The Afghan War Quagmire

Eight years ago, President Obama pledged to wind down the war in Iraq and redouble efforts to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan. “As president, I will make the fight against Al Qaeda and the Taliban the top priority that it should be,” he said during a campaign speech. “This is a war that we have to win.”

Lasting peace, Mr. Obama said, would depend on not only defeating the Taliban but helping “Afghans grow their economy from the bottom up.” He added, “We cannot lose Afghanistan to a future of narco-terrorism.”

Now, at the twilight of his presidency, these goals are receding further into the distance as America’s longest war deteriorates into a slow, messy slog. Yet despite this grim reality, there has been no substantive debate about Afghanistan policy on the campaign trail this year. Neither Donald Trump nor Hillary Clinton has outlined a vision to turn around, or withdraw from, a flailing military campaign.

The war in Afghanistan has cost American taxpayers in excess of $800 billion — including $115 billion for a reconstruction effort, more than the inflation-adjusted amount the United States spent on the Marshall Plan. The Afghan government remains weak, corrupt and roiled by internal rivalries. The casualty rate for Afghan troops is unsustainable. The economy is in shambles. Resurgent Taliban forces are gaining ground in rural areas and are carrying out barbaric attacks in the heart of Kabul, the capital. Despite an international investment of several billion dollars in counternarcotics initiatives, the opium trade remains a pillar of the economy and a key source of revenue for the insurgency.

“It does not appear that the Afghan forces in the near future will be able to defeat the Taliban,” said a senior administration official who spoke about the White House’s appraisal of the campaign on the condition of anonymity. “Nor is it clear that the Taliban will make any significant strategic gains or be able to take and hold on to strategic terrain. It’s a very ugly, very costly stalemate.”

The administration’s current strategy commits the United States to keeping roughly 8,400 troops in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future and spending several billion dollars each year subsidizing the Afghan security forces. The goal has been to coax the Taliban to the negotiating table by beating them on the battlefield, a prospect that now seems remote.

The next American president may be tempted to adopt the Obama policy and hope for the best. That would be a mistake. At the very least, the next administration needs to carry out a top-to-bottom review of the war, one that unflinchingly addresses fundamental questions.

One such question is whether the Afghan Taliban — an insurgency that has never had aspirations to operate outside the region — is an enemy Washington should continue to fight. American forces started battling the Taliban in 2001 because the group had provided safe haven for Al Qaeda, which was based there when it planned the Sept. 11 attacks. While Al Qaeda has largely been defeated, the Taliban has proved to be extraordinarily resilient.

Another question is what it would take to bring the conflict to an end — either by enabling Afghan forces to defeat the Taliban or by bringing them into the political fold — and whether that is something the United States is realistically capable of achieving.

This will not be an easy discussion. A precipitous drawdown from Afghanistan may well have calamitous consequences in the short run, exacerbating the exodus of refugees and expanding the area of ungoverned territory in which extremist groups could once again subject Afghans to despotism and plot attacks on the West.
But American taxpayers and Afghans, who have endured decades of war, need a plan better than the current policy, which offers good intentions, wishful thinking and ever-worsening results.

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