions on U.S. aerial attacks lifted and U.S. troops levels doubled to 15,000. They assured Trump that even if the Taliban could not be totally defeated, this new strategy would hammer them into finally agreeing to negotiate peace with the Afghan government.

The U.S. military believes this new plan will replicate a similar one used in defeating ISIS in Iraq and Syria. There is little likelihood this strategy will prove any more effective than previous ones because the situation in Afghanistan is dramatically different from what existed in the Iraq/Syria conflict. It will also fail because on a broader philosophical basis, the U, S. military is fighting against the tide of history.

A Revised U.S. Military Strategy

There are specific reasons why the latest U.S. strategy used to defeat Isis in Iraq/Syria is not transferable to the Afghan conflict. Three of the important strategic elements that made it work are missing in Afghanistan. In Iraq/Syria ISIS was defending a series of fixed positions located mostly in large cities and towns. These locations offered excellent targets for aerial attacks by U.S. planes, drones and missiles with maximum cost effectiveness. Heavy artillery directed by U.S. advisors was also successfully used against these fixed targets. Additionally, Russia periodically applied devastating aerial bombardment in Syria, although not always against ISIS.

In the Afghan war the U.S. military is in the reverse situation with the Afghan/ U.S. forces defending fixed positions in cities and bases. It is the Taliban that is effectively attacking these positions, frequently with suicide bombers. The new U.S. strategy of increasing the aerial bombardment of widely dispersed Taliban positions in rural locations cannot replicate the success of bombing ISIS held cities like Mosul and Raqqa. Although increased U.S. air attacks will reduce opium production, a source of funding to the Taliban, it will not be decisive because the lost revenue will be made up by their covert allies that are increasing their assistance.

The second missing factor is an effective ground force. No matter how destructive an air war, ground forces are needed to take and hold territory. In Iraq/Syria there were large numbers of trained and highly motived local ground forces. These included the Kurdish Peshmerga, Iraqi Shite militia and Hezbollah (with Iranian advisors) that conducted successful campaigns to recapture the cities and destroy ISIS. The presence of these forces required only limited use of U.S. troops resulting in few casualties. These local forces were motivated not by abstract Western ideas of universal values, but rather their own strong sectarian beliefs and interests.

In Afghanistan, however, after seventeen years of training and assistance by the U.S., most government troops are ineffective even when supported by U.S. advisors and air power. Except for some elite units, government forces are motivated only to collect pay checks. A similar situation existed with the Korean, Vietnamese and Iraqi armies also trained by U.S. military. Without U.S. military and financial support these forces rapidly collapsed as would the Afghan army and government. Conversely, the Taliban, even with vastly smaller resources, has proven to be a highly motived and effective fighting force with unusual resilience. The logical conclusion is this Taliban success reflects Afghan antipathy to Western military intervention.

The third missing element is lack of local regional allies. In the campaign to defeat ISIS the U.S. was part of a coalition of regional states that was crucial to success. All were committed to the defeat of ISIS along with their own agendas. In Afghanistan the situation is the exact opposite. All the regional powers to one degree or another are working against U.S. objectives. As the U.S. escalates its policies against these powers, Iran, Russia and Pakistan, they are responding by increasing their covert support to the Taliban.

A Clash of Civilizations

Beyond the flaws in the revised U.S. strategy, in Afghanistan America is also fighting against the irresistible tide of Third World nationalism that rejects the imposition of Western ideas and culture. For Afghans the American invasion of the 21st century is no different than the occupation of Kabul by the British imperialists in the 19th century and the Russian invasion in the 20th century. America’s attempt to justify continuing this military conflict to protect the so-called universal values of democracy and human rights is viewed by most Afghans as just an excuse to impose another form of colonialism. The vast majority of Afghans are illiterate and neither understand nor support these universal values.

The Taliban have continued to gradually expand their control in spite of Western troops levels that at one point reached 140,000 and America spending over half a trillion dollars in support of the Afghan government. This amazing resilience of the Taliban can only be understood when viewed in the historical context of why European imperialism failed and why U.S. military interventions in Korea, Vietnam and Iraq could never achieve victory. Although an unpopular idea among many historians, all these futile Western efforts to impose its culture on Third World nations represent examples of Clashes of Civilizations where the European imperialists and the United State were fighting on the wrong side of history.  

Is Taliban Rule a Threat to America?

The second broad assumption used to justify continued U.S. military intervention is a return to power of the Taliban risks terrorists again using Afghanistan to plan attacks against America. This assumption is not only incorrect but precludes an accurate analysis of the benefits of ending U.S. military intervention.

Events since 9/11 prove there is no more likelihood that terrorists will use Afghanistan as a base to plan attacks on America than any number of other locations including directly within the United States. A potential future Taliban government in Afghanistan is unlikely to allow terrorists to use the country as a major base to threaten America. After seventeen years of fighting to get the U.S. military out of Afghanistan, why would the Taliban take actions to again provoke U.S. intervention? The risk of American retaliation by devastating U.S. aerial attacks on Afghan cities and other installations would act as a further deterrent to the Taliban harboring terrorists. A realistic assessment of a Taliban government in Kabul shows it would not represent a major threat to the United States. An Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban would simply revert to its previous decentralized somewhat chaotic state that mirrors its various tribal and ethnic groups.

An end to this war would mean immediate benefits to America. It would stop the killing of more Americans in a hopeless conflict and save between fifty to a hundred billion dollars a year that could be used to rebuild America. Perhaps, most ironically, a U.S. withdrawal and a return of Taliban rule will represent a far greater threat to Iran, Russia and Pakistan, the very nations that are currently working to undermine U.S. policy.

President Trump Ends U.S. Military Intervention

The problem for President Trump was Obama’s failure to follow through on his plan to withdraw all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the end of 2016. The question confronting the President is how long will he continue to support the revised U.S. military strategy when it fails to produce results? Although the financial cost can be endured, the continued loss of American lives in a hopeless war cannot be. By the end of April 2018, 2,264 Americans were killed with 16 lost since President Trump took office. Who will be the last American to die in this lost war?

Until recently the Taliban has lacked effective weapons, beyond the suicide bombers, to inflict serious casualties on U.S. forces who, for the most part, are in highly fortified locations. As U.S. relations deteriorate with Iran, Russia and Pakistan, there appears to be evidence these adversaries may be increasing their assistance to the Taliban including providing enhanced weaponry that risks greater U.S. casualties. Continued American losses in Afghanistan will only increase the furor over a conflict that most Americans detest. The recent deaths of four U.S. military personnel in Niger is an example of the domestic outrage provoked by American deaths in pointless wars.

Most Americans would support any policy President Trump implements to end U.S. military involvement. The original “America First” movement was born out of Americans deep revulsion to sacrificing their children to fight in useless wars. And the Afghans, who have suffered the most, desperately want the killing to end.

After seventeen years, the U.S. generals have again failed to find a strategy to defeat the Taliban or even to force them to negotiate. Last year President Trump gave them another chance, but after ten months there is little to show for it. Shortly this revised strategy is up for review and it is then the President must finally order the generals to bring the troops home and accept whatever the consequence including a return of Taliban rule.


Categories: Afghanistan War

About the Author(s)

Richard A. Carrick graduated from Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of International Affairs and the University of Pennsylvania’s Law School. A former officer in the U.S. Army, he spent thirty-four years at Bankers Trust Co. as Managing Director in international banking and risk management.