Seventeen years and $1 trillion later, the Afghanistan war grinds on. Is America’s costliest conflict a “total disaster” or a necessary evil?
was shocked in 1842 when she belatedly learned the entire British army in Afghanistan, some 16,000 men, had been annihilated by tribal warriors. But not, evidently, for long. Undeterred, the United Kingdom would shrug off the loss—fight two more wars in Afghanistan—and never gave a thought to relinquishing its self-given role as the world’s civilizing and stabilizing force. A hundred years would pass before it finally exhausted its Treasury and lost its empire in the Second World War.
The United States assumed Britain’s role as the world’s superpower in 1945. But now it, too, faces exhausting drains on its Treasury, manpower and political will as a result of the original sin of attempting a gunpoint democratization of Afghanistan. Battered further by catastrophic forays into Iraq, Libya and Syria, millions of Americans are questioning their country’s rightful role in the world. About half of American adults say the U.S. “has mostly failed in achieving its goals there,” according to a recent Pew Research Center poll, while only about a third say it has succeeded. Another 16 percent say they do not know.
Now, President Donald Trump is said to be shifting back to his view that the war is a “total disaster” and considering a troop withdrawal. But would disengagement from Afghanistan herald a new era of isolationism? At first glance, it would seem so. Trump not only proclaims Washington’s meddling in the Middle East and South Asia a waste of time, lives and money but also regularly questions the entire edifice of the bedrock U.s.-european alliances that have kept the world from sliding into a nuclear world war for the past three-quarters of a century. His “America first” proclamations seem synonymous with a go-it-alone, Fortress America doctrine.
Yet many see a darker consequence to Trump’s strategies. A complete withdrawal from Afghanistan would leave the fractious nation to the intrigues of a theocratic Iran, a rising China and especially Vladimir Putin’s Russia, not to mention Pakistan and India, in yet another iteration of the 200-year-old “Great Game” for influence in the region. And while Trump questions the value of NATO and the European Union, he and his advisers have championed other Kremlin designs on the West, notably by backing the U.K.’S Brexit vote and the rise of other nationalist “blood and soil” parties across Europe.
To the foreign policy establishments of Washington and Western Europe, Trump’s policies are not isolationist but treacherous, undermining the structures that have kept the peace for 73 years. Congress showed its displeasure by sending the president veto-proof legislation to impose new sanctions on Russia and warning him not to fire special counsel Robert Mueller.
But does the desire for military disengagement from an unwinnable Afghan war signal a sensible recalculation of American strategies or something worse? World leaders from Kabul to Berlin are waiting and worried.
Trump, Meet Quagmire
almost a decade ago, one of america’s longtime experts on Afghanistan forecast a horrendous scenario if the Taliban kept gaining ground in the war: an emergency evacuation of U.S. personnel from Kabul that would make the helicopter-borne escapes from the American Embassy in South Vietnam look easy.
The prediction of Kabul’s collapse was premature—by years. The 2009 op-ed piece by Thomas Johnson, a research professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, predicted the rout could come as
early as 2012 if U.S. strategy didn’t change. Six years later, after dramatic troop reductions, the U.S. is still holding on in Afghanistan, but the prognosis is ever gloomier. According to some sources, Trump is reverting to his longtime position that the war is a failure. Others doubt he ever abandoned it.
“What the fuck are we doing there?” Trump snarled when H.R. Mcmaster, his now-departed national security adviser, proposed a revised military strategy in the summer of 2017, according to Fear, Bob Woodward’s book about the president. Trump grumbled to his then-aide Rob Porter that Afghanistan “would never be a functioning democracy. We ought to just exit completely.”
Regardless, Trump was talked into an open-ended commitment and 4,000 more troops for Afghanistan in August 2017, making the total more than 14,000. There are also nearly 27,000 contractors working for the U.S., about 10,000 of whom are U.S. citizens.
