The enduring disaster

August 30, 2017

Donald Trump once called the U.S. occupation in Afghanistan "futile." Now he wants to win it. In a national address from Fort Myer military base in Arlington, Virginia, on August 21, Trump doubled down on the U.S. occupation, insisting "our nation must seek an honorable and enduring outcome."

For all the time and money the United States has spent in Afghanistan--16 years and an estimated $841 billion--it is clear that an end to U.S. involvement is no closer. The Afghan government "barely controls half its country, hundreds of thousands have fled their homes due to conflict and opium production is at a historic high in Afghanistan," according to a January 2017 report from the special inspector general for SIGAR Afghanistan Reconstruction.

Meanwhile, over 91,000 Afghan civilians, soldiers, and militants have been killed. As many as 360,000 more may have died from indirect causes related to the war. Nearly 2,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed, with an additional 20,000 wounded.

For all this chaos and carnage, what is the United States still doing in Afghanistan?

In an interview first published at Jacobin, Jacobin's Jason Farbman spoke with Anand Gopal, a reporter who has spent much of the last 10 years covering Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria for Harpers, the Atlantic, and others. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his first book, No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and War Through Afghan Eyes.

MONDAY'S SPEECH was, in typical Trump fashion, full of bold proclamations, like "we will fight to win." But despite the insistence that "from now on, victory will have a clear definition," actual specifics were scarce. What is the significance of the announcement?

THERE ARE so few specifics because almost nothing is different from Obama's strategy. The only difference is that Obama had a timeline, and Trump has publicly repudiated a timeline.

But even Obama's timeline for withdrawal was a fig leaf. The U.S. military was supposed to withdraw in 2014. Obviously it's still there. What was the phrase Trump used, an "honorable and enduring outcome"? Well, the United States has certainly achieved an enduring outcome in Afghanistan, which is perpetual war.

Today in Afghanistan, there is a Taliban insurgency--as well as other insurgencies, including a small ISIS presence--that together are really the most powerful force in the country. Then you have the Afghan government, which is really just a rump state with a network of strongmen or warlords, hundreds upon hundreds of militias, and the Afghan army and police--all of which are being paid for by the United States and its allies, and have been since 2001.

U.S. military forces in Laghman Province, Afghanistan
U.S. military forces in Laghman Province, Afghanistan

If the United States draws down its funding, the state will collapse. The state is completely propped up by the United States. For that reason, the United States can't leave. Obama came to this conclusion, and it's the conclusion Trump has come to--that they can't leave.

So what they're doing is putting a small force on the ground and injecting in as little money as needed to keep the Afghan government on life support. With this support, the Afghan government can survive, and the Taliban won't be able to capture Kabul, the capital. But the Afghan government, its allies, or the United States can't actually defeat the Taliban either, because they are rooted in parts of the countryside. Which means you have a war in perpetuity.

THE INITIALLY stated goal for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan was to defeat the Taliban. In your book No Good Men Among the Living, you reveal the Taliban attempted to surrender almost immediately after the U.S. invasion. And then several times over. How does immediate surrender turn into a 16-year war?

WHEN THE U.S. invaded, the Taliban surrendered because they were thoroughly defeated. This is not surprising, it happens often in conflicts everywhere. After the Taliban were defeated, they went back to their homes and effectively ceased to exist as an organization. Al-Qaeda, meanwhile, had fled the country.

So there were thousands of U.S. troops on the ground to fight a "war on terror"--but there was no enemy to fight. But to justify their presence, and to lay the ground for future invasions of Iraq and (it was hoped) Iran, they inadvertently created enemies where there were none. They did this by paying huge sums of money to Afghan warlords and strongmen to catch "terrorists." These strongmen simply turned over their enemies and rivals--who were almost always innocent. Yet U.S. forces repeatedly arrested, tortured, or killed such individuals. In fact, in this way the majority of Afghans sent to Guantánamo had never been members of the Taliban or al-Qaeda--many were actually enemies of the Taliban.

The incentive mechanism was perverse, and had unintentional and self-defeating consequences. Eventually, so many communities were affected by this, so many people were on the wrong end of night raids and torture and abuse, that the Taliban--previously reviled by most of the Afghan population--began to be seen as a credible alternative to the venal and rapacious Afghan government and deadly U.S. forces.

This process not only created an insurgency, but also ensured that there would be perpetual insurgency. The Afghan state, such as it is, relies on foreign aid for its existence. That aid will only come if there is a war, which means there is every incentive to keep producing enemies and keep fighting. More generally, the result is one of the most spectacular failures in American foreign policy history--a result of the fact that the U.S. designed the Afghan state to meet its perceived national security interests, not the interests of the Afghan people. While the state survives on foreign aid, it collects almost no direct taxes and provides almost no social services (all of which are provided by aid organizations and charities). Large parts of the Afghan state's security sector are privatized, in the form of militias that effectively operate as private security companies. Under U.S. intervention Afghanistan is, in fact, one of the world's most fully realized neoliberal states.

