Afghanistan: We Must Decide on a New War Strategy
Sunday marked the 17th anniversary of the start of war in Afghanistan, the “War on Terror.” Originally referred to as Operation Enduring Freedom, the U.S. invasion was America’s response to the attacks of 9/11, still the deadliest terrorist strike in world history. Home to the training camps and masterminds behind the 9/11 carnage, Afghanistan was the proper target for an aggrieved and angry nation intent on punishing the perpetrators – and preventing future attacks. But somewhere along the line, this operation evolved into a conflict that historian Andrew J. Bacevich Sr. termed the “Permanent War for Permanent Peace.” And it has left our nation weary, if not apathetic.
Costing somewhere between $1.5 trillion and $5.6 trillion and the lives of nearly 6,000 U.S. service members (including 2,347 OEF deaths as of August 2018), the ultimate burden of war has been borne by an increasingly small portion of the population. And while support for OEF in the wake of 9/11 was overwhelming, the absence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq made the overall “war on terror” increasingly unpopular and Afghanistan a distant concern.
During the WMD maelstrom, the men and women in uniform continued to battle fierce insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the war in Iraq turned into a partisan divide, providing an excuse for many Americans to lose interest in both wars.
Polling conducted by YouGov on behalf of the Charles Koch Institute and RealClearPolitics reflects skepticism of the war in Afghanistan (and Iraq) and a surprising lack of support for the initial invasion of Afghanistan, with 36 percent of military respondents considering the invasion a mistake. Only 30 percent of civilian respondents felt that the invasion was the correct choice, compared to 50 percent of military respondents.
A slight majority of survey respondents have concluded that the war in Afghanistan was either a mistake or has failed to achieve stated objectives. Extrapolating further, Americans have lost sight of the war’s original mission: to kill or capture al-Qaeda members responsible for 9/11 and deny safe haven to them by removing the Taliban from power.
A majority of both military and civilian respondents feel that the U.S. should either draw down significantly -- from the current troop count at just over 8,000 -- or end involvement altogether.
What has led so many to become so disenchanted with the war effort in Afghanistan?
One potential explanation is that the highly scrutinized Iraq War left Afghanistan as an afterthought. The original invasion, launched against those that actually attacked the U.S., became a neglected conflict held ransom to the effort to quell a growing insurgency in Iraq. Meanwhile, the Taliban, al-Qaeda and Islamic State gained ground in Afghanistan.
The flawed justification for the invasion of Iraq turned the media and popular opinion against both wars, leaving those who serve in the military as victims in a political power play. With a small minority of Americans in uniform, disinterest or adamant opposition to these wars became all too convenient.
Afghanistan, like the war in Vietnam, was shaped by political perceptions, in this case an expedient response to the horrors of 9/11.
America’s inability to frame military engagements in the context of ends, ways and means, but instead as a politically divisive tool for partisanship, comes at the expense of lost lives and trillions of dollars. For the sake of those serving our country, it is incumbent on our nation’s leadership of all political stripes to come together to prudently employ our men and women as our means to a defined ends.
As a U.S. Marine who served, and was wounded, in this endless war myself, I found inspiration a scene in the 2017 World War II movie “Darkest Hour.” The inspiration came not from any battlefield scene, but one that takes place in a palace dining room. There, King George VI implores Winston Churchill to be honest and open with the British people regarding the threat posed by the Nazis. As a nation, we should do the same. It begins by honestly assessing the threats we face today from hostile nations and transnational terrorist groups alike, to formulate a lasting national strategy that transcends partisan politics.
Lacking a clear national strategy, our involvement in Afghanistan has become a quagmire. But that needn’t be a permanent condition. As George Washington University adjunct professor Gary Anderson and others have written, it is time to reassess how America wages such regional conflicts. And as the Taliban slowly regains control of much of Afghanistan, while elements of al-Qaeda and Islamic State are increasing their footprint, it’s long past time for U.S. leaders to alter their approach.
We owe it to ourselves to insist that they do so.
The death of a soldier in Afghanistan this past week went largely unnoticed, a sad reminder of just how detached we have become from what is the longest war in America’s history. We owe it not only to our fallen comrade but to our country to have a crisis of strategy. To prevent the bleeding of money and lives and the future security of the nation, we must come together to consider who we are and how we achieve our desired ends before it ends us all.