October 7 marked the 17th anniversary of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. It is America’s longest war, and though hardly the deadliest—the Vietnam conflict took 58,200 American military lives—it’s by far the costliest. Right now, the U.S. is spending roughly $50 billion a year on military-related operations in Afghanistan, with estimates for the war’s total cost to date ranging from $841 billion to $1.07 trillion (when the cost of Veterans Affairs care is figured in). Official Pentagon numbers are far lower.
And then there are the costs to the troops. The exact numbers for how many men and women have served only in Afghanistan, and how many times, are hard to come by. But a recent RAND Corp. study said 2.77 million service members have served on 5.4 million deployments across the world since the 9/11 attacks, mostly in the Middle East and South Asia, “with soldiers from the Army accounting for the bulk of them.”
By the end of July, 2,372 military service members had died in Afghanistan, with 20,232 wounded in action, the Pentagon reported. But according to Brown University’s Costs of War project, “At least 970,000 veterans have some degree of officially recognized disability as a result of the wars” in Afghanistan and Iraq (where most U.S. troops were withdrawn in 2011).
Afghan civilians have had it far worse, of course. By mid-2016, the combined death toll among Afghans and Pakistanis living in the combat theaters was 173,000 dead and more than 183,000 seriously wounded, according to the Brown project.
After U.S. Special Forces and CIA teams ran the Taliban out of Kabul 17 years ago, Washington had grandiose dreams of bringing peace and democracy to Afghanistan, which has been torn by armed conflict since the 1979 Soviet invasion—and, long before that, by three wars spanning 80 years with the British Empire. But victory is no longer Washington’s objective. By 2017, its goal was to bomb the Sunni extremists into peace talks and a possible power-sharing regime with the shaky government of President Ashraf Ghani.
A year later, however, it’s clear that strategy has failed. The Taliban, buoyed by startling battlefield successes, including increasingly easy entrée into Kabul with devastating suicide attacks, coupled with Ghani’s growing unpopularity, will now talk only about a complete withdrawal of troops, most experts say, before addressing any issues related to a power-sharing deal with Kabul. The Pentagon and State Department “are trying to negotiate some sort of face-saving deal with the Taliban,” says Thomas Joscelyn, a senior editor at the Long War Journal website, which has closely monitored Islamic militant activities since Al-qaeda’s September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. “They desperately want the Taliban to say, in some language, ‘Hey, it’s OK for you to leave.’ And the Taliban just wants us out—that’s what they have reiterated over and over again. They want us out.” All of which, according to the Washington foreign-
policy rumor mill, has led Trump to conclude once more that the war is a lost cause. The president, it’s said, wants to announce a timetable for a troop withdrawal after the November midterms, a drawdown that would begin in 2020. But no one seems to be pushing now for either a quick, complete pullout or greater military involvement in Afghanistan, says Anthony Cordesman, a longtime adviser to the State and Defense departments on Iraq and Afghanistan. And with a new commander having just arrived in Kabul and conducting his own assessment, Trump has reason to wait rather than act. Lately, he’s been weighing a $5 billion proposal by controversial Blackwater founder Erik Prince to win the war with a few thousand hired guns.
“The president doesn’t have to come to grips with any of this for at least several months,” says Cordesman, now holder of the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, D.C. “There are reasons not to—midterm elections in the U.S., elections scheduled in Afghanistan, peace talks are still at least possible, and winter will reduce the military pressure.”
Also, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s long-awaited appointment of Zalmay Khalilzad as the State Department’s new special envoy on Afghanistan was not finalized until September 21. The mission of Khalilzad, a highly respected former ambassador to Kabul, is to pursue negotiations with the Taliban.
“My guess would be that there’s no voice out there pushing hard on Afghanistan relative to all the other issues the administration faces,” Cordesman says. But if Trump did decide to act, he added, “I think you’re going to see two things: a relatively rapid phasedown, rather than an immediate withdrawal, and a pretty serious pushback against any kind of large refugee acceptance or Afghan immigration.”
