U.S. for­got Afghanistan, but John Kelly has not

The Denver Post - - PERSPECTIVE - By Markos Kounalakis

Amer­i­cans may have lost sight of the Afghan war, but Don­ald Trump’s new chief of staff, Gen. John F. Kelly, has not. He sac­ri­ficed his son to that war. He knows that what hap­pens in Afghanistan does not stay in Afghanistan. Now, if he can fo­cus West Wing minds, he may bring Afghanistan back to the pub­lic con­scious­ness, where it be­longs.

War re­porters call ki­netic ac­tion “boom-boom.” Ex­plod­ing stuff makes good pic­tures and gets at­ten­tion. But nearly 16 years of boom-boom has dulled Amer­i­cans’ senses, and their out­rage. Years of fight­ing to turn out the Tal­iban evolved into na­tion build­ing, troop surges and ac­tive coun­terin­sur­gency and then mor­phed into rounds of pres­i­den­tially or­dered re­de­ploy­ments and more train­ing of Afghan forces be­fore creep­ing, fi­nally, into the sup­pos­edly nar­row coun­tert­er­ror­ism mis­sion that falls short of the with­drawal politi­cians ev­ery elec­tion cy­cle say they sup­port.

Clearly, some­thing hap- pened along the way.

Boom-boom from the Afghan prov­inces is no longer a daily Amer­i­can pop­u­lar con­cern. It is just a costly and dis­as­trous daily re­al­ity. Ira­ni­ans and Rus­sians are bog­ging down Amer­i­can ef­forts, strength­en­ing the Tal­iban’s ma­te­rial abil­i­ties and re­solve, and do­ing to the United States what it did to the Sovi­ets in the 1980s dur­ing the last big blood­let­ting. Afghanistan’s boom-boom is back­ground to the am­pli­fied daily White House dis­so­nance. In June, De­fense Sec­re­tary James Mat­tis told the Se­nate Armed Ser­vices Com­mit­tee that Amer­ica is “not win­ning in Afghanistan right now.”

That’s not to say the strat­egy isn’t be­ing re­viewed or the mil­i­tary isn’t ad­just­ing and putting pres­sure and pre­par­ing Afghan forces to lead the fight — of course it is. The U.S. mil­i­tary is a learn­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion that adapts to the facts on the ground and takes both force pro­tec­tion and its mis­sion deadly se­ri­ously.

Pub­licly, how­ever, Amer­ica has lost in­ter­est and per­spec­tive on the great­est suck on its re- sources and strength in a gen­er­a­tion. How can it be that Afghanistan, a le­git­i­mate war started in re­sponse to al-qaeda’s 2001 at­tack on the Twin Tow­ers and meant only to top­ple the Tal­iban has turned into the quag­mire now firmly into its third pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion? A war that was be­gun with 24 spe­cial-forces troops, a few horses and some don­keys, in a supremely well­co­or­di­nated and con­ducted strike with na­tive North­ern Al­liance forces ac­tion has turned into an in­fi­nite money pit, killing zone and never-end­ing story.

Can­di­date Don­ald Trump said Mid­dle East wars had cost $6 tril­lion. Some peg Amer­ica’s out­lay at $33,000 bor­rowed per Afghan. The num­ber changes de­pend­ing on who’s count­ing and how.

The fi­nan­cial cost is one thing. The hu­man cost is in­cal­cu­la­ble. Kelly knows this from his Afghan com­mand and his per­sonal loss — one of his Marine sons, 1st Lieu­tenant Robert Kelly, stepped on a land­mine while lead­ing his pla­toon in 2010.

Long-term war costs are al­ways high. In Afghanistan, they are ex­or­bi­tant. The cheap, quick and dirty Tal­iban over­throw at the end of 2001, howev- er, cost Amer­ica in other ways. The snap top­pling of the Kabul Tal­iban lead­er­ship led to the hubris and over­con­fi­dence that Amer­ica was on a roll. That the na­tion could use the vic­to­ri­ous mo­men­tum to com­pletely and in­de­pen­dently change the face of the re­gion be­fore it fully com­pleted the multi­na­tional job at hand in Afghanistan. Amer­ica and its al­lies got dis­tracted in Iraq, los­ing fo­cus on this back­ward place with bare­bones sov­er­eign state le­git­i­macy. Afghanistan re­mains a jum­ble of tribes and a mix of dis­jointed to­pogra­phies cob­bled to­gether and called a coun­try.

Its ge­o­graphic lo­ca­tion is what makes it im­por­tant. Its re­cent his­tory is what makes it a threat. It re­mains one big breed­ing ground for an anti-amer­i­can in­sur­gency fed by a du­plic­i­tous Pak­istan sym­pa­thetic and sup­port­ive of guerilla war­riors. Even the Is­lamic State has now found a wel­com­ing and fer­tile new breed­ing ground in and around Afghanistan. Rus­sians and Ira­ni­ans look at nearby Afghanistan and see the per­fect place for pay­back and mis­chief against a far­away and po­lit­i­cally aloof Amer­ica.

Why do the United States and its al­lies stay in? It is a sin­cere ques­tion. The odds are tough, the con­di­tions worse. What is re­quired, not just for Congress, the mil­i­tary, and the Amer­i­can peo­ple is a clear and con­cise goal: What are U.S. troops sup­posed to be do­ing in Afghanistan? The mis­sion needs to be de­fined and ar­tic­u­lated for ev­ery­one.

Kelly’s dis­ci­pline, clar­ity and fo­cus are leg­end. Kabul, Kan­da­har, Hel­mand, Nan­garhar, Logar — they are faintly fa­mil­iar to a tired and dis­tracted Amer­i­can pub­lic. Those Afghan prov­inces, how­ever, re­side deep in Kelly’s sinews and soul. Bring­ing a flail­ing West Wing back to ba­sics and to defin­ing the Afghan mis­sion could bring Amer­ica’s at­ten­tion back to an oth­er­wise for­got­ten war. “Win­ning,” how­ever, is some­thing al­to­gether dif­fer­ent.

Markos Kounalakis is a se­nior fel­low at Cen­tral Euro­pean Uni­ver­sity and vis­it­ing fel­low at the Hoover In­sti­tu­tion. Email him at markos@stan­ford.edu. Fol­low him on Twit­ter: @Kounalak­ism

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