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End America's Longest War: Bring the Troops Home from Afghanistan

31 Mar 2017

Doug Bandow

America’s longest war continues. The U.S. military has
been fighting in Central Asia for more than 15 years. To what end?
Perpetuate a corrupt, incompetent, and unpopular central government
in Kabul without bolstering America’s security.

When asked at a recent hearing whether the U.S. was winning or
losing, Gen. John Nicholson, commander of US forces in Afghanistan,
said neither. David Adesnik of the Foreign Policy Initiative
complained that this was “an optimistic assessment given that
the Afghan military is both rapidly losing control of its territory
and suffering unprecedented casualties.”

Nicholson contended that the Afghan forces were too small to
launch the offensive necessary to break the stalemate. So in
Adesnik’s view, President Trump “now must decide
whether to continue or reverse his predecessor’s strategy of
withdrawal.”

It is time for Washington to get out entirely.

It is time for Washington
to get out entirely.

Yet the Afghan war, which is consuming more American lives than
the fight against the Islamic State, was barely mentioned during
the recent presidential campaign. While a punitive expedition was
justified in 2001 to target the terrorist group al-Qaeda and
overthrow the Taliban regime for hosting terrorist training camps,
President George W. Bush turned the mission into a haphazard
nation-building affair.

No one seems happy with the result, least of all Afghans. When I
visited back in 2011 I didn’t find a single Afghan who had
anything good to say about his or her government, at least who
didn’t work for it.

Instead of getting America out of the war, President Barack
Obama twice increased U.S. forces, to no long-term benefit. After
finally planning an exit he halted the withdrawal. Today there are
still roughly 8400 U.S. military personnel—along with several
thousand allied troops—on station in the Central Asian
country.

Another 26,000 U.S. contractors are working there. Washington
dropped 40 percent more bombs in 2016 than the year before,
“the product of President Obama’s decision to loosen
the rules of engagement, broaden the target list, and authorize
U.S. commanders to expand the scope of U.S. air activity from
defensive to offensive operations,” explained Daniel
Depretis, a fellow at Defense Priorities. American combat forces
have returned to areas they left, such as Helmand province.

Donald Trump long spoke sense about Afghanistan. In 2012 he
termed the conflict “a complete and total disaster” and
encouraged the U.S. to “get out of Afghanistan. We’ve
wasted billion and billions of dollars and more importantly
thousands of thousands of lives.”

The following year he said “Our troops are being killed by
the Afghanis we train and we waste billions there.” Thus,
Washington should “get out of Afghanistan.” In 2015
Trump asked: “at some point, are they going to be there for
the next 200 years?”

However, President Trump is talking Neocon-lite. He suggested,
without further explanation, that we had to stay because
Afghanistan is “right next to Pakistan, which has nuclear
weapons.” Last year he declared: “I would stay in
Afghanistan. I hate doing it. I hate doing it so much.” In
December he told Afghan President Ashraf Ghani: “he would
certainly continue to support Afghanistan security.”

Unfortunately, the Afghan government is losing despite such
cooperation. In January Special Inspector General for Afghanistan
Reconstruction John Sopko cited the challenge of “continued
insecurity.” Although Washington has spent tens of billions
of dollars so far on Afghan security forces, the latter are
“basically playing whack-a-mole following the Taliban around
Afghanistan.” The Kabul government controls less territory;
its armed forces abandoned rural outposts to protect provincial
capitals; and road connections between major cities are
tenuous.

The most tempting policy might be to follow President
Obama’s approach—add a few more troops, accompanied by
lots of positive rhetoric. Yet a few more combat boots won’t
transform a conflict which has continued in one form or another for
years.

All that strategy would achieve is to put off the inevitable
withdrawal, which will be seen as a retreat and ultimately defeat.
But the loss would occur on the next president’s watch,
albeit at the cost of hundreds or thousands of American and allied
lives.

SIGAR, as Sopko is known, issued two reports in January,
identifying the most serious problems including insecurity,
corruption, unsustainability, drugs, and management. He painted an
ugly picture. Although the hawks who dominate Washington criticized
America’s “withdrawal” from the world under
Barack Obama, he actually revived George W. Bush’s Afghan
war.

