Baby boomers have seen many wars in our lifetime, and fought in almost all of them. But only one, with a major American presence, persists to this day: Afghanistan. BoomerCafé’s co-founder and executive editor Greg Dobbs, a longtime journalist, has covered some of those wars, and says in this Boomer Opinion piece, it’s time to get out of this one.
We have tried to win in Afghanistan, but lamentably, we have reached a stalemate at best, which means we have failed. Because when the world’s greatest power isn’t winning, it is losing. After more than seventeen years fighting America’s longest war — longer than the Civil War, World War Two, Vietnam, or Iraq — we should pay heed to the past in Afghanistan and foretell the future, which only portends more failure. We should cut our losses, and get out.
The British learned that lesson the hard way. When they invaded Afghanistan almost two centuries ago, they had superior firepower as it was measured back then, but they were fighting in someone else’s neighborhood, which meant they were playing by someone else’s rules. As I’ve learned covering wars myself, that is no sure recipe for success. Almost none of Britain’s stately soldiers survived. One of the few who did, an army chaplain, afterward said the war had been “brought to a close after suffering and disaster,” and penned these prophetic words: “Not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war.”
The Soviets should have heeded his advice, but didn’t. The day before Christmas in 1979, the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. They stayed for almost ten years. Having covered part of that war too, at times I thought they would win. Just seeing their menacing-looking helicopter gunships patrolling the mountains and valleys in search of homespun Afghan guerrillas — who came to be called the Mujahideen — I couldn’t see how they could lose.
they did. They too were fighting in someone else’s neighborhood. Which spelt failure. The Mujahideen knew every nook and cranny of the battlefield. They had safe havens. And maybe as important as anything, deprivation and doggedness were in their DNA. I’ve always used something I saw one day in Afghanistan as a metaphor for just how tough these people are. It was in a village north of Kabul, and we came to a field where men were playing a game they call Buzkashi, a form of polo. But there was no ball being batted around. Instead, they were playing with a human head. The head of an enemy.
These are the people who defeated Britain in the 1800s. Then the Soviet Union in the 1900s. Like the Brits before them, the Soviets brought their battle to its end only after suffering and disaster, and derived not one benefit, political or military, with their war.
In 2001, it was our turn.
Our motives were pure. The September 11th attacks against America were conceived and coordinated by Al-Qaeda, in Afghanistan. Thanks to the Taliban, Al-Qaeda had a safe haven there. We went in to kick them out.
At times, the balance against the enemy has been on our side. We have lost more than 2,400 of our own, but have killed many more of theirs. We have supported governments that worked with us, and peace overtures that might have stopped the bloodshed.
But to this day, those governments don’t even command most of their own territory, and those informal overtures haven’t tempered the fighting. Through our presence we have restored some semblance of human rights to some people of the Afghan nation, but paltry other progress has been permanent.
In fact, the Global Terrorism Index just released says that a quarter of all deaths attributed to terrorists in 2017, worldwide, happened in Afghanistan. In a distinction no nation would want, Afghanistan overtook Iraq. Or put more starkly, Afghanistan is the deadliest nation on earth.
We went in to rout Al-Qaeda and the Taliban. It didn’t work. Al-Qaeda scattered, but the handful of safe havens for Al-Qaeda and ISIS and other terrorist groups has only grown. According to a Brown University study late last year, American forces today are taking on terrorists in as many as 80 countries around the world. So much for scuttling the terrorists’ Afghan refuge. They now have many others.
And the Taliban? Our strategy has been to put the Afghan military in a position to tackle the Taliban. Trouble is, it’s not working. They are losing ground to the enemy, not gaining it. The incoming head of U.S. Central Command told Congress last month, “If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe they would be able to successfully defend their country.” Nor, more troubling, could he say how long it would take for that to change.
And despite the American presence, suicide bombs keep going off. Another one early this week in the capital. Four dead, ninety injured.
A call to pull out of Afghanistan should not be confused with a call to stay in Syria. There, even the relatively small American force helps at least minimally contain Iran and ISIS and Russia’s President Putin and Syrian President Assad. And it helps protect allies like Israel, and the Kurds. But in Afghanistan, we are not meaningfully containing the enemy, nor effectively protecting anyone.
The money we are spending there is reason enough to reevaluate the whole mission; Brown University’s study estimates long-term costs of $2-trillion. But there are even more important costs to consider. Although our troop force this past year has been minimal, we still lost 13 more American warriors. By calling for withdrawal, I don’t slight the soldiers who sacrificed their lives in these seventeen-plus years of war. To the contrary, I salute them. I salute them by saying, let’s put a stop to more.
It might be overstatement to say of the U.S. effort that “not one benefit, political or military, was acquired with this war.” But for whatever goals we have sought, we are no closer to reaching them, and not likely to down the road. Pulling out could be messy. Staying could be messier.