Last week I explained how the foreign-policy establishment, both Democratic and Republican, has used Donald Trump to whitewash a bipartisan catalog of catastrophic failures abroad dating back to Sept. 11, 2001. Whichever party’s recent-vintage foreign policy poison you choose to drink, it’s hard to argue that America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Arab revolutions, the Iran nuclear agreement, a resurgent Russia, the refugee crisis threatening to destabilize Europe, the comically disastrous nuclear agreements with North Korea, or the continuing rise of China as a geopolitical and economic powerhouse have made American lives more secure, or shown that the wisdom of our elites is especially wise.
Trump isn’t responsible for any of that mess, I argued. Nor, as it turns out, is he going to drain the swamp in Washington, D.C., like he promised his voters. Why? Because he’s taking orders from the swamp. How do I know that? Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan is a complete waste,” Trump tweeted of the Afghanistan war several years before he decided to run for President, and he repeated his criticism of the war loudly and often on the campaign trail. Last month, though, Trump pulled an about-face and decided to send perhaps 4,000 troops—maybe more, possibly less—to Afghanistan to join the 8,500 already there. Questioned by reporters about the exact number of U.S. troops headed to Afghanistan, the Pentagon declined to give a number.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers are pleased that Trump has learned to take advice from the generals who now play such a large role in his administration—with former Marine General James Mattis in the Pentagon, another former Marine four-star John Kelly as White House chief of staff, and active duty army General H.R. McMaster presenting foreign policy options to the President from his post as National Security Adviser. But for all the administration’s military brain-power, critics still complain that the Trump team doesn’t have a clear vision of what victory in Afghanistan would look like. In other words, there is no Afghanistan strategy. Weirdly, critics of Obama’s Afghanistan policy said the same thing—there’s no larger strategy—and they were right. The same was true of the Bush White House. So why over 16 years have the past three administrations failed to craft a sound Afghanistan strategy?
Afghanistan wasn’t the “good war,” as Barack Obama suggested—it was just the war that everyone could agree on—thus it was useful and profitable. Obama’s entire campaign was premised on his opposition to the Iraq war, but he couldn’t be a total squish, so Afghanistan, by comparison, was the campaign America needed to win—even after a Navy SEAL team killed Osama bin Laden and the goalposts shifted. And now America is stuck and the problem isn’t that we don’t know how to get out but rather that no one really wants to get out. There’s too much money invested in staying the course, no matter how long that may be. Trump decided against setting a deadline for troop withdrawal, lest our enemies think that America is not committed to wasting the energy, optimism, generosity, wit, and native intelligence of its young men and women by dispatching them to the other side of the world to fight against religious fanatics in perpetuity. That is, there is no end in sight.
It should pain any American to say so, but the fact is that even with 2,500 Americans dead, the Pentagon has regarded Afghanistan as something of a boon—lots of combat leads to lots of promotions for lots of officers while keeping open production lines for all sorts of weapons and systems. Yes, Afghanistan has meant American jobs, and especially in Washington, D.C., where it feeds not just the military-industrial complex but also reconstruction and aid development organizations, who make money by cleaning up and fixing what the military breaks. Naturally, the Pentagon, and every other government agency along with NGOs, etc., was going to argue for Trump to stay in Afghanistan—Afghanistan is the swamp and Trump now owns it.
There is no military or political strategy to win Afghanistan because it is not a strategic territory. Unless you’re Pakistan, of course, in which case Afghanistan is where your armed forces regroup in the event of a massive Indian invasion before the decision is made to empty your nuclear arsenal in an exchange that likely kills tens if not hundreds of millions on the Asian subcontinent, which is an event that would surely have real-world repercussions for America, too. That is one reason why the Trump administration has highlighted our problems with Pakistan. That and the fact bin Laden was hiding out in Pakistan—to absolutely no one’s surprise.
Getting bin Laden and the other al-Qaida figures was the original rationale for going into Afghanistan—then we were going to get out. The Taliban was simply the landlord that rented al-Qaeda space from which to attack the United States. And then post-bin Laden, the Taliban became the problem—as did al-Qaida remnants like Ayman Zawahiri, and the new kid on the block, the Islamic State, so we’re still there. But the fact that terrorists grow in Afghanistan like weeds underscores an important if unpleasant fact: Afghanistan is always going to appeal to terrorists, including those who want to kill Americans.
H.R. McMaster wants to fix not just Afghanistan but Pakistan, too. You can sort of see why: Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, plays a double game by working with some very bad actors. Even worse is the prospect that the really ugly characters in the ISI would take over the nuclear file from the relatively OK guys. But here’s a gut check: We have a hard time fixing tenements in American cities that attract drug addicts—we can’t fix Afghanistan and don’t have to. With a not very sophisticated recipe of threats and actual bombing, we can pretty much deter the bad guys hiding out there who want to do something bad to America.
