In the wake of the Washington Post’s big document dump of secret government and military communications about the war in Afghanistan, a fresh wave of calls for pulling out of Afghanistan is sounding across the media. I have no intention of trying to defend the government’s strategy in Afghanistan nor its attempts to spin its policies or fudge its numbers. Officials deserve the criticisms that are coming their way on that score.
But really, is anybody that shocked? It does not take a genius to realize that the Afghanistan strategy lacked clarity and frustrated generals for years. That was all public knowledge. The aimlessness and half-heartedness of previous administrations were visible for all to see. The spin was not convincing to anyone, let alone the military. It was clear to anybody with two eyes that the Taliban was coming back. Talk to any American military personnel who spent time in Afghanistan, and they will regale you with tales of corruption and dysfunction. The Afghans are not the Finns and will not be anytime soon.
This is not some big massive coverup that everybody is surprised by. In fact, I suspect most people who spend any time paying attention to Afghanistan will see this as a confirmation of what we already knew.
The Bush and Obama administrations deserve a majority of the blame for the failure to have a clear strategy and an end state. Bush took his eye off of Afghanistan, and Obama told the Taliban he was going to leave. Afghanistan is a country America did not understand and may never fully understand.
Will it become a liberal democracy? No. Will it be a bastion of women’s rights? No. The best realistic outcome we could hope for is a stable country that is not a breeding ground for terrorists. President Trump has restarted talks with the Taliban, which is a good thing. US forces in Afghanistan are not large (roughly 14,000), and the amount of money we spend now in Afghanistan is substantially less than it was under previous administrations. Though we have stumbled along in Afghanistan, as is evidenced by the recently exposed lies and spin, we have held the Taliban at bay and helped the Afghan government to survive and become relatively stable.
The Afghans will be reliant on the US for the foreseeable future, but the expenditure in terms of resources is well worth the return, as it denies terrorists a haven from which to launch attacks. The “forever war” meme is just that, a meme. It says more about modern American impatience than it does about the wars themselves.
The American public expects wars to be quick, efficient, and have low casualties. This is ridiculous and seriously distorted. Whoever is to blame for these unrealistic expectations for easy, low-risk warfare should take a lesson from our own history about the time and money needed to bring stability and prosperity to a country.
Look at South Korea. The Korean War has never officially ended, but hostilities ceased in 1953. The US has had bases and soldiers in Korea ever since. Today we have about 24,000 troops stationed there. Since the end of World War II, the US has had bases and military personnel stationed in Japan. There are approximately 40,000 American military personnel stationed in there today. We have 320,000 military personnel in Europe.
The lesson in each of these cases is that we have taken the long-view approach to these conflicts, and we have reaped the rewards. Japan, Germany, and South Korea are prosperous, democratic societies who are close allies. They contribute to the stability of the world and share our fundamental values of freedom and human dignity. But we must remember this took decades to bring about. Not years. And we still have a military presence in those nations.
Afghanistan may never become South Korea, but it does not need to be. It just needs to be a relatively stable government that can deny the Taliban and its allies a place to regroup to launch attacks against us or our allies.
For a long time, we heard similar criticisms about American policy in Colombia—it’s a failed war, it’s wasting money, America is sticking its nose where it should not be, etc. With Colombia now a stable democracy that is bringing an end to its long civil war, the long-view policy of the American government looks prescient, even if imperfect.
The real story is the American people’s loss of trust in the US foreign policy establishment. The reason America could invest time, money, and resources into these other countries around the globe is that the American people fundamentally believed the government was competent and trustworthy. With trust in our federal government hitting record lows, perhaps deservedly so, the trust necessary for these large-scale and long-term endeavors has dried up. And when trust is in low supply, the ability to carry out long-term policies will be impossible.