National Security & Defense

Afghanistan’s Impossible Mission

An Afghan National Army soldier keeps watch at a checkpoint in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 27, 2019. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)
Everyone knows what’s going to happen there. But it turns out we didn’t know what’s happening there now.

Everyone knows what’s going to happen in Afghanistan if the United States holds to the agreement it struck with the Afghan government and the Taliban — the one that means we exit on May 1 of this year. The Taliban has been making it quite clear, by taking deadly aim at the Afghan government.

Do you even know the name of Afghanistan’s president without looking it up? Of course not. I’d be surprised if most U.S. senators knew his name, which is Ashraf Ghani. Because everyone knows what’s going to happen to his government.

It’s not going to be well-protected by the Afghan national army. Remember training the Afghan national army? NATO has been doing it since 2005. Four nations have joined NATO since 2005 in three separate rounds of expansion. Despite many tender years of tutelage, Afghanistan isn’t one of them.

Just yesterday, John Sopko, the U.S. Department of Defense’s special inspector for Afghanistan reconstruction, told Congress what would happen after May 1. “The Afghan government would probably lose the capability of flying any of its aircraft within a few months and, to be quite blunt, would probably face collapse,” Sopko said.

Sopko is just the latest in a long, long line of foreign-policy hands who have been solemnly warning people what would happen in Afghanistan after we left it. That list includes Madeleine Albright. And NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg. He rejects an “early pullout” (how European of him!). By that he means, the agreed-upon pullout on May 1.

He knows what’s going to happen if we leave. The same exact thing that happened immediately after the Soviet Union spent 30 years equipping and later directly training Afghanistan’s national military. The national institutions — which were largely fictive and stood up as an accomplishment for the foreigners — were overwhelmed by the real established institutions, clans, and warlords, who promptly split the loot. The jihadis, the ones who had been funded by Americans, came storming in afterward.

And that’s what will happen after May 1, if we leave. The only difference is that this time the religious fanatics won’t be funded by America. Instead they’ll be funded by Pakistan, America’s oldest and least-reliable friend in the region, which is also a major recipient of American foreign aid.

Everyone knows what will happen in Afghanistan. We’ll leave and the Taliban will devour the national government, or we’ll stay and wait to see if they start shooting at us again, as we continue winning hearts and minds and minting stars for generals there.

What we don’t know is what is happening in Afghanistan. That is, just a few scant weeks before we are supposed to leave, it’s been revealed that — whoops — the U.S. has 1,000 more troops in Afghanistan than it has disclosed to anyone, least of all the American people who authorized this war. Or whose long-deceased parents authorized it.

Did former president Trump even know about those troops? One has to ask, because this is becoming a Pentagon habit. Former ambassador to Syria Jim Jeffrey gave a valedictory exit interview to Defense One in which he explained that a huge part of his job was “playing shell games to not make clear to our leadership how many troops we had there.”

A normal country would imprison or possibly execute civil servants who lied to the public about grave matters of war in this way. But the United States isn’t a normal country; it’s a successful one. Successful countries can run purposeless wars for decades without the great mass of their citizenry suffering a price.

In the end you get a chair at a think tank, or a position at a college, and you run a consulting firm that works with major financial interests on the side.

New York Magazine summarized the consequence of the extra 1,000 men — 3,500, not 2,500: “According to experts who spoke with the [New York] Times, it would be close to impossible to get the remaining U.S. forces and around 7,000 NATO and allied troops out in the next month and a half, although U.S. officials claim the option is still on the table.”

The close-to-impossible option is still on the table. Got that? It’s an admission that if we break our deal with the Taliban, and they start headhunting our troops, it wasn’t really anyone’s active decision — it was just the result of this series of normalized frauds on the American public. Dealing with that is impossible.

And listen, it’s no biggie. This is what global leadership looks like.

Enjoy forgetting the Afghan president’s name again.

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