To Salvage What we can From Afghanistan, Our Leaders Must Admit that the War has Failed
As America ploughs through its 13th year of war in Afghanistan and negotiates with Kabul to keeps troops there for another ten years, we must take a sober look at the military and diplomatic actions that have thus far characterized our involvement. We must ask what we have accomplished after more than a decade of fighting, whether our goals have been met and our mission has been a success. It is time to remove the taboo against telling the hard truth and concede what a dispassionate analysis demands: the war in Afghanistan has been lost.
It may yet be possible to repair some of the damage, and deny the Taliban insurgency a total victory, but there is no cause for optimism if the nation’s leaders continue presenting messages of preferred outcomes as though they were real.
Nearly two years ago, the New York Times reported on a pair of papers I published after I returned from my second combat deployment to Afghanistan, in which I argued that senior military leaders had badly mischaracterized the true nature of the war. In response, many leaders predictably disputed these assertions. Then-deputy commander of US Forces in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen Curtis Scaparrotti told the Pentagon press corps that he was confident “our outlook is accurate” that the war was going well, and dismissed the reports by noting “It’s one person’s view of this.” Two years removed from our competing assessments, how have things played out?
In the February 2012 Armed Forces Journal (AFJ) article I interviewed an Afghan citizen serving as a cultural advisor to the US military and asked him if the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were adequate to defend the country. He replied, “No. They are definitely not capable. Already all across this region [many elements of] the security forces have made deals with the Taliban. They [the ANSF] won’t shoot at the Taliban and the Taliban won’t shoot them.” Almost two years later, as the New York Times reported, the practice has continued and possibly accelerated. The Times noted that, “an Afghan Army commander stationed in the deadliest corner of Helmand Province brokered a cease-fire and turf-sharing deal with local Taliban insurgents there…that some see as increasingly likely once international troops withdraw next year.”
Thomas Ruttig recently published an assessment of the first 12 years of the Afghan war for the respