Editor’s note: This piece first appeared in AND Magazine.
“No one starts a war — or rather, no one in his senses ought to do so — without first being clear in his mind what he intends to achieve by that war, and how he intends to conduct it.” - Carl von Clauswitz
As we close in on two decades of war in Afghanistan and search for an end to the conflict, perhaps we ought first to go back to its origins and recognize a fundamental truth. We have lost track of why we went to Afghanistan in the first place and, devoid of a definition of victory that makes sense, now find it virtually impossible to stumble our way to an acceptable conclusion.
Back to the beginning
We went to Afghanistan with a laser-like focus. We were out to rain fire and brimstone on those who had attacked us on our own soil. We were out to depose the Taliban rulers who sheltered Osama Bin Laden, and we were determined to drive al-Qaida from its safe haven in Afghanistan.
We did that. In perhaps the most brilliant military campaign since the Second World War, we crushed the Taliban, took Kabul and became masters of the country. There remained only one thing to do, install a friendly government, make sure it understood the consequences of continuing to support terrorist attacks on our nation and go home.
Americans are commemorating 9/11 with mournful ceremonies, volunteering, appeals to “never forget” and rising attention to the terror attacks’ extended toll on responders.
What went wrong?
And then the ponderous bureaucracy of Washington and its accompanying military industrial complex came to life. The mission grew, morphed and broadened. Now we were building a modern “nation state,” paving roads, ensuring gender equality and teaching religious tolerance. We would go home, but only after we had transformed Afghanistan into Switzerland in Central Asia and made a lot of corporations a great deal of money.
- We have spent $1 trillion in Afghanistan.
- We have lost almost 2,500 American lives.
- No one has any real idea of how many Afghans have died.
- We are no closer to victory than we were a decade and a half ago.
What are the solutions?
The solution lies in regaining our focus. The solution lies in remembering why we went there. The solution lies in building our presence, our strategy and our tactics around these core principles:
Send the bureaucrats home
Seemingly, every agency in Washington has at some point established a presence in Afghanistan. The amount of waste has been obscene. The contribution to our winning the war has been nil.
We spent hundreds of millions of dollars on cargo planes for the Afghans that they could not fly and then paid to destroy them all and turn them into scrap.
We built a state of the art command center in Helmand Province, withdrew our troops before it was used and gave it to the Afghans. They never occupied it.
U.S. peace talks with the Taliban are now “dead,” President Donald Trump declared Monday, two days after he abruptly canceled a secret meeting he had arranged with Taliban and Afghan leaders aimed at ending America’s longest war.
A Pentagon task force spent $6 million to buy rare Italian goats and fly them to Afghanistan in an effort to breed them with Afghan goats. We then built a farm for the goats in Afghanistan and a laboratory to examine the quality of the wool they produced. The goats died. The project director quit.
We are not in Afghanistan to build a nation or satisfy bureaucratic imperatives. If the Afghans choose to live in the 12th century, let them. When and if they want to join the modern world that will be their choice and their task. Clear the decks.
Get big DoD out of the fight
The Department of Defense is a giant, ponderous machine capable of performing logistical miracles. Its size and lack of flexibility make it grotesquely unsuited for the kind of war we are engaged in on the ground in Afghanistan. Left to its own devices, it will build bases and deploy troops from now until the end of time, and we will be not one step closer to victory. Send the troops home, except for relative handfuls of special operations troops and advisers and have them take the generals, staffs, and PowerPoint slides with them.
Forget nation building
We did not come to Afghanistan to remake it. Not one cent spent on that mad effort has taken us any closer to victory. We want one thing in Afghanistan: a guarantee that it will never again be used as a launching pad for attacks on the United States or its allies. Period. Full stop.
This means ending efforts to remake Afghan society. It also means forgetting the idea that Kabul will anytime in the near future truly function as the capital of a united, cohesive nation on the model of Western countries. As far as we can see into the future, there will remain large portions of Afghanistan which will be largely under the control of “warlords” and regional forces. We should recognize that, deal with those figures as necessary, and always remember why we are there. If a local ruler can guarantee what we need him to guarantee, that is all that matters.
As we narrow our focus and seek to move toward an acceptable negotiated conclusion of this conflict, we must also ensure that we are taken seriously and that those who oppose us understand the consequences. That means an end to rules of engagement that have American patrols under fire working their way up multiple levels of the chain of command seeking authorization to shoot back. That means, on the model of reported CIA-led Afghan units in country, making anyone who opposes us militarily pay an awful price.
Appoint one person to run the show
As big DoD exits, our presence draws down and our focus narrows, it will be critical that there is one central authority in country that has control over all American efforts and ensures we remain fixed on our goals. That cannot be the ambassador who speaks only for a weak and largely sidelined Department of State. Nor can it be a general who will ultimately answer first and foremost to the bureaucracy in the Pentagon.
It needs to be an individual who answers directly to the president of the United States, who has full and complete authority over all efforts in country and who has the charge of bringing this conflict to a successful conclusion under the terms outlined above. Call that a proconsul if you like, as others have. The name is irrelevant. There must be one person who has complete control over all efforts in country and keeps them aligned.
What do we intend to achieve
We have lost our way in Afghanistan. The price has been horrific. It is not too late, however, to rectify that situation and bring the conflict to a successful conclusion.
But, first, we must be clear in our minds as to what we “intend to achieve” in this war and how we intend “to conduct it.”