If there’s one clear example of continuation from the Obama to Trump administrations, it’s that the war in Afghanistan has no end in sight. Fifteen years in, it remains the longest military conflict the United States has been involved in. The most recent evaluations from generals suggest no signs of improving conditions or a path to “victory”, and yet the strategy seems to remains the same - send more troops. How many more times do we need to hear that there “is no military solution” in Afghanistan, before we start to consider it a reality?
On Tuesday it was reported that President Trump has given the Pentagon the authority to set new troop levels. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis hasn’t provided a blueprint for the administration’s plans, but General John Nicholson, the commander for forces in Afghanistan told Congress months ago that he needed “a few thousand” more boots on the ground. According to the New York Times, the US currently has 9,800 service members deployed. Reuters reports that the figure is at 8,400.
For the average American, it’s hard to find a consistent tally of how many troops are being put in harm’s way, what their roles are or how much taxpayer money has been spent over 15 years of fighting. Since 2001 have been a multitude of reports about wasteful spending and staggering numbers of casualties, but even at it’s height of 100,000 troops deployed during the Obama administration, this was treated largely as a forgotten war. Now President Trump is shirking responsibility for it by placing the decisions in the Pentagon’s hands.
Fifteen years of fighting also means that objectives and challenges have evolved. Even naming the “enemy” is complicated. Al Qaeda may have largely dissipated but locals say many fighters have joined ISIS, which is now fighting against the Taliban, whom US and Afghan forces are also in battle against. Dropping the “mother of all bombs” or MOAB earlier this year has reportedly backfired, with ISIS now making headway in Tora Bora, Bin Laden’s former hideaway. Over the years there have been insider attack incidents of Afghan forces turning against the US and international coalition that trained them.
The most recent assessment from Defense Secretary James Mattis is that “we are not winning” right now. He told the Armed Services Committee that, “it’s going to require a change in our approach from the last several years”. What that change is could be anyone’s guess given the Trump administration’s inability to deliver a plan so far. Senator John McCain took Mattis to task asking how soon they might have answers.
During the Armed Services Committee hearing, McCain pressed that “Congress owes the American people a strategy’. He also warned that no budget will be given until that strategy is seen and even claimed that if the Trump administration doesn’t act soon, “you're going to get a strategy from us”.
The truly terrifying thing is that I can’t decide what’s worse - President Trump being in control, the Pentagon having free reign, or Congress strategizing from afar. This quagmire has cost the lives of over 2300 service members since 2001 and left 17,000 wounded. How many additional lives and billions of dollars will be spent letting the Pentagon send a few thousand more troops? And for what purpose? What the American people need are honest assessments rather than a perpetual state of war, as well as a debate over what we owe to the Afghan people, who are living through it everyday.