In recent tense meeting, President Trump correctly told his generals that they were “losing” the war in Afghanistan, rejected their proposed strategy, and sent them back to the drawing board to create a new one. Like chronic alcoholism, compulsive American meddling in the affairs of other countries can only be recovered from by admitting the problem exists in the first place. President Trump has partially accomplished this first step by recognizing what has been obvious for years, but an even more enlightened conclusion would be that the war has been “lost” for quite some time now and the only solution is withdrawal U.S. forces as quickly as possible.
However, that is not the new strategy that the generals will likely come up with. Instead, as in Vietnam, they will continue to say — and probably even believe — that a turnaround is still possible. Of course, they have had 16 years to “win” the war, but have abjectly failed to do so. In any counterinsurgency war, if the insurgents are not losing, they are winning. Fighting guerrilla style means that insurgents use hit and run tactics against the weak points of a generally stronger enemy (usually government or foreign forces) and the then flee before the stronger side can catch them. Over time, the guerrillas are hoping to make the stronger party exhausted, and if it is a foreign occupier, make the war so costly in lives and money that that participant eventually goes back home.
The Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan are not only winning by not losing and hanging on, they are winning absolutely by capturing and holding more of the Afghan government’s territory. Thus, after 16 years of fighting, about 2,400 American military deaths, more than 20,000 wounded, about 1,200 U.S. civilian contractor deaths, and a whopping half trillion dollars wasted in this quagmire, instead of cutting its losses, the Trump administration seems to be willing to let the military re-escalate the war by sending 3,000 to 5,000 additional U.S. forces. Such forces would continue to “advise and assist” chronically illiterate, incompetent, corrupt, and AWOL Afghan security forces. In fact, despite their job description, U.S. forces do fight in combat and still take casualties.
Of course, if 100,000 U.S. troops could not subdue Afghanistan, the only way U.S.-trained Afghan forces could do so if they were impeccably honest and competent forces who knew the pulse of the Afghan people―so they could get good intelligence on who were clandestine insurgents and neutralize them. Yet, this pipe dream is not even worth fantasizing about.
But if the United States withdraws completely from Afghanistan, won’t the country go back into chaos and be a haven for future terrorist attacks against the United States? After all ISIS is now in Afghanistan, and some sources say the group is now cooperating with the Taliban to attack U.S. and Afghan targets. Also, in western Afghanistan, Iran is now trying to keep Afghanistan unstable by supplying the Taliban with weapons, funds, and fighters to use against U.S. and Afghan forces (U.S. ally Pakistan has always supported the Taliban in eastern and southern Afghanistan to do the same).
The major problem with U.S. foreign policy is that, like an alcoholic in denial, no questions were asked about why Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda perpetrated the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan in the first place. Then-President George W. Bush told us that al Qaeda had attacked us because of our “freedoms,” which enraged bin Laden, who then rhetorically asked why he hadn’t attacked Sweden instead. No one chose to hear what bin Laden kept repeating: he attacked the United States because of the U.S. military presence in the Islamic holy land of Saudi Arabia and U.S. treatment of Muslim countries—read U.S. meddling in the Middle East. To understand bin Laden’s motivation for the attacks is not to condone such brutal atrocities, but to attempt to find a quiet change in U.S. policy that might take the fire out of the Islamist jihad.
Of course, the US government should have introspectively reached the conclusion that U.S. interventionism in the Middle East had helped create the problem, or at least exacerbated it and had directed it more against the United Sates. Donald Rumsfeld, then George W. Bush’s secretary of defense, famously asked after 9/11, “Are we creating more terrorists than we are killing?” No one has ever answered his question, but the correct answer was and is “yes,” especially after the invasion of Muslim soil in Iraq and then the primarily air wars against terrorists in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Syria that have now spanned three U.S. presidential administrations.
Even before that, the Carter and Reagan administrations helped create al Qaeda by funding the radical Afghan Mujahideen guerrillas in the 1980s and George H.W. Bush motivated bin Laden to begin his war with the United States by unnecessarily leaving U.S. military forces in Saudi Arabia after the first Gulf War. The United States also created what eventually became ISIS, which arose as resistance to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In Pakistan, the U.S. war in Afghanistan spilled over into that country and thus created the Pakistani Taliban. In Somalia, U.S. support for an Ethiopian invasion of Somalia created the virulently Islamist al Shabab group. In Yemen, empirical documentation has shown that U.S. bombing of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has increased the number of fighters being recruited by the group. Despite all the publicity surrounding ISIS, AQAP might still be the most dangerous group to the United States, because their leaders like to blow up passenger airliners.
Currently, the United States is at war in at least seven Islamic countries. Non-Muslim forces fighting on Muslim land angers even moderate Muslims. Before the American fracking boom, even when the United States was more dependent on foreign oil, it was cost-ineffective to use massive military forces to “safeguard” what was best provided by the world oil market, but now that U.S. policy is even more absurd. If anyone doubts that a lower U.S. profile in Muslim countries would reduce blowback terrorism, the case of Lebanon in the 1980s needs to be examined. The Shi’ite Islamist group Hezbollah was attacking U.S. targets regularly, but after the United States withdrew its forces from that country, the attacks gradually attenuated.
The United States needs to get out of Afghanistan for good and end its other primarily air wars in Muslim countries. None of these countries are strategic to the United States, and wars there merely generate unwanted blowback. These brushfire wars left over from the War on Terror, which actually increased terrorism, distract and take resources from U.S. efforts to counter a much more important potential foreign policy problem: a rising China.