IN THE last 16 years, a Bush-led U.S. occupation snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Obama announced both a surge and a withdrawal, and wasn't able to withdraw because things continued to go terribly. Now Trump is taking a turn. This war increasingly seems unwinnable, on any grounds. Why is the U.S. so committed to staying in Afghanistan?

THE U.S. had lost this war by 2004. Everything it has been doing since has been to keep the Afghan state from collapsing.

Right now, the political cost for the United States to continue this war in perpetuity is extremely low. All it needs is to keep a few thousand soldiers on the ground, keep some money flowing, and keep the rump state afloat. The United States can effectively afford to do this forever, because the political cost of doing this is so low.

It's so low because there is no antiwar movement in the United States. There is no sentiment in the country that the U.S. should do something about the Afghan war. In the absence of that, there is no reason for the U.S. to pull out. They're not being hurt by this war. They're not being bled financially, they're not losing huge numbers of soldiers, or being hurt in their ability to intervene elsewhere.

It's a lot less costly to continue this civil war in perpetuity than to take the risk of a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, which may result in an undesirable outcome--for example, if the Taliban insists they don't want permanent U.S. bases in the country, or in giving rival powers like Iran a foothold in the country. There are a lot more unknowns in pursuing a negotiated settlement, whereas the status quo carries little cost aside except in the lives of Afghans--which doesn't seem to bother Washington.

TRUMP'S SPEECH did have some eye-opening language for the larger region, as he chose sides in the India/Pakistan tensions. India, he called "the world's largest democracy and a key security and economic partner of the United States." Pakistan, he shook his finger at, saying the country "has much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists."

UNTIL PROVEN otherwise, I see this as more bravado from Trump. This is a way for him wag his finger at Pakistan, but at the end of the day the American options on this question are quite limited. The real way to force Pakistan's hand is to cut off military funding. Doing that would cause a pretty radical recalibration of the "security environment" in the region. It could push Pakistan closer to China, it could cause a breakdown of the Pakistani state...All sorts of things can happen by blocking the aid flow. I don't think any U.S. administration is willing to take that risk, which is why no administration has.

Since 2004, every administration has known perfectly well that Pakistan is supporting the Taliban in some way. It's not a secret to anybody. And yet since 2004, the U.S. hasn't been able to take any action against Pakistan. There is a calculation--maybe not conscious, but at least latent--that civil war and chaos and instability in Afghanistan is less costly to Washington than a breakdown in Pakistan.

A RECENT New York Times article detailed the similarities between Trump's plan and one Vice President Joe Biden was pushing in 2008. How much of what Trump is planning is an inheritance of the Obama administration?

THERE IS no meaningful difference. Trump has dressed up Obama's strategy with bravado, but it's really the same.

The Obama administration's strategy in Afghanistan had two phases. The first, when he took office in 2008, was to order a troop surge that sent one hundred thousand soldiers into the country. It also created hundreds upon hundreds of militias, which are among the worst human rights actors in the country. They were accountable to nobody and were being paid, essentially, by the United States or the international community. These militias functioned essentially as private security companies.

The initial strategy was to send one hundred thousand U.S. soldiers and create militias. Do that for three or four years and hope the tide turns, and withdraw. What they found was that the tide didn't turn. The United States couldn't actually withdraw. Instead, it kept special forces and trainers on the ground and continued to fund and support militias.

Biden's plan effectively became Obama's strategy in 2014, as the United States moved to a "light footprint." This meant a heavy reliance on special forces and drones, and keeping the Afghan state on life support. Meanwhile, the Obama administration opposed peace talks with the Taliban. They demanded the Taliban give up their weapons and accept the Afghan constitution, as preconditions to begin talks--which is basically demanding surrender.

Trump's strategy continues where Obama left off. He's keeping a few thousand special forces soldiers and trainers on the ground, and a small residue of conventional forces, with the ability to call airstrikes, and will support the Afghan government and its various militias. And of course there is no attempt at peace talks to end the conflict.

BIDEN IS considering running for president in 2020. If he does, he'll be the presumptive frontrunner. So whatever he says will shape the terrain for debate throughout the Democratic primary. So on one hand we have Trump, who is saying we need to pursue an indefinite and vague and ultimately brutal and failing strategy. And we could have Biden on the other, who is the one who crafted this strategy in the first place!

Should we resign ourselves to being trapped in 2020 by two forces that say the exact same thing on Afghanistan?

BERNIE SANDERS' position on U.S. foreign policy wasn't great either. There is a reason for that--it's a reflection of the lack of an antiwar movement. You could easily imagine someone like Bernie Sanders being pushed towards a better position, if there was such a movement. But there isn't, and I expect this may still be the case by 2020, which will allow for no meaningful difference among any of the candidates on Afghanistan.

But it's not like any candidate can come along with a better plan for managing the U.S. military's involvement in Afghanistan. There is only one thing that can be done, and that is to end the war. There is no other strategy. Sending in ten, fifteen, thirty thousand troops is not going to work--it's already been tried. Trying to change the number of special forces is not going to work. Trying to yell louder at Pakistan is not going to work. The only thing that is going to work is to come to a negotiated settlement with the Taliban, and withdraw troops.

First published at Jacobin.

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