The death of six U.S. soldiers near Bagram Airbase on December 21 serves as a grim reminder that while Americans worry about ISIS, the country's longest war is now entering its fifteenth year with no end to it in sight. The tragedy also underscores two additional but often forgotten truths. First, getting into conflicts is much easier than getting out of them. Second, the cost in blood and treasure of virtually every major war that has ever been fought has far exceeded the optimistic estimates of the political leaders who started it. Following this most recent attack it may, therefore, be worth considering a few important questions. What has the war cost us? How did we get into it, and, most important of all, how will we get out?
Over 2,000 U.S. servicemen and women have lost their lives fighting in Afghanistan. Thousands more have been wounded, some of them so badly that they will need medical care for the rest of their seriously impaired lives. The American taxpayers have spent more than $700 billion on the conflict and billions more on aide to Afghanistan, much of it wasted on graft, corruption and unsustainable projects. Adding the legacy costs of the war (long-term medical care and disability benefits, etc.) drives the total even higher. In December 15, 2014, when the war was supposed to have ended, the Financial Times reported that it had already cost $1 trillion. The loss and brokenness suffered by the families and friends of the casualties are beyond counting and compensation.
Ironically, the war began as one of the most justifiable in recent history. Following 9/11, the U.S. got the support of both NATO and the UN before beginning hostilities. Even then, the Bush administration did not rush headlong into the conflict. It sent Mullah Mohammed Omar, leader of the Taliban government, an ultimatum: turn over Osama bin Laden or face invasion. Omar refused, and the U.S. conducted a swift campaign making excellent use of Special Forces supporting the Northern Alliance of anti-Taliban Tajiks. Military operations began in early November, and by the end of the year, an interim government had been set up in Kabul.
Having won the conventional war, the U.S. and its allies needed to secure the peace. During the post-invasion period, however, things began to unravel. The Whitehouse had no interest in a lengthy nation-building mission, especially since it wished to invade Iraq. Washington handed over security to NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), albeit with a sizable American component, and left rebuilding to USAID, the UN and a host of humanitarian agencies. All but a handful of the military contingents in ISAF operated under such restrictive rules of engagement that they could not take the fight to the Taliban. The extremists regrouped in the Federally Administered Tribal Area of Pakistan, a loosely governed region along the Afghan border. Taking advantage of corruption, poor governance and a flawed strategy to defeat them, they have reasserted control over areas of the country, recapturing the city of Kunduz last fall.
If the revival of the Taliban were not bad enough, the country is once again becoming a cockpit for various groups and foreign powers. ISIS has reared its ugly head in Afghanistan. The Middle Eastern extremist group is recruiting young boys. It can also pay Afghan fighters more than what the regular army offers them, a powerful inducement in such a poor country. While it may not be able to displace the Taliban, ISIS will increase violence in the country. In the north, the Islamic movement of Uzbekistan has made gains, and the Tajik minority that once formed the Northern Alliance has never been reconciled to being ruled by the Pashtun government in Kabul. Meanwhile Russia is supplying the Afghan government with arms, just like it did in the 1980s.
So much for how we got to the present state of affairs--how will we ever get out of this mess? Perhaps it is time to recognize the wisdom of what the British learned over a century ago and the Soviets experienced in the last decade of the Cold War. Afghanistan is only in the most limited sense of the term a "state." Its ethnic groups crisscrossed with a complex network of tribal and family ties have never been effectively government from Kabul, which even today exercises only limited sovereignty over the national territory. If the Afghans have not been able to unify around a leader of their own choosing, it is hard to believe that they will ever support one they perceive was put in place by a foreign power. Despite all the aide and training we have given it, the Afghan Army still cannot operate effectively without U.S. support. At the local level, the Taliban often governs better, or at least more fairly, than the official state.
All of these factors suggest that it might be wiser to contain and manage Afghanistan than occupy it even with a reduced military contingent. The U.S. should consider withdrawing sooner rather than later. The Afghan government may well fall and the country could fragment, in which case the U.S. might work with the Tajiks, leaving the Pakistanis to deal with the Pashtuns. Communicating to whoever rules in Kabul that the U.S. would leave them alone provided they do not export terrorism or allow other groups operating on their territory to do so might have a salutary effect. The U.S. ability to strike with stand-off weapons would provide a strong incentive to heed that warning. This strategy is not ideal, but it is preferable to wasting more lives and money in what is looking increasingly like a lost cause.