Oh, no we can’t, says the foreign policy establishment. We owe it to Afghanistan and ourselves to solve it. I was at an event recently where several Afghan officials explained why their country was so important—if the U.S. cuts the cord, they explained, terrorists will use Afghan land to plot operations against the United States. In other words, pay us and protect us, or the bad guys will kill you. I thought to myself: You mean not even the guy who wants to build a wall can keep out terrorists traveling from Afghanistan? It seems protection schemes resonate well in Washington. Sen. Lindsey Graham said that any of his colleagues who don’t support Trump’s plan to keep Afghanistan from becoming a safe haven for terrorists are therefore responsible for the next Sept. 11. That makes a nice bookend to the fact that no one in Washington has yet admitted responsibility for the last Sept. 11.
The nearly two-decade disaster that is the Afghanistan campaign suggests that the 2004 Democratic candidate for president was correct on at least one very important point: Stopping terrorism, said John Kerry, is a police and intelligence matter. But even if you’re going to use the U.S. military instead of policemen to shut down terrorist safe havens that threaten the West, then it’s Belgium, the headquarters for IS’s external operations, rather than Afghanistan that should be at the top of the list. After all, that’s where most terror plots targeting the West actually come from.
Another upside to concentrating the nation-building energies of the Pentagon on Belgium rather than Afghanistan is that it’s probably easier—and more pleasant—to train a dysfunctional European gendarmerie that uses terror alerts as a cover to throw European-style orgies. Afghanistan’s police force, on the other hand, rapes boys seemingly as a matter of civic pride, with commanders competing to see whose “bacha bazi” adolescent sex slave is the most beautiful. The American military is compelled to look the other way at this revolting, criminal behavior, in order to placate allies in a war of no strategic significance. That can’t be good for America.
To persuade Trump that Afghanistan wasn’t hopeless, McMaster reportedly showed the former owner of the Miss USA pageant a 1972 picture of three women wearing miniskirts on a street in Kabul. And where, Trump might have asked, is the archival photograph from Kabul of an Afghan central government? Right—there isn’t one because it never existed.
In the 1950s and ’60s there was a somewhat liberal coterie in Kabul, says one Afghanistan expert who entered the country after the 2001 invasion. “That changed with the Soviet invasion in 1979,” he said, “and people from the countryside filled the cities—that’s how it became conservative.” It’s probably not that difficult to make Kabul blossom once again, just by cleansing the city of those who don’t like to see women in miniskirts, but what about the rest of the country?
Maybe we can change their minds. That’s the premise of U.S. counterinsurgency strategy or COIN, “a troop-heavy, time-consuming, expensive doctrine of trying to win over the locals by building roads, bridges, schools and a well-functioning government.” The problem with COIN, explained one Afghanistan hand, is that the natives do not want those things. “We want to do nice things for them, so they’ll be nice to us,” he said. “But it amounts to a fundamental political change in local dynamics. Where you put these things is a political decision that empowers some locals at the expense of others; what you teach in those schools is a political decision. We are destabilizing local populations by building roads, schools, and hospitals. They may need them but they don’t want them.”
But of course, COIN and its concomitant nation-building measures were never exclusively about what was good for the people of Afghanistan. Rather, it’s part of a massive American boondoggle that feeds both the right and the left, the military and the development-aid community, or those people who bid on multi-million dollar U.S. AID contracts to build bridges, schools, and roads. For 2017, the United States pledged $4.7 billion to Afghanistan.
It’s not a coincidence that as the Pentagon budget soared after 2001 to fund Washington’s war on terror, so did the population of the metro Washington, D.C., area. In the last 15 years, the District of Columbia alone surged 100,000 residents to a four-decade high of 681,170. They came for the job and stayed when their jobs became permanent. Washington never faced the same financial crisis as the rest of the country because the rest of America was funding Washington’s growth, thanks in part to the Afghanistan war.
It was the same in the D.C. suburbs, where war money helped shape the new demographics in northern Virginia, which turned the state from red to blue in its overall voting habits. Oh, maybe you thought it was just Republicans, military contractors, arms manufacturers, and the like who profited. Nope, funding for the war, and associated nation-building and development efforts, also went to the stability and peace builders, development aid workers who identify as Democrats, progressives even.
See the nice middle-aged woman in the pussy hat at the Women’s March protesting against racist Trump? She works for a $700 million organization built largely on the contracts won for development work in Afghanistan. She’s not a warmonger; she just has a personal financial investment in an ongoing military campaign in which dead Afghans and Americans oil the larger machine that pays for Soccer Stars afterschool for her kids.
For 16 years, both parties have been happy to wet their beaks in the trough. And now Afghanistan is the new normal: a war of no strategic consequence waged in no small part to keep a small but influential constituency inside the Beltway employed, regardless of how many lives, American and Afghan, are sacrificed in the process. That is what real corruption looks like.
Lee Smith is the author of The Permanent Coup: How Enemies Foreign and Domestic Targeted the American President (2020).