When you’re wounded and left on Afghanistan’s plains,
And the women come out to cut up what remains,
Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier – Rudyard Kipling, “The Young British Soldier”
Our brains are on fire
With the feeling to kill
And it won’t go away
Until our dreams are fulfilled – Metallica, “Seek and Destroy”
In mid-July, Trump ripped into his generals over US strategy in Afghanistan. A much debated plan had been presented by his military planners but he refused to sign off on it. Too be honest, Trump has a right to demand answers for a 16 year war with no end…of course there is no obvious end because there is no clear strategic end state for the US war in Afghanistan. On October 7, 2001, then-President Bush ordered SpecOps forces and elements of the US Army Rangers to conduct offensive operations in Afghanistan to deny Al-Qaeda a safe haven and topple the Taliban…then Afghanistan’s extremist Islamic government…for providing that safe haven. Both of these objectives were achieved. Operation Enduring Freedom…which at different times…has been conducted by 40 NATO countries and US allies and was a success…initially. Since then, the US and its allies have increased and then decreased…and then increased…and then decreased the number of troops in Afghanistan with nary a strategic end in sight.
Unfortunately, Afghanistan…like Iraq…and become known as a Pottery Barn foreign policy idea…you break it…you pay for it. Arguably, Afghanistan was broken before the US and its allies arrived…but it was further shattered…and now 16 years later…the US is still conducting combat operations or supporting Afghan National Army operations in what appears to be a never ending slog of dust and blood.
Afghanistan has taken on an almost mythological presence in history and has been called the “graveyard of empires”…here are a few ‘tribes’ that established and then disintegrated into mini-states in Afghanistan: Greco-Bactrians, the Indo-Parthians, the Saka (Scythians), the great Buddha-building Kushans, the Kidarites, and the Hephthalites (White Huns). [The Diplomat, “Why Is Afghanistan the ‘Graveyard of Empires’]. The Mongols attempted to rule Afghanistan…their khan was killed…the Mongols in return killed thousands of Afghans in retribution. The Mongols, however, were also slowly swallowed up in the high valleys of the Hindu Kush. Afghanistan neighbors, what was once the multi-state of the Indian Empire(s)…Mughals…also attempted to subdue and reign over the Afghani tribes. Like all those before them…the Mughals were eventually driven out.
Infamously, the British and the Russians competed over the Afghanistan region in what was known as “the Great Game”…a political and military chess-like competition in the 19th century between these two empires…again neither could claim victory. As Kipling so explicitly states in his poem “The Young British Soldier”…the Afghan plains and its passes…Khyber Pass to be specific…blunted all British attempts to reign over Afghanistan.
Russia, of course, spent all of the 1980s trying to support their puppet government in Afghanistan…invading from the once Soviet Republic of Tajikistan…but then…they too crawled away. Since karma is such a spiteful bitch…it is easy to see how US support of Afghani rebels would come back to haunt the US when it was recently reported that the Russians are now supplying arms to the very rebels…the Taliban…that had once been supplied by the US.
Nothing happens in a vacuum…and the conflict in Afghanistan is no different. The Taliban…and its remaining (and evolved) Al-Qaeda allies are supported, housed, and trained in Pakistan’s hinterlands. Pakistan is the Muslim nation that sits between India and Afghanistan…Pakistan has a vested interest in keeping Afghanistan in turmoil at a minimum…and a Islamic ally at the maximum. It is not surprising that the 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan…arguably known to the Pakistani army at a minimum…there is no war in Afghanistan without some sort of Pakistani support.
Now…16 years later…what is the US to do? Does the US tactically withdraw from Afghanistan…letting the Taliban (and AQ) reassert control? If so…does Afghanistan become…once again…a haven for international Islamist terrorists? Maintaining some sort of a force in Afghanistan might…might…keep it from becoming what it was in the 90s.
Reportedly, NSA McMasters and the National Security Council favor some sort reconciliation among rival forces. The belief is that, from a position of strength…the US and the Afghanistan government can force the Taliban and their Pakistani sponsors to come to some sort of political agreement…thus increasing the Afghani government’s legitimacy while reducing the power of the Pakistani sponsors. BUT…this may be a never-ending quest at best…in the end Afghanistan stays a dusty black hole that sucks the US military into a constant struggle of supporting an Afghani army and government that will never be seen as legitimate.
Another way forward in…or out of…Afghanistan is to seek immediate political settlement with the US conceding…and forcing the Afghani government to power share with the Taliban. In this scenario, the US might keep a token force on the ground as a sign of US resolve and be a counter-terrorism force in case AQ or other Islamist terror orgs attempt to use Afghanistan as a platform in their global jihad. This would require immediate pressure on the Afghani government, and the Taliban with their Pakistani sponsors. This is a semi-saving face option for the US and a reduction in the US/NATO military presence. There is no guarantee that any power sharing agreement with the Taliban would last.
Finally, the US and its allies could play for time and hope…and hope is a strategy but a shitty one…that by putting off what seems inevitable (US withdrawal and return to Taliban rule) that somehow some magical option will appear that ensures the present (or some future) version of the Afghani government will remain in power…and US and ally forces can withdraw. This is not an option that any past or present presidential administration wants…but it seems to have become the default option that is executed president after president. All three presidential administrations since 9/11 have wanted a quick victory…all three presidential administrations have just punted.
It all sucks…there is no WIN for the US. One could argue that at this point that the actual monetary costs are small compared to the psychological costs the US has accrued in Afghanistan. There is no easy way out…as every empire has learned. Trump is right to demand answers…that is exactly what he is supposed to do. It is also reasonable that Trump would seek out-of-the-box options like the use of US-funded mercenaries to replace US forces…even though that resembles the British use of the East India Company in the 19th century. Basically there are two options…Kipling’s ultimate surrender of suicide on the Afghanistan plains or Metallica’s seek and destroy which is just a continuation of US military operations in Afghanistan…with no end in sight. Regardless of what any of the former empires paid in blood to reign in Afghanistan…it pales in comparison to the almost endless conflict the Afghans have endured century after century.