Some 16 years in, the war in Afghanistan is the longest in the history of The United States. It is also our most disproportionately ignored, and — with a new president in office after an election in which Afghanistan was barely mentioned — perhaps our most uncertain major intervention going forward.
Defense Secretary James Mattis will soon present President Trump with a recommendation for the future of U.S.-Afghan engagement. The nature of his proposal is difficult to predict, pressured as it is by a Pentagon eager for fresh escalation and a president whose decrial of nation-building and labeling of the war "a total and complete disaster" has never been accompanied by a concrete exit plan. Of course, whatever policy Trump selects will have its greatest impact outside of Washington — on American soldiers tasked with what has devolved into a self-perpetuating nation-building endeavor, and on the American people, who have long since soured on a conflict most no longer believe was worth its costs.
For insight into the shape of the war so far and its prospects under the Trump administration, I spoke with Douglas Wissing, an award-winning journalist who is most recently the author of Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America's Endless War in Afghanistan. Here's a lightly edited, partial transcript.
Hopeless but Optimistic is the result of three stints embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan. The portrait you paint is significantly one of waste, corruption, and frustration, so for readers who may not be familiar with your book, will you share the source of the title — and especially the source of your optimism despite that grim assessment?
[Let's] work our way through the hopeless part and then get to the optimistic part.
Hopeless but Optimistic is my second book on the war in Afghanistan. My first one was Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban. I was embedded with U.S. soldiers, and they began telling me that we were essentially funding both sides of the war, that the counterinsurgency was so messed up and so dysfunctional that essentially everybody was running their wars on our money. We'd be riding around out in Taliban country in these armored vehicles with machine gunners on top and the soldiers would be saying, "We're funding both sides here."
One really smart intelligence officer one day in Laghman Province, he was on an embattled forward operating base and he clearly had been up all night. We were standing outside and he started telling me that he had been a narcotics detective in Las Vegas. "You know, this war is just like the Mafia. It's just like Las Vegas, you know. Everybody gets their cut," he said. "It's the perfect war. Everybody makes money."
I took that and started talking to more officers and began to learn about things like how our money helps finance the Taliban. I started doing hundreds of interviews with everybody from security soldiers who had been on the ground to generals and ambassadors and congresspeople, and I began to understand that there was this toxic network that connected ambitious American careerists who profit on military development and industrial development corporations, corrupt Afghan insiders, and the Taliban. It was as the soldier said: It was the perfect war. Everybody was making money. Everybody was benefiting — everyone, of course, but the American taxpayers and the Afghan people.
I confess at this point I'm struggling more than ever to see where the optimism comes in.
Well, in the first book, Funding the Enemy, I told that story — and at the time I was writing that book it was a pretty controversial thing to say that we were losing the war and we were losing the war because the enemy was us. The reality was, the cost of these two post-9/11 wars is probably about $5 trillion, and we had failed to accomplish our strategic, diplomatic, and military goals.
After the first book created a stir, I decided I wanted to embed for the third time in Afghanistan, to go through the war zones again and find out if there were any lessons learned. People understood that things were not going correctly. So I went back to find out, "Had things changed?"
The answer was no, it hadn't. By the time I got back to Kabul after going through the war zones, I saw how badly counterinsurgency was continuing to go. So I decided that I needed to find something that had worked in Afghanistan.
A lot of our development programs make no sense in Afghanistan. It's just a way to have phantom aid push enormous amounts of tax money to corporations that do very little. There's very little positive outcome. I went around Kabul and I interviewed these people that had longstanding organizations doing work that was very sustainable and appropriate to Afghanistan.
I found these groups and I began to understand the strength of Afghan culture, the resilience of that society, and the poetry of their society. I began to be optimistic about the Afghans as a people. They have done these extraordinary things. They will continue to do extraordinary things. I have faith in certain kinds of sustainable aid. I have faith in Afghans' capacity to run their society in a way that makes sense for them.
I think the other reason for optimism is that I can see the American public is clearly tired of this endless war, and Congress understands that mood. A congressman told me, "Well, sometimes Congress has to be shamed into doing the right thing." I can see that emerging consensus against the war. I can also see the emergence of pragmatic foreign policy strategy that is beginning to counter some of our very over-militarized post-Cold War international strategy. While I am somewhat hopeless about the outcome of a continuation of the way we have waged war in Afghanistan, I am cautiously optimistic that a change is on the way.
We recently learned President Trump is seriously considering some sort of re-escalation of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, and that comes after an election in which Afghanistan was almost never addressed. I was reviewing the three general election debates today, and Afghanistan was mentioned literally once. It was not a substantive discussion; it was merely a passing mention of this 16-year-old war. Given what we know of the Trump administration so far, do you think this potential new surge is likely — and do you think it's wise or avoidable?
In the election, Afghanistan was the forgotten war, and this isn't actually the first election where that happened. In 2012, it was the forgotten war even then. It doesn't poll well. Nobody's going to bring it up if they don't have to.
At the Pentagon, Gen. Nicholson made that pitch for "a few thousand more" troops. That's clearly the opening gambit of Pentagon efforts to engage President Trump in a re-escalation. Some people laugh and say, "We haven't had a 16-year war in Afghanistan, we've had 16 one-year wars." That’s because with each new rotation you get the new "good idea" — which sometimes is nothing more than the failed "good idea" four rotations prior.
Still, I think we're putting off the inevitable. We're really propping up a very dysfunctional proxy government, trying to define victory by saying, "Kabul hasn't fallen." That only lasts for so long.
We all have the images of the helicopters plucking people off the roof from the Saigon embassy. There have been questions about, "Do we have appropriate landing pads in the embassy in Kabul?" Because Kabul's besieged. The way insurgencies work is they go through the countryside. They're centrifugal. They move towards the capital and you've got capitals that are in a pretty precarious state. In the east and in the south and in the west now. Things blow up with great regularity in Kabul.
The question is: Are our efforts relevant? Are they consequential? If the Pentagon says they want to have "a few thousand more" troops and somehow that's going to turn the tide — why would 2,000 more soldiers turn the tide when 100,000 couldn't?
I think it's important to remember that the Taliban-led insurgency has grown in double digits every year since at least 2005. They control growing amounts of territory. I think the conservative estimates say they control around half of the country. I've had some intelligence analysts tell me they're controlling 90 percent of the countryside. The long-time special forces saying is that if an insurgency isn't shrinking, it's winning. U.S. government officials are trying to say this is a "stalemate." It's not a stalemate. It's a lost war.
We have spent more money on Afghanistan than we spent on the Marshall Plan, adjusted for inflation. Afghanistan has a population of about 30 million people that make on average $400 a year. When we invaded it was a basket case of a country. It was at the bottom of every human development industry. Sixteen years later, with more than the Marshall Plan invested there, they're still at the bottom of virtually every human development category. Most of that money was wasted.
I think we are stumbling toward that great economic term, "sunk costs bias," which warns that the costs that have been invested should not be part of the discussion for future action. President Trump is a business man. He's declared bankruptcy four times. He knows how to cut his losses. Perhaps that's our best argument. Why throw good money after bad?