Last night, President Trump gathered the national family together around the dinner table on the pretense that he would deliver urgent and sober news about America's strategy in Afghanistan, and instead basically sent us to bed without dinner. Rather than a detailed policy vision for extricating the country from its Afghanistan adventure, he offered platitudes ("We will defeat them, and we will defeat them handily") and declined to clue the American people in on this big new strategy he's decided on with, as he would put it, "his generals." But in all likelihood, we are headed toward another disastrous troop surge that will end the way every previous attempt to "win" in Afghanistan has ended: in failure.
It was a curious speech, delivered soberly by Telemprompter Trump. It was full of the president's trademark bluster, in which he describes international relations in terms best reserved for contractors and their clients. India, he claimed, "makes billions of dollars" trading with the United States and so he wants them to "help us more in Afghanistan," as if trade flows somehow obligate states to clean up our imperial messes. He argued that "we have been paying billions of dollars" to Pakistan, although what exactly we have bought with that "payment" is not clear. (The word the president is looking for is "aid.")
The meat of the speech, though, was about America's forever war in Afghanistan, a conflict he says that Americans are weary of. It was also a conflict that Trump himself was rabidly opposed to as a private citizen and as a presidential candidate. But at this point his about-faces on policy are unsurprising, and hardly the man's worst flaw. This time he even had the decency to acknowledge his change of heart rather than pretending he was in favor of a troop surge all along. "My original instinct was to pull out," he said.
For once, his instincts were correct.
While the president didn't put a figure on the number of new troops to be sent to Afghanistan, it is rumored to be just a few thousand, an utterly comical number that not even the most deluded believer in this lost project could possibly believe will make a difference. The United States has been fighting without interruption in Afghanistan since October of 2001, when George W. Bush launched a nimble invasion to dislodge the Taliban from power, an end they richly deserved for their general depravity and their role in the attacks of 9/11. Toppling the regime was a policy nearly all Americans supported at the time and that goal was reached quickly. The problem is that the Bush administration had no plausible plan for what would come next.
Ever since, we have been waging what is essentially an unwinnable struggle against Taliban guerillas to stabilize the country and transform it into a developing democracy. Trump's policy seems designed to split the difference between our only real options — walking away from the war and cutting our losses by sensibly acknowledging the impossibility of our expansive goals, or massively doubling down by mounting a sustained, much more comprehensive and expensive occupation which would require actual sacrifice from the civilians and voters currently content to pretend this is all not happening.
In the run-up to the Iraq War, skeptics and opponents were routinely browbeaten with the example of Japan and Germany as proof that the U.S. can invade other countries and successfully transform them into functional liberal democracies. But neither Iraq nor Afghanistan were granted, even briefly, anything like the scale of the commitment that we made to our vanquished World War II adversaries. There was no Marshall Plan, minimal debt forgiveness, no years-long garrisoning of the force levels needed to restore order and extinguish any lingering resistance.
We left 350,000 troops in Japan at the end of 1945. Afghanistan is nearly twice the size of Japan and we have never had more than 100,000 troops there. There are now about 8,400. To think that things will be different this time by adding a few thousand troops is the very worst kind of policy myopia. No doubt these forces will fight gamely and achieve short-term success where they are deployed, but there are simply not going to be enough of them. They too will fight, as President Trump accurately called it, "a war without victory."
Since its inception, the Afghanistan war has claimed the lives of 2,403 U.S. military personnel and sent more than 20,000 others home wounded. More than 1,500 civilian contractors and another 1,136 soldiers from 19 countries, including the U.K., Italy, Spain, and South Korea have also died there. At least 91,000 Afghans, including over 26,000 civilians, have been killed over the last 16 years of this war. The country's economy is in ruins. No one under the age of 40 has ever known a single day of peace in their entire lives. The putative government in Kabul controls less than two-thirds of the country, while the Taliban made significant gains last year. The cost of this war for the United States may already be as high as $2 trillion.
Our failure as a society to come to terms with the scale of this calamity, and to do something about it, is total. It spans an entire generation. It has never been the focus of an effective, sustained anti-war campaign. If it ever figured in our politics, it was only briefly and then as an empty talking point in the 2004 and 2008 campaigns by John Kerry and Barack Obama, bizarrely situated as the noble war in contrast to the perfidy of the Iraq disaster. Most Americans have only the barest sense that we are at war there.
As a society, we have judged the Afghanistan conflict unworthy of debate, delegating it instead to foreign policy elites, military experts, and the soldiers, civil servants, contractors, and innocent civilian victims whose bodies are inscribed with its horrors. We assume that someone, at some point, will reckon with its totality, comfortable that it won't have to be us. We should, in fact, be wearier of this war than we are. And because we are not, it will go on.