Editor’s Note: A version of this piece originally appeared in Arc Digital. It is reprinted with permission.
Americans want foreign military campaigns to go smoothly: Deploy, sacrifice, win, leave. And if winning isn’t in the cards, then what’s the sacrifice for? Leave as soon as possible.
By that logic, the United States is losing in Afghanistan — or at least not winning — and should abandon the effort. But a simple win–loss dynamic is the wrong way to think about that 16-year-old war.
America’s not in Afghanistan to win. It’s there to hold the line.
American Wars, Past and Present
For many Americans, especially older ones, the win–loss dichotomy boils down to World War II vs. Vietnam.
World War II was the good war: well-defined, righteous goals, ending in clear, unambiguous victory. After winning, most Americans came home. Those who stayed to oversee reconstruction in Germany and Japan faced minimal violence.
Vietnam was the bad war: ambiguous goals of uncertain importance, dragging on at considerable cost before withdrawal. The United States sacrificed immense blood and treasure, but the Communists took over anyway.
Through this lens, Afghanistan is Vietnam. Though responding to September 11 was righteous, the war’s goals were never especially clear and have long since become ambiguous. Within months of invading in October 2011, American-led forces defeated the Taliban government and dislodged al-Qaeda. Then the goals shifted.
To prevent another transnational terrorist group from using Afghanistan as a base of operations, the United States — with support from allies and the broader international community — propped up the democratically elected Afghan government. The plan was for coalition troops to fight insurgents and train local forces, providing domestic security until the Afghans could take over.
It’s been 16 years, and that goal is nowhere in sight. The Taliban and other insurgent networks remain active, with an open physical presence in over two-thirds of Afghanistan, fully controlling about 4 percent. And ISIS recently gained a foothold.
In the last two weeks, four attacks in the national capital, Kabul, killed over 130, including eleven at a military base. The Taliban claimed two of the attacks, and ISIS claimed the other two. This violence indicates the government is not in control of the country.
Meanwhile, Pakistan continues playing both sides. The Haqqani network, the Pakistani Taliban, and other insurgents operating in Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along the Afghan border, have killed thousands of Pakistanis. But while the Pakistani military fights those groups, elements of the ISI — the country’s powerful intelligence agency — support, or at least turn a blind eye to, FATA-based militants who focus on Afghanistan.
Without a path to victory, many Americans wonder why the United States should keep spending money and risking lives. Perhaps it is time to withdraw.
Afghanistan Is Not Vietnam
It’s important to learn lessons from the past, but every war is different, and Afghanistan is not Vietnam. From a humanitarian perspective, the Taliban are worse than the North Vietnamese, especially regarding treatment of women. And the Taliban’s religious fundamentalism is less popular in Afghanistan than Communism was in 1960s and ’70s Vietnam.
It’s important to learn lessons from the past, but every war is different, and Afghanistan is not Vietnam.
However, using force abroad requires a compelling national interest. Vietnam did not threaten American security and, though it may not have been easy to see at the time, withdrawing did not put American interests in danger. The theory that Communism would sweep across southeast Asia proved incorrect. Though the Communist party remains in power today, Vietnam evolved with China into a sort of state-managed capitalism, rather than revolution-exporting Communism. And Vietnam is now one of the world’s most pro-American countries, with over 75 percent holding a favorable opinion of the United States.
As with the Vietcong, the Taliban and other Afghan insurgents do not directly threaten American security. But the similarities end there. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the Taliban willingly hosted al-Qaeda, which proved itself a threat to American security. If the Taliban retakes power, it could allow transnational jihadists to set up shop.
After the U.S. withdrew from Vietnam, the Vietnamese Communist party took control and maintained internal security. But American withdrawal from Afghanistan could easily lead to prolonged civil war. The Soviet Union’s withdrawal in 1989 sparked a seven-year conflict the Taliban eventually won, leaving pockets of territory ungoverned. As in Syria, the chaos would play to ISIS’s advantage.
And Vietnam didn’t have a neighbor like Pakistan.
A Nuclear Problem
Pakistan is the world’s least stable nuclear-armed country. In the 21st century, insurgents and terrorists have killed over 29,000 Pakistanis, mostly civilians. The country became a military dictatorship in a 1999 coup — a year after its first nuclear test — and then returned to democracy in 2008. But Yousaf Raza Gillani, the first post-dictatorship prime minister, lost his position because of contempt of court, and the second, Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, was banned from seeking reelection in 2017 because of corruption.
The military owns businesses, which provide independent sources of funding that limit civilian control. And, most concerning, the father of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons, A. Q. Kahn, ran a black-market proliferation ring until 2004, selling information to North Korea, Iran, and Libya.
Pakistan’s stability is in America’s interest. If the government collapses, terrorists could steal a nuclear weapon or radioactive material that could be used in a dirty bomb. Because Afghan and Pakistani insurgent networks overlap, the war in Afghanistan is partially about denying sanctuary to militants that attack Pakistan.
Because Afghan and Pakistani insurgent networks overlap, the war in Afghanistan is partially about denying sanctuary to militants that attack Pakistan.
