The Unwinnable Afghanistan War

The systemic failure of the 21st-century American way of war cannot easily be reformed.

The Afghanistan War is unwinnable. Partnered with a corrupt and ineffective Afghan government, U.S. forces face a robust and growing insurgency, substantively funded with skimmed American contracts.

Despite fifteen years of dysfunctional U.S. development schemes costing over $100 billion, Afghans remain near the bottom of most human development indices.

Many Afghans remain resistant to ideas imposed by foreigners. One Kentucky sergeant, frustrated by his failed development mission, drawled to me, “The Afghans ain’t buyin’ what we’re sellin’.”

There is no good way forward. The systemic failure of the 21st-century American way of war cannot easily be reformed. The many entrenched beneficiaries, both Afghan and American, have perverse incentives to continue the futile war. “It’s the perfect war,” one intelligence officer told me. “Everyone is making money.” Doing more of the same won’t yield a different outcome.

With operations ramping up in Syria, Afghanistan is the forgotten war. Yet Afghanistan remains our largest military foreign engagement, with 8,400 troops plus tens of thousands of U.S. defense and agency contractors. U.S. commander Gen. John W. Nicholson recently asked for “a few thousand” more troops to break “the stalemate,” seconded by Centcom commander Gen. Joseph Votel. Neither explained how two-thousand more soldiers could change the direction of the war when 100,000 didn’t.

To fund Afghanistan operations, the Pentagon and State Department initially asked Congress for Fiscal 2017 appropriations of $44 billion, later raised by over $11 billion, with about 70% of the amended request for Afghanistan. (Referentially, the initial budget request for ISIS/Syria operations was only $5 billion.) Economists calculate the Afghanistan War will cost over a trillion dollars; over five trillion for the two post-9/11 wars.

The Taliban have no need to go to the negotiating table. They are winning.

This sacrifice has accomplished little. Sixteen years into the American intervention, Afghanistan’s government is ranked among the world’s most corrupt; ninth on the Fragile States Index. In 2016, tens of thousands of Afghan security forces were war casualties, as were 12,000 civilians. The conflict displaced 600,000 Afghans, adding to the refugee crisis.

Yet Afghanistan remains a disaster zone—still near the bottom of virtually every Human Development Index. Afghans are victims of “phantom aid,” wasted through pernicious corruption and greed in both donor and recipient countries.

Each year since at least 2005, the Taliban strength has been growing at double-digit rates. Analysts indicate insurgents now control about half of the countryside. The insurgents are pressuring provincial capitals across Afghanistan. Kabul is besieged with attacks. Insurgencies are centripetal, starting in the countryside and moving into the government centers. The Taliban have no need to go to the negotiating table. They are winning.

U.S. officials are calling the war “a stalemate.” The Special Forces’ dictum has long been that if an insurgency isn’t shrinking, it’s winning. This is not a stalemate. It is a lost war.

Generals, diplomats, and politicians are arguing the U.S. can’t withdraw from Afghanistan because of the “investment” of American blood and treasure. Smart people understand the wisdom of that great economics concept, Sunk Cost Bias. They are careful to not to throw good money after bad. President Trump is a pragmatic businessman, who knows when it’s time to stop the bleeding. He’s clearly not afraid to pull the plug on a lost cause—or a bad “investment.”

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