I HATE AGREEING with Donald Trump. “We made a terrible mistake getting involved in the first place,” he told CNN in October, referring to the war in Afghanistan, which he called a “mess.” “I would leave the troops there begrudgingly,” the then-presidential candidate added. “Believe me, I’m not happy about it.”
You remember Afghanistan, right? The longest war in U.S. history and the most unpopular one, too? The ongoing conflict that’s been ignored by politicians and pundits alike, despite 2,400 U.S. dead and a whopping $1 trillion price tag?
Afghanistan hardly got a look in during the election campaign. The decade-and-a-half-long war was mentioned only once in the three presidential debates — in the form of a passing reference by Hillary Clinton. Trump, however, might want to put down the golf clubs and start paying attention to the forgotten struggle against the Taliban, which was supposed to have formally ended in December 2014. His generals, backed by GOP hawks in Congress, want to drag it out for a few more years. Their unspoken mantra? When in doubt, double down.
But even Hamid Karzai, former president of Afghanistan and one-time ally of the United States, believes that enough is enough. “We don’t want [more] foreign forces bombing our villages, arresting our people, destroying our homes and causing more war in Afghanistan,” he tells me. Such violence, he adds, in a nod to the Taliban insurgency, “naturally causes resentment” and “legitimizes any resistance to it”.
Yet last month, while all eyes were on Jeff Sessions’ confirmation as Attorney General on the floor of the Senate, General John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to ask for a “few thousand” more U.S. troops. Last week, his boss, General Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, echoed Nicholson’s request, telling senators that a new “strategy” for Afghanistan had to “involve additional forces.” And this week, Republican senators Lindsay Graham and John McCain, who never met a Muslim-majority nation they did not want to bomb, invade or occupy, used a Washington Post op-ed to call for — surprise, surprise — “additional U.S. and coalition forces” in Afghanistan, including “special operations forces and close air support.”
“It is imperative that we see our mission through to success,” they declaimed.
What was that definition of insanity again? Lest we forget, Trump’s predecessor was also asked by his generals for more troops in his first year in office: Barack Obama surged 30,000 extra soldiers into Afghanistan, against the advice of his vice president, only to see the Taliban grow stronger, not weaker. So why it is anything other than a fantasy to suggest that 20,000 or even 30,000 troops in Afghanistan under Trump — as opposed to the 8,400 U.S. troops currently deployed there as part of a NATO support mission — will be able to achieve the victory denied to 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan under Obama in 2010?
During his senate testimony, Nicholson was asked by Sen. McCain whether the U.S. was winning or losing in Afghanistan. “I believe we are in a stalemate,” replied the general.
This is pure delusion. Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary for President George W. Bush, may have claimed that “we lack metrics to know if we are winning or losing the global war on terror,” but we don’t lack those “metrics” for the war against the Taliban. Since 2001, the hawks have cited a dizzying array of measures, from nation-building to counter-terrorism to the war on drugs, all of which have resulted in “mission failed” rather than “mission accomplished.”
Supporting a stable, democratic Afghan government? The U.S.-backed president and his “chief executive” are in the midst of a bitter power struggle; the vice president is a vicious warlord; parliamentary elections have been postponed; and corruption runs rampant — Afghanistan ranks 169 out of 176 countries in Transparency International’s latest corruption league table.
Protecting the population? Civilian casualties in Afghanistan in 2016 reached their highest level since the U.N. first began recording them in 2009. Last month, on Trump’s watch, U.S. airstrikes in Helmand province were reported to have caused the deaths of at least 18 civilians, mostly women and children.