On August 21, 2017, President Trump announced a renewed focus on Afghanistan as he unveiled his administration’s South Asia Strategy. Today, the question on the minds of Americans is whether this strategy has made a difference, as we have heard almost nothing from our nation’s leaders about its effectiveness.
At the time Trump announced the new strategy, I applauded his decision to change course and said, “We must continue taking the fight there to prevent terrorism from returning to our shores. This is only possible with a sound strategy, a steadfast commitment to building the capacity of our Afghan partners, and enough troops to finish the mission.”
Fourteen months later, the American people continue to hear conflicting accounts of progress and stalemate in Afghanistan.
On April 12 of this year, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing, I asked Secretary of Defense James Mattis if he would prioritize releasing a public report on America’s progress in Afghanistan. Mattis assured me he would look into it and said, “I see your point.” Six months later, neither Secretary Mattis nor Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has provided more information.
The American people hear more about increased Taliban attacks than they do progress after 17 years of the war in Afghanistan. Since 2002, the U.S. alone has provided more than $126 billion in aid to the country. We’ve spent over $750 billion on U.S. military operations in the Afghanistan war. We are set to continue to spend no less than $5 billion annually for the foreseeable future. The sacrifice of over 3,400 coalition lives, and tens of thousands of Afghan lives, must lead to a peaceful outcome. Yet assessment reports show the conflict is at a stalemate.
Given the incredible sacrifice of our brave men and women in uniform and the billions of dollars of taxpayer money spent on the conflict annually, the American public, including the more than 300 Hoosiers who have served in Afghanistan this year alone, deserves a complete progress report to understand what our future commitment to the country will require.
The administration’s semi-annual report to Congress shows little progress over time. Each assessment over the past five years has recorded essentially the same threat level. The opening line of the threat assessment in November 2013’s report stated, “The convergence of insurgent, terrorist, and criminal networks is pervasive and constitutes a threat to Afghanistan’s stability.” Almost five years later, the June 2018 report’s threat assessment said that Afghanistan still “faces a continuing threat from an externally supported insurgency and the highest regional concentration of terrorist groups in the world. These pervasive insurgent, terrorist, and criminal networks constitute a threat to Afghanistan’s stability.”
The most recent United Nations update on civilian casualties shows the consequences of these threats. More civilian deaths in the Afghanistan war were reported from January to June 2018 than at any other period in the last nine years. The situation is only held in balance by international donations into the accounts of an Afghan government riddled with corruption.
According to the administration’s latest assessment, the Afghan military requires $6 billion annually, yet the Afghan government provides less than 10 percent of that total. Two key components of the military, the special security forces and the air force, together require more funding than the Afghan government collects in revenue annually. I fear we are building an unsustainable military in Afghanistan.
While serving as a naval reserve officer in Afghanistan just four years ago, I encountered a complex situation. When the U.S. reduced its footprint and formally ended combat operations, the Taliban took advantage of the drawdown, increasing its foothold. At the same time, the Afghan presidential election became mired in controversy. The situation has not improved in any significant way since, despite the perseverance of the Afghan people. While China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran dominate the news, too often people forget about the importance of America’s presence in Afghanistan. This year, we will be sending new recruits into a conflict that started before they were even born.
We want President Trump and his administration to succeed in making “this strategy work, and work effectively and work quickly,” as he said he hoped it would when he announced it in August 2017. Our tax dollars, sweat, and blood must lead to an enduring peace in Afghanistan. We should continue partnering with the people of Afghanistan to accomplish that objective, but we need to hear clearly and transparently from the administration to determine how we get there, and what it will cost.