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The War in Afghanistan: America's Longest Conflict

The War in Afghanistan: America's Longest Conflict

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By John Ubaldi
Columnist, In Homeland Security

Last month, the United States downplayed a dubious milestone: the war in Afghanistan entered into its 17th year. After thousands of casualties and hundreds of billions of dollars in expenditures, the U.S. still doesn’t have an effective strategy for bringing peace to that troubled country.

In a quarterly report to Congress, the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) said, “The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2001.”

Is It Time to Pull Out of Afghanistan?

Ending America’s longest war and bringing the troops home has long been a subject of heated debate in the United States. Mostly, we do not want to duplicate the mistakes we made in withdrawing from Iraq.

From the onset, America has tried a variety of strategies, beginning with a light presence utilizing U.S. Special Operations forces and CIA paramilitary units backed by air power. These forces initially worked with Afghan tribes, sub-tribes and militia from the Northern Alliance. That alliance led to the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and the beginning of U.S. efforts to stabilize the country.

Since 2001, however, U.S. efforts shifted to a “heavy footprint,” which eventually culminated in the deployment of over 100,000 American troops. These troops were then supplemented by 40,000 NATO and other foreign forces.

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The current effort by the United States has again shifted back to the light footprint approach, but now the Taliban has direct control or influence over 14 percent of the Afghan population. U.S. forces that once were able to move freely around the major cities in Afghanistan can travel only by helicopter because of insurgent attacks.

US Has Never Been Successful in Afghanistan

There are many reasons why the U.S. has never been successful in defeating the Taliban. Seth Jones, a military analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, enumerated the challenges the U.S. faces:

  • A collective failure to integrate the Taliban into Afghan society beginning in 2001, when Taliban leaders were hunted down instead of being co-opted.
  • A weak and ineffective Afghan government, which has been plagued by corruption and inefficiency.
  • A mistaken U.S. and Western focus on largely building a top-down government in Kabul, rather than working at the grass-roots level and supporting local communities and tribes.
  • A mistaken decision by U.S. and Western governments to win the war for Afghans by deploying large numbers of Western military forces and flooding Afghanistan with large amounts of assistance, which only fueled corruption.
  • The Taliban’s sanctuary in Pakistan and support from Pakistan’s spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), which allowed senior Taliban leaders to run the war in relative security.

The Perils of Withdrawing from Afghanistan

Although many foreign policy practitioners advocate withdrawing from Afghanistan, Jones says a withdrawal would have “significant risks.” The first risk is that “a U.S. exit would trigger the departure of European and other foreign forces from the country and a collapse of the Afghan regime.”

This scenario would precipitate a mass exodus of Afghans trying to flee the country. One only has to remember the fall of Saigon in 1975.

With the U.S. presence gone, the Taliban — with support from Pakistan and limited assistance from Russia and Iran — would seize all the remaining cities in the country that it currently does not control.

Second, a precipitous U.S. exit would only embolden the Taliban-led insurgency and allow other transnational terror organizations to operate freely inside Afghanistan. These organizations include the Islamic State Khorasan (the Islamic State’s local province), al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (al-Qaeda’s local affiliate) and the Haqqani Network.

Almost all of these terror organizations have established strongholds inside Afghanistan from which they launch attacks against the United States and its allies. The last time the U.S. left the region after the Russian pullout from Afghanistan in 1989, a civil war ensued. That war gave rise to the Taliban and allowed al-Qaeda to operate on Afghan territory, where it planned and executed the 9/11 terror attacks.

US Withdrawal Would Signal a Terrorist Victory

A U.S. withdrawal would be seen as a Taliban victory. It would also be viewed by Salafi-jihadist groups like al-Qaeda and the Islamic State as a victory over the United States.

When the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden used the withdrawal as a recruitment and propaganda tool. He proclaimed that his terror organization had defeated the Soviet Union, to him the more powerful of the two superpowers.

Finally, for those advocating human rights, a U.S. withdrawal would severely cripple any semblance of women’s rights in Afghanistan. The Taliban would promptly plunge the country back into the Stone Age and further cement regional instability between nuclear powers India and Pakistan.

Both nations also support paramilitary and insurgent groups. In 1999, India and Pakistan engaged in an armed conflict in Kashmir, almost leading to a nuclear war between the two belligerents.

Since the war in Afghanistan began in 2001, three different U.S. administrations have never fully understood the military strategy articulated by Carl von Clausewitz in his famous book, “On War.”

“War is not merely an act of policy but a true political instrument, a continuation of political intercourse, carried on with other means,” Clausewitz wrote.

Three presidential administrations have failed to link the strategy to the political aims they tried to achieve. However, until national security strategists understand the regional complexities — most notably the Pakistani equation in the Afghan conflict — the United States will continue to muddle along or until the U.S. finally has had enough and extracts itself from the region.

How this dilemma ends is anyone’s guess. History will be the final arbitrator.

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