Since Washington’s intervention in the aftermath of 9/11,
roughly 2400 American military personnel have died and more than
20,000 been wounded attempting to bring democracy to Central Asia.
Some 3500 military contractors have been killed, along with more
than 1100 allied personnel. Overall the U.S. has poured more than
$800 billion into the war. Set aside the costs of combat. The U.S.
has spent $117.3 billion on relief and
“reconstruction,” that is, attempting to create a
functioning state in Afghanistan.

This is, noted SIGAR, “the largest expenditure to rebuild
a single country in our nation’s history.” It is more
than the Marshall Plan delivered to all of Europe. This financial
tsunami was used to train Afghan security forces, buttress the
Kabul government, and spur economic development.

Outlays continued as the U.S. began withdrawing its armed
forces. Expenditures ran about $6 billion each of the last two
years; they are scheduled to drop to $2 billion this year, but
could be augmented once the Trump administration addresses the
issue. Moreover, $8.4 billion previously appropriated remains to be
disbursed.

Alas, Afghanistan’s development, stated SIGAR,
“remains tenuous and incomplete,” which seems unduly
generous judgment. Stated the inspector general: “the United
States contributed significantly to the problems in Afghanistan by
dumping too much money, too quickly, into too small an economy,
with too little oversight.”

Overall, Afghan public confidence continues to fall. The Asia
Foundation’s survey last year found 29.3 percent of people
believed the country was moving in the right direction, down from
36.7 percent the year before. That’s the lowest level from
the poll’s start in 2004.

Afghanistan came in at 111 of 113 in last year’s World
Justice Project survey on the Rule of Law Index. The country rated
particularly poorly on corruption and criminal justice. U.S.-funded
programs found inadequate or poor government services ranging from
prisons to schools to business licensure to vehicle
registration.

Moreover, warned SIGAR, “Current economic growth remains
far below what is necessary to increase employment and improve
living standards, according to the IMF.” In particular,
“per capita GDP is falling, employment opportunities are
limited, and the budget is pressured. Afghanistan’s labor
market is unable to absorb what the World Bank estimates are
400,000 people entering the work force every year.” A quarter
of job-seekers are unemployed, almost treble the number when the
U.S. was increasing military force levels in 2012.

Afghanistan comes in at 183 of 190 countries in the World
Bank’s 2017 Doing Business report: problems include getting
construction permits, connecting to electricity, registering
property, trading across borders, and enforcing contracts. Indeed,
explained SIGAR, “It is considered the second-to-worst
country in protecting minority investors.” The security
challenges facing Afghanistan make regulatory reform even more
important, but the many difficult changes required seem unlikely if
not impossible.

The government’s fiscal sustainability is in doubt. Kabul
does extremely poorly on revenue collection, and is still highly
dependent on foreign donors—domestic revenues cover less than
half of expenditures. Moreover, the afghani is depreciating.
Indeed, reported SIGAR, “Donor countries were expected to
finance approximately 69 percent of Afghanistan’s $6.5
billion 2016 national budget, mostly through grants.” Yet the
government is almost singularly unable to competently manage large
aid transfers.

The problems are many and overwhelming. SIGAR explained that
“the questionable capabilities of the Afghan security forces
and pervasive corruption are the most critical. Without capable
security forces, Afghanistan will never be able to stand on its
own. Without addressing entrenched corruption, the legitimacy and
effectiveness of the Afghan government will remain in a perilous
state.” Sopko warned that not resolving these two “risk
areas” could cause the entire effort to fail.

Unfortunately, evidence backs his assessment of insecurity.
Americans have provided $70.6 billion to enable the Afghans to
defeat the Taliban—on top of Pentagon spending on the war
itself. Fighting has increased. Reported SIGAR, “Armed
clashes reached their highest level since UN reporting began in
2007, and marked a 22 percent increase over the same period in
2015.”

The government controls only 57.2 percent of the country’s
districts, which hold about 64 percent of the population. The rest
are contested or under Taliban control. The number under
Kabul’s control is down 6.2 percent from just August and
almost 15 percent from November 2015.