But Pakistan remains primarily concerned with India, which means it prefers a more religious Muslim government in Afghanistan for “strategic depth” and fears a more secular democratic government that might warm up to Pakistan’s southern rival. That’s why the ISI supported the Taliban in the Afghan civil war, and that partially explains why it turns a blind eye to the Afghan Taliban now. It’s also likely that some elements of the ISI are sympathetic to the Taliban’s — and jihadists’ — fundamentalism.
In August 2017, President Trump laid out his administration’s strategy for Afghanistan, vowing to take a harder line with Pakistan. This January, the U.S. announced that it had suspended $900 million in military aid from fiscal year 2017. The president argued that Pakistan provides safe harbor to Afghan insurgents and hoped that Pakistan would see this withholding of funds as an incentive to get tougher.
The Pakistanis did not take it well.
Foreign Minister Khawaja Muhammad Asif denied the accusations and defiantly declared that Pakistan will not be treated as America’s “whipping boy.” However, though the United States worried Pakistan would close air and land supply routes into Afghanistan, so far that hasn’t happened.
Nevertheless, the problem with assuming that suspending aid can change Pakistan’s behavior is it’s not that much money. The $900 million America withheld is 0.3 percent of Pakistan’s GDP ($284 billion) and about 10 percent of Pakistan’s official military budget ($8.7 billion). They like it, but they’re not dependent on it, and it’s not enough to overcome their national interests regarding Afghanistan and India.
Besides, the United States is not the only country with money. Defense Minister Khurram Dastgir Khan announced Pakistan will pursue a “regional recalibration,” indicating plans to cultivate a closer security relationship with China. Given China’s eagerness to improve relations via financial aid around the world, its regional competition with India, and global competition with the United States, it’s probably happy to oblige.
Pakistan is thus a reason the United States cannot win in Afghanistan and simultaneously a reason the United States cannot leave.
The U.S. Should Hold the Line
The American public holds the government to two difficult, somewhat contradictory standards regarding international terrorism: First, no attacks against Americans or close allies, which means no repeat of September 11, but also nothing like Benghazi (2012) or Paris (2015). Second, minimal American casualties, especially outside of official war zones. Though the public accepts that some Americans will die in Afghanistan, it will not tolerate large numbers coming home in body bags. And when four U.S. troops died in Niger in October 2017, it created a scandal.
This is another way Afghanistan is different from Vietnam. At the war’s peak, the U.S. had 543,000 troops in Vietnam, including draftees, and suffered 58,220 deaths. By contrast, American forces in Afghanistan peaked around 100,000 in 2011, scaled down to 8,400 as Obama ended most operations, and are now around 14,000, owing to Trump’s escalation. The Afghan War has lasted longer than Vietnam, but the 2,408 American deaths in Afghanistan are 4.1 percent of Vietnam’s total. And every American fighting there is a volunteer.
Maintaining a relatively small military commitment to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control — which would likely pull the U.S. back in, anyway — is a worthwhile goal at reasonable cost.
With that relatively light footprint, the United States cannot execute a counterinsurgency strategy to stabilize the country. That would require at least 100,000 troops for a decade or more and still might not work.
By contrast, current troop levels enable Special Operations forces to hunt down insurgent leaders and transnational terrorists, while trainers and embeds help the Afghan National Security Forces provide security. That, plus drone strikes and surveillance, is probably enough to prevent the Taliban from controlling much territory or the elected Afghan government from collapsing.
Iraq shows why this is important. Obama believed the Iraq War was a mistake and came into office in 2009 vowing to end it. By the end of 2011, all U.S. troops had left the country. Negotiations to leave a rapid reaction force of 5,000–10,000 fell through owing to Iraq’s insistence that Iraqi courts, rather than the U.S. military, have jurisdiction over American personnel accused of crimes. There was probably a way to work around the issue, but Obama didn’t press it.
In June 2014, ISIS swept across northern Iraq, and the Iraqis proved unable to stop them. A few months later, ISIS threatened Baghdad, and Obama reintroduced American forces. A three-year U.S.-backed campaign helped Iraq retake its territory, but an American residual force in Iraq could have responded early to ISIS’s 2014 offense, perhaps preventing Islamic State forces from gaining control of Mosul, where they captured cash and weaponry that fueled their expansion.
The counterargument against an indefinite American presence is that it decreases locals’ incentives to solve their own problems. That’s fair, but the right incentives mean little if they lack the necessary capabilities.
Panicking as ISIS approached their capital, the Iraqi government acquiesced to American pressure and replaced divisive Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki with the more inclusive Haider al-Abadi. But the Iraqi security forces still needed help from America, Iran, and others to halt the Islamic State’s advance.
Unlike Iraq in 2011, Afghanistan is currently run by a unity government, led by the two top finishers from the 2014 election. And if the U.S. leaves, what follows could easily be worse than post-withdrawal Iraq.
The United States is not going to win in Afghanistan, but that’s the wrong way to think about the problem. Maintaining a relatively small military commitment to prevent the situation from spiraling out of control — which would likely pull the U.S. back in, anyway — is a worthwhile goal at reasonable cost.
Hold the line.
— Nicholas Grossman is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois and editor-at-large of Arc Digital.