Afghanistan: The Great Game Is Over

June 22, 2017–The bells are ringing, the lights flashing. The silver ball is disappearing between the flippers, now unable to knock it back into play. If you didn’t score high enough to become top dog you’re done. It’s one more major operational initiative down the drain. I’m referring to Afghanistan, and the pinball wizards of the White House and Department of Defense, who myopically never seem to see beyond their own rhetoric, or make strategic decisions based on real world conditions.

History, it is said, plays out the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. In Afghanistan we’re at the second stage. The first game went to the Afghan tribes–175 years ago in the Hindu Kush–when the Brits who were playing it failed to recognize the warning signs of widespread uprising. As a result their triumph in the first Anglo-Afghan war turned into military disaster when a British-Indian army tried to withdraw from Kabul in January 1842. Only a handful of troopers, maybe just one Englishman, survived the ambushes in the mountain passes as the army tried to edge past the insurgents and reach the relative safety of Jalalabad. The British failure had everything to do with failure to emplace an Afghani government acceptable to the tribes and their members.

American pundits today are fond of picturing Afghanistan as the nation’s longest war. We could actually have ended it over half a decade ago. Instead we have the generals mulling over whether to send three to five thousand extra troops to supplement the eight-thousand four-hundred we already have in the battle zone. Let’s review the bidding.

In 2009 new president Barack Obama ordered up a policy review for the war in Afghanistan. The scuttlebutt was he didn’t want to be visiting wounded GIs in hospital–he wanted to staunch the flow of casualties. Plus there were estimates the war might cost a trillion dollars over another ten years. At the time the Pentagon was offering another incremental troop increase. Prodded by Obama, they took up the field commander’s proposal for a “surge,” like the one that had been carried out in Iraq. General Stanley A. McChrystal, the field man, resisted doing anything by half. President Obama settled on McChrystal’s 40,000-man recommendation, but coupled it with a decision that eighteen months after the troops deployed, America would start to exit the war.

So the troops went in. Starting in 2011 the drawdowns began. Masses of equipment were brought out. Our NATO allies and other troop contributing countries among the ISAF command began to take the lead in the war, but also to conduct a parallel force reduction. Masses of equipment were brought out. More was designated surplus and handed over to the Afghanistan government forces we had been supporting.

That would have been the “clean” withdrawal. The surge buying a decent interval so Afghanistan could get its affairs in order and beat the insurgents. But the allies–who included the British, back for a fresh pinball game–had never solved the political equation. And the generals–primarily Americans–could not put down the game, plumping for a residual force to continue supporting the Afghan military and conduct a core program of commando strikes. As the country’s situation deteriorated, the generals convinced President Obama to slow the rate of withdrawal. His administration ended with 8,400 instead of 5,500 troops still on the Hindu Kush. In addition to everything else, we are well on the way to reaching the trillion dollar mark that Mr. Obama feared spending there by 2019.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai, caught within a complex mosaic of tribal loyalties, could not build a unified polity. His government, perched atop a warlord system, always functioned to favor one or another faction. Karzai, on the CIA’s payroll for $1 million a month, used the money to play favorites. Recognizing elements in U.S. tactics that were most objectionable to Afghans, Karzai increasingly denounced, then forbade, U.S. night raids and air strikes.

Allied strategy, which resisted anything that could be termed “nation building,” contributed little to building Afghan institutions. Karzai has left the Afghan government corrupted, and his successors could not even form a government until months of conversations brought forth an uneasy compromise. President Ashraf Ghani, a Pashtun, has never honored commitments made to Vice-President Abdullah Abdullah, a Tadjik. Recent Ghani moves against one governor (read warlord), Rashid Dostum, demonstrate his desperation. Ghani’s decision to permit the return of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, another figure from the warlord era, show his increasing political isolation. Afghan politics is swiftly returning to the modalities of the early 1990s, when warlords fighting among themselves permitted the Taliban to take over in the first place.

The allies resisted efforts to settle the conflict by negotiation during the “surge” period of ascendency, then encouraged them when the Taliban enemy grew increasingly powerful–and less willing to talk. As U.S. and ISAF troop strength progressively diminished a new phenomenon arose–insider attacks by soldiers of our Afghan army or police. No doubt there are a certain number of Taliban infiltrators in the Afghan national army, but the spectacle of the foreign power that came in, mobilized Afghans to its will, and now leaves them before an implacable Taliban is a sufficient motive. Over the past few months insider attacks have been the main cause of U.S. casualties. Afghan government forces are increasingly reluctant to fight. The dependence on Afghan special operations forces now becomes questionable when the latest insider attacks come from within their ranks.

The Taliban have had some problems of their own, most recently the challenge from an even more lethal offshoot of the ISIS/ISIL “caliphate” front. But either faction will fight, and the Afghan government has been losing ground steadily. Towns have been captured and held. The war is no longer an affair of posts and police stations. The insurgents are now believed to have a foothold in more than half of Afghan villages. Dangers became plain early in June when powerful car bombs exploded in the most heavily-guarded sector of Kabul, the diplomatic quarter. Almost two hundred were killed and five hundred wounded. Afghans marched in protest of their own government’s failure to protect them–whereupon government troops opened fire on the crowd, killing, among others, the son of a senior parliamentarian. Taliban bombers struck again at the funeral marches for some of these victims, inflicting yet more casualties in the heart of Kabul. In short, national authority appears to be collapsing before our eyes.

Secretary of Defense James Mattis told Congress last week that the U.S. has not been winning in Afghanistan. That is  true. So true that the Trump White House is giving the Pentagon the liberty to decide for itself what to do in the war. President Trump wants nothing to do with the next decision on Afghanistan. Little wonder. At a certain point the U.S. residual force there will become a target in its own right. A Mattis incremental reinforcement, even 5,000, won’t make a difference. If the U.S. could not grind a weakened Taliban into the ground with 140,000 American and ISAF troops, ten or fifteen thousand will accomplish little more than to make a more lucrative target for a surging enemy. It could be like the British in the Hindu Kush in 1842. Folly follows tragedy.