The war in Afghanistan, the longest war in American history, has dragged on for over 17 years. It has claimed thousands of American lives and cost trillions of dollars. And to what result? The best we can say is that we’ve achieved a stalemate. Yet we hear little debate about the direction and purpose of this “endless war.” It’s remarkable how little our leaders talk about it. We do not have any clear policy or strategic objectives.
President Donald Trump has said he would end the war but increased our military activity there. He has talked about a new plan for victory but hasn’t offered details. He barely mentioned Afghanistan in his recent State of the Union address. We have pursued a massive state-building effort in Afghanistan, trying to create a pluralistic, democratic country with free elections and expanded economic and social opportunity. By some accounts, Afghanistan is now the leading recipient of U.S. foreign aid.
We have had some success. There have been peaceful elections. The number of children enrolled in public schools has nearly tripled. The economy has grown. Infant mortality is down and life expectancy is up. There are more opportunities for women. Refugees have been able to return home.
But significant challenges remain.
Afghanistan is deeply divided by language and ethnicity. Groups view one another with suspicion and have a long history of contentious relations. Much of the population subsists on less than $1 a day. Almost half of the country does not have access to clean drinking water. Millions of children suffer from malnutrition. The national government is weak, plagued by corruption and unable to provide security and basic services. The number of terrorist groups, among them al-Qaeda and ISIS, has grown.
The Taliban remains in control of almost half of Afghanistan, especially in rural areas that are in dire need of resources and infrastructure.
Trump called for reducing the 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan by half but recently set conditions on the withdrawal. Like former President Barack Obama, he has found that bringing the troops home is popular but difficult.
Recently, we have seen a ray of light with the start of talks between the U.S. and the Taliban. Negotiators say they have reached a framework under which U.S. troops would leave Afghanistan and the Taliban would promise to never again allow terrorists to attack the U.S. from their territory. That’s a long way from a solution, but it’s at least a start. So, where do we begin to shape a new policy? We have to put an end to America’s national passivity and indifference to the conflict.
All agree there is not a military solution to Afghanistan’s problems. Our immediate focus should be to try to stop the killing. Stopping the war will require a political settlement involving the country’s various factions and other nations with a stake in what happens there. In my view, more American casualties in Afghanistan cannot be justified. Our primary interest – our goal for going into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks – is to ensure that it is not a safe haven from which terrorists can attack us. We can best accomplish that goal with mobile forces, drones, airstrikes, intelligence gathering, and development and diplomatic assistance to our friends and allies.
Getting our troops out of Afghanistan does not mean that we simply turn and walk away. We have to have an orderly withdrawal. We should strengthen our efforts to train and equip Afghan forces, provide economic and humanitarian assistance, develop indigenous political leadership and support political reconciliation.
Our policy needs to recognize that other countries have interests in Afghanistan; if we’re going to reach a political solution, we can’t exclude them from the table. A regional power conference would be a positive step. The United States should lead the way, and it should include Russia, China, members of the United Nations Security Council and other powers.
By Lee H. Hamilton