The numbers of the Afghan security forces are decreasing, while
both casualties and the number of districts under insurgent control
or influence are increasing.” DOD claimed that the Afghan
security forces are doing better, while acknowledging that the
police lag behind the army. But, explained SIGAR, “DOD
reported the inability of ANDSF leaders across the forces to
effectively command and control operations, coupled with poor
discipline of junior leaders in some units, hinders effectiveness
in nearly every ministry functional and ANDSF capability
area.”

Overall, SIGAR pointed to “capability gaps in key areas
such as intelligence, aviation, and logistics [which] are
improving, but still hinder effectiveness.” Corruption, too,
reduced the effectiveness of security forces, as both army and
police personnel sold ammunition, fuel, and weapons to the Taliban.
Afghan special forces are more effective but over-used.

Moreover, the total number of security personnel has declined.
The army is officially at 86.3 percent of its authorized strength
and the police are at 94 percent. However, the army has significant
problems with attrition and “ghost” employees. SIGAR
noted that “Reports of ‘ghost’ soldiers and
police continue to surface.” Last month 30,000 such
“ghosts” were kicked off the rolls.

Problems of corruption, financial management, and narcotics
production are equally severe. The money provided Kabul has not
been well-spent. Explained SIGAR, “The usual difficulties of
contract management are magnified and aggravated by
Afghanistan’s remoteness, active insurgency, widespread
corruption, limited ministerial capability, difficulties in
collecting and verifying data, and other issues.”

Why should the U.S. continue to pursue such a seemingly futile
task at such great cost? One argument, advanced by Gen. Nicholson,
among others, is to save the U.S. homeland from terrorist attack.
He told the Senate that “our primary mission remains to
protect the homeland by preventing Afghanistan from being used
again as a safe haven for terrorists to attack the United States or
our allies.”

However, there appears to be no dearth of havens for terrorists.
Indeed, U.S. military action in Afghanistan merely pushed al-Qaeda
into neighboring Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden resided.

Washington responded by killing him, not invading and occupying
Pakistan. There are plenty of other chaotic lands and ungoverned
spaces from which terrorists could operate. The U.S. does not have
the resources and will to conquer and pacify all of them.

In fact, a Taliban victory, or a political settlement resulting
in some form of stable authority throughout most of the country,
would ironically offer an antidote to terrorism. The Taliban
apparently was not happy with their guest, Osama bin Laden, for
bringing the wrath of the U.S. down upon them, and the movement
would not want to face U.S. intervention a second time.

Moreover, war is the perfect environment which births and
fosters terrorist groups. Gen. Nicholson apparently missed the
issue of causation when he testified before the Senate that
Afghanistan “has the greatest concentration of terrorist
organizations in the world.” More than 15 years of U.S.
military action has not made the country terrorist-free.

Otherwise the Taliban is of little concern to America. Of
course, it would be wonderful if America could create a liberal
future for Afghans who desire to escape the past. But that task has
proved to be far beyond Washington’s capabilities and cannot
justify continuing to expend American lives and monies.

Even the Foreign Policy Institute’s Adesnik admitted that
there is no military “solution for dangerous divisions
emerging in Kabul.” Moreover, “offensive power cannot
deprive the Taliban of the sanctuary they continue to enjoy in
Pakistan.” A country which also offers al-Qaeda the sanctuary
that it desires.

Retired Col. Daniel Davis of Defense Priorities noted that the
“surge” under President Barack Obama accomplished
“the protection of the Afghan government in Kabul and the
security of select lines of communication elsewhere in the country.
But it did nothing to quell the insurgency.” Unfortunately,
replaying the past will result in the same future: permanent war,
not victory.

An American withdrawal wouldn’t leave Kabul friendless and
alone. Russia, India, Iran, and China also are interested in a
nation which sits uncomfortably close in their neighborhood. All
could promote stability and combat terrorism.

Washington policymakers remain committed to the war in
Afghanistan. For them the conflict amounts to sending military
personnel they don’t know from states they don’t visit
to fight a war they don’t understand in a land they
don’t know. President Donald Trump ran against just such an
approach. His administration should wind up America’s longest
war.

Doug Bandow is
a senior fellow at the Cato Institute and a former Special
Assistant to President Ronald Reagan.

Click here to view the full article which appeared in CATO Journal