Heaven knows, even if our politicians and generals don’t, that while we haven’t conclusively lost the war in Afghanistan, we surely haven’t won it. And if we haven’t won the war by now, we’re surely not going to. This fact was hammered home— not for the first time— late last month. In four attacks over just nine days, more than 130 people were killed by terrorists. Some by the Taliban, some by ISIS. As if it matters.
They struck inside Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel. They struck at an Afghan military complex. They struck in Save The Children’s offices in Jalalabad. And in the most lethal of the attacks, they struck with a bomb-packed ambulance inside Kabul’s “ring of steel,” supposedly the most secure sector of the city.
But “most secure” in Afghanistan is only relative. Neither the capital, nor the population nor the government is secure. Nor is the U.S. mission, whatever it actually is today. That is the terrorists’ intent: to prove that nothing is secure, even after 16-plus years of costly American efforts— with a 100,000 troops there at the peak— to exterminate the terrorists and pacify the nation.
Who knows what President Donald Trump might have said about Afghanistan in his State of the Union if not for those four murderous attacks, right on the eve of his address? As it turned out, even though the president is shoring the U.S. force back up to about 15,000 troops, America’s longest and currently its biggest war rated just 34 words. Stirring platitudes about “our warriors in Afghanistan” and “their heroic Afghan partners,” but none that actually pointed toward victory. That’s because victory is no closer now than it was at the outset. Yet few in Washington are talking about bringing those troops home.
They ought to examine the evidence instead of their egos. It is there, for all the world to see.
Exhibit A is our own history of the last 16 years, a history of mission creep. Our original purpose was noble, and necessary: we attacked in 2001 to rid Afghanistan of the vermin who attacked us on Sept. 11. The aim? Annihilate the Taliban who were hosting al-Qaeda and leave Osama bin Laden’s soldiers without the safe haven from which they had planned their attacks. But that mission has long ago come and gone. The latest intelligence concludes that terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS now have safe havens in parts of more than two dozen countries on several continents. Whatever we eventually might accomplish in Afghanistan is utterly moot.
Exhibit B is what we should have learned in earlier wars about alien terrain: no matter how smart we are and how strong we feel, when we’re fighting in the enemy’s neighborhood, he has the advantage. That helps explain why we didn’t win in Vietnam or Iraq. Fighters from the region know every nook and cranny and where to hide, and they have allies around every corner. That is something basic training at Fort Benning can’t equal.
Exhibit C is what we should have learned in earlier wars about counterfeit confidence, which conjures up shades of Vietnam: “Peace is at hand” (except it wasn’t). And shades of Iraq: “Mission accomplished” (except it wasn’t). Now it’s President Trump saying of Afghanistan, “What nobody else has been able to finish, we’re going to be able to do it.” And, in the wake of last month’s terrorist attacks, reporters asked the general who leads the U.S. Central Command if victory in Afghanistan is still a possibility. Gen. Joseph Votel’s chillingly predictable answer? “Absolutely, absolutely.” Trouble is, previous presidents and previous commanding generals have been telling us that for 16 years now.
And Exhibit D is simply Afghanistan’s anything-but-simple history. It has been invaded time and time again, beginning before the birth of Christ with Alexander the Great. Then Arabs, Mongols, the British, the Soviets. All swept through and for the most part, all were swept away. Now, with more than 2,200 American deaths already, it’s our turn.
The most recent attempt, by the Soviets in 1979, was an episode I covered as a reporter with my own eyes. Within days on the ground it became obvious that, for all the superior military force of the invaders, it would never be as potent as the fervent resistance of the mujahideen. The longer the war went on, the more determined I saw the Afghan fighters become to expel every last one of the occupying forces from their country.
The Taliban today are similar. They are tough, they are vicious, and they can bide their time. Like ISIS in other parts of the world, they don’t have to hold territory to win. They just have to hold a nation in the grips of their terror. The more than 130 people killed late last month are only the latest piece of proof that it works.
We’ve been fighting there for almost a generation. While we haven’t lost, we also haven’t won. And positive public pronouncements notwithstanding, there’s no convincing sign that we ever will.
Greg Dobbs is a former Emmy Award-winning correspondent who covered news in more than 80 countries for two television networks, the author of two books, and a former op-ed columnist for The Denver Post.