The White House declined Newsweek’s repeated requests to discuss the president’s thinking on Afghanistan.
Since Trump is famously volatile and, by many accounts, gets talked out of rash decisions, it’s difficult to predict what he’ll ultimately do, every expert on the war cautions. “He was staunchly for the pullout just prior to last year’s announcement [of more troops],” a serving intelligence officer notes, speaking on terms of anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the media. “He then did a 180, so it’s hard to say exactly where things are going to go.” Plus, he adds, top military brass can stymie any abrupt Trump order to abandon Afghanistan by arguing that the new U.S. commander there, General Austin Scott Miller, needs time to write his own military assessment for the White House.
“That’s something that they always ask for,” says the intelligence officer. It’s a foot-dragging technique that the military has used for a decade to help stave off the inclinations of President Barack Obama, and now Trump, to withdraw. “It’s not mission creep but calendar creep,” the officer says. “The next thing you know, it’s another year.”
a somber new national intelligence estimate on Afghanistan—completed in August, sources say, but still under wraps—could give Trump cover to pivot back to getting out. “Every NIE on Afghanistan has been gloomy for many years,” former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper tells Newsweek. But this one, first reported on by The Wall Street Journal, is said to be even more pessimistic, highlighting Taliban gains over the past year and the Ghani regime’s unpopularity and endemic corruption.
“It’s a devastating document,” says a source who has discussed the NIE’S findings with a top administration official, because it will say the continuing stalemate “is a victory for the insurgents.” And Trump, the source adds, “will go apeshit” because it will confirm his urge to “get the hell out.”
Officially a product of U.S. intelligence, but in reality deeply influenced by the State Department, Pentagon and White House, top-secret NIE’S are 3D snapshots of a current situation in a country with a look at what’s to come. Over many decades, officials have managed to tilt such reports into preconceived conclusions, such as the George W. Bush administration’s infamous report on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq (which turned out to be nonexistent). Officials also commonly leak parts of an NIE to the press to buttress their positions. Trump may well declassify segments that reinforce his desire to get out, but he will face resistance from inside his government.
The State Department’s position is that the U.S. and coalition forces are winning. “Taliban attacks
“if the taliban were to win in afghanistan... it would be a massive boost to the jihadist movement.”
against Afghan population centers have failed to take and hold urban areas and instead resulted in heavy casualties for the attacking Taliban fighters,” a spokesperson says, speaking on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to put her name on the statement. She credits “an ever-increasing capability of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces,” which “remain in control of all provincial capitals.”
Outside experts say the Taliban’s strength has ballooned from 25,000 to 75,000 fighters in recent years. “It has 17 percent of popular support,” says Johnson, author of Taliban Narratives: The Use and Power of Stories in the Afghanistan Conflict. “Mao would say that’s a definite win.” By mid-2017, according to a U.S. government report, “the Afghan government controlled about 60 percent of Afghan territory, a 6 percent reduction of the amount it controlled at that same point in 2016.” The figures have worsened since then, Johnson says.
But the Pentagon will push back against any report rationalizing a complete Afghan withdrawal, close observers say.
The military is “drinking their own Kool-aid about Afghanistan,” says a counterinsurgency expert who advises the administration. “They think it is going well.” “Everybody except for the generals knows that time is not on our side,” says the intelligence officer. “It’s not on Kabul’s side. It’s on the Taliban’s side.” Says another longtime observer, “The intelligence agencies think the war is a dismal failure.”
CALENDAR CREEP After proclaiming the invasion a “terrible mistake” during his campaign, Trump sent 4,000 more troops to Afghanistan in 2017. From top: U.S. Army soldiers wait to disembark a C-17 cargo plane in 2013; an aerial view of Kabul. Opposite: Trump in 2017, ʀanked by his thenś national security adviser, H.R. Mcmaster, and his chief of staff, John Kelly.