Nearly 17 years into America’s involvement in Afghanistan, key observers see little hope for a clear U.S. military victory in the central Asian nation, with news emerging from the country painting an increasingly dire picture, even as America once again builds up its presence there.
In a recent interview with Defense News, Chuck Hagel, the former Republican Senator from Nebraska and Secretary of Defense during the Obama administration, reportedly said the situation is Afghanistan is “worse than it’s ever been,” even as the U.S. prepares to spend an additional $45 billion on the conflict in 2018.
“I think the American people, the Congress, the United States are going to start asking some pretty good questions,” Hagel said. “The American military can’t fix the problems in Afghanistan. Poppy production, corruption, tribal decisions, topography. All the uncontrollables are there. You don’t fix that with the military.” Hagel is not alone in his criticism.
The military situation in Afghanistan is “at best a grinding stalemate” according to Steve Coll, former managing editor of the Washington Post and author of the new book Directorate S: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the years since Coll wrote another book on similar subject matter, 2004’s Ghost Wars: The Secret History of the CIA, Afghanistan, and Bin Laden, from the Soviet Invasion to September 10, 2001, the then-chaotic situation in Afghanistan has grown seemingly impossibly more complicated by the rise of the local branch of the “Islamic State” extremist group (a.k.a. ISIS, ISIL or Daesh), or “ISIS-Khorasan” as the terrorist organization is known in Afghanistan.
“So our muddled war policy is that we’re directly at war with the Islamic State, but we’re not directly at war with the Taliban, except to the extent that we’re supporting Afghan forces,” Coll pointed out in a recent interview with NPR. Yet Coll is far from the harshest critic of the United States’ current Afghanistan policy.
Citing increased interest from competing powers such as Russia and China in the “graveyard of empires,” as Afghanistan is sometimes called, Lyle Goldstein, professor of strategy in the China Maritime Studies Institute (CMSI) at the United States Naval War College in Newport, Rhode Island, writes in The National Interest this week that “no current rationales” exist “that justify the United States continuing its fight in Afghanistan.”
The government of Iran, meanwhile, has notably gone somewhat further than that and “joined Russia in accusing the United States of aiding Islamic State extremists in Afghanistan,” according to a report this week from the U.S. government-funded Voice of America, though the outlet also notes that American officials strongly deny those charges. “After witnessing Daesh and other organized terrorist groups losing their ground in Iraq and Syria, they are now relocating them to Afghanistan,” Iranian media reportedly quoted the nation’s top military commander as saying Tuesday. The Iranian Defense Minister has also warned his counterpart in Afghanistan that America has plans to “transfer [the] ISIL terrorist group” to Afghanistan, the VOA reports.
“Let me take this opportunity, since these rumors continue to circulate, to emphatically state that the United States has not brought Daesh to Afghanistan,” U.S. Ambassador John Bass reportedly said in response to those allegations. “The United States has not ever supported Daesh, its creation, its horrible attacks in any form, or fashion.”
Nevertheless it doesn’t reflect well on planners at the Pentagon and State Department that they were unable to give the Senate Foreign Relations Committee an estimate of how many ISIS operatives are presently in Afghanistan when questioned on Capitol Hill this week. “We’ll know more when the fighting picks up in the traditional fighting season,” Randall Schriver, the Defense Department’s Assistant Secretary for Asian and Pacific Affairs, reportedly testified.
Nor does the convoluted web of alliances and adversaries in Afghanistan, where the Taliban is in control or has a presence in an increasing percentage of the country, necessarily bode well for American aims. Coll points out that in practical terms, U.S. support for the Afghan military means America acts as the Afghanistan government’s air force.
“So when the Afghan forces need bombs dropped on Taliban positions, that’s generally us doing the bombing,” Coll says. “The number of bombs that we’ve been dropping on Afghanistan has increased significantly in 2017 over the year before.”
As American bombs rain down on Afghanistan in greater numbers, locals are increasingly fleeing the country. According to a report released this week by the Norwegian Refugee Council, which found late last month that a large majority of Afghan refugees who had returned to the country had been forced to flee once again, an average of 50 people per hour are now fleeing war-torn Afghanistan.
Last summer, President Trump declined a proposal from Erik Prince, the mercenary kingpin CEO of “Academi” — the notorious military contractor formerly known as Blackwater USA — to deploy thousands of his private contractors to Afghanistan. In turning down that plan, however, Trump also declined to state an exact number of additional U.S. troops he would instead be sending to the country, and estimates have since nearly doubled. Prince, meanwhile, has not given up on his plan — the details of which were recently published, including Prince’s vision for plundering Afghanistan’s “rare earth elements,” which the Academi proposal estimates to be worth $1 trillion.
“Ever since he ambushed Secretary of Defense James Mattis at the Pentagon on a Saturday morning in July, Blackwater founder and former Navy SEAL Erik Prince has been hounding the Trump administration to embrace his batshit crazy plan for winning the war in Afghanistan through the unprovoked slaughter of unarmed civilians by trigger-happy mercenaries,” writes Jared Keller of Task & Purpose. “While Mattis gave Prince the death stare politely demurred at the time, President Donald Trump’s growing frustration with the intractable 16-year-old conflict and the imminent deployment of 4,000 new U.S. troops to the country raises the possibility that a White House facing mounting military and political obstacles in the Global War on Terror could entrust the future of the Forever War to private military contractors.”
Potential political obstacles to America’s Afghanistan policy do indeed exist, as Mattis himself has recently faced congressional criticism of the administration’s plans.
“There has got to be a time when you say to President Trump, ‘We’ve done all we can do. Blood and treasure has been lost, and we have nothing to show we have gained, except we still have trouble with the leaders of Afghanistan having sex with little boys,'” Rep. Walter Jones reportedly said to Mattis this week “after the North Carolina Republican had recited a series of headlines critical of the war, including reports about the cultural acceptability of pedophelia and its prevalence within the Afghan military and police,” according to U.S. News & World Report.
“If we were engaged in conquering Afghanistan,” Mattis reportedly replied, “I would agree 100 percent with what you just stated, if that was our sense of empire. In fact, what we are doing to earn the trust of the American people is to ensure another 9/11 hatched out of there does not happen under our watch.”