War WithoutEnd

Newsweek - - Contents - BY JEFF STEIN

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.”

Ground­hog Day

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.

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