Hanging in a corridor outside the Pentagon press office, a blow-up of a Time magazine cover shows a weary U.S. soldier drawing deeply on his cigarette. Barbed wire and snowy foothills loom behind him. The headline: “How Not to Lose in Afghanistan.” The date: April 20, 2009.
More than eight years later, the Pentagon finds itself in the same quandary.
This time around, it is President Donald Trump looking for answers, just as Barack Obama and George W. Bush did before him. Having given Afghanistan little more than a passing mention as president, he is now being forced to confront the issue by a grim drumbeat of bad news and warnings from his generals.
Almost any year from its turbulent recent past can serve as a showcase for Afghanistan’s dire predicament. Take 2016, which marked 15 years since the U.S.-led invasion. Nearly 11,500 Afghan civilians were killed or wounded, according to the United Nations. Adding to the carnage, local officials say, the Taliban and other insurgent groups killed about 7,000 Afghan security force members—many of whom had been trained and supported by U.S. and NATO experts.
Dan Coats, Trump’s director of national intelligence, hammered home the depressing point last week, warning that the political and security situation will “almost certainly” continue to worsen. “Meanwhile, we assess that the Taliban is likely to continue to make gains, especially in rural areas,” he said.
Trump, who campaigned on an “America First” platform and a pledge to reduce U.S. overseas involvement, must now decide whether to approve expected requests from the military’s top brass to send thousands more U.S. troops back to Afghanistan. Administration advisers are reportedly urging him to green light some 3,000 to 5,000 additional troops, adding to the 8,400 already there.
The president is expected to make the decision this month, and Pentagon chief Jim Mattis said his own recommendation would come “very shortly.”
U.S. troop levels peaked at around 100,000 under Obama, who later embarked on a steady drawdown aiming to completely end America’s combat role in the country. The United States and NATO handed security responsibility over to Afghan forces at the start of 2015, but the outcome has been brutal.
Local troops have been slain in their thousands, corruption remains endemic and as the Taliban continues to gain ground, even U.S. commanders concede the situation is a stalemate at best. “Unless we change something… the situation will continue to deteriorate and we’ll lose all the gains that we’ve invested in over the last several years,” Defense Intelligence Agency chief General Vincent Stewart told lawmakers last week.
However, a new troop commitment would stir resentment in America, which has seen about 2,400 troops killed in Afghanistan since 2001 and another 20,000 wounded. Plus the U.S. government has already spent around $1 trillion on fighting and rebuilding, much of which has been squandered on wasteful projects.
Trump is expected to announce a decision while he travels to NATO in Brussels and a G7 summit in Sicily later this month. He will need to outline a coherent Afghanistan policy and explain how a few thousand extra troops will win—or at least not lose—there, when 100,000 troops could not.
“What we will have at the end of this next few weeks here is an opportunity for a much more effective strategy for the problem set in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the region broadly,” said Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster.
Administration officials acknowledge military gains can succeed only if reforms take place in the heart of the Kabul government. Mattis this week sounded an optimistic tone on the country’s current leaders, President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah.
Officials say the government is working to root out the corruption and bad governance that defined Hamid Karzai’s decade in power. They are “committed to working in a responsive way with their citizens, and therein lies the path forward,” Mattis said. “When a government wins the affection, the respect and the support of their people, then no enemy can stand against them.”
NATO currently has about 13,500 soldiers in Afghanistan, including the Americans. They do not typically fight the Taliban, serving a “train and advise” role for the local forces instead.
Extra troops could free up Western advisers to get closer to the fight. While that would help them gain better battlefield understanding, it would also put them at greater risk. But Americans have little appetite for more deaths in a war that many view as unwinnable and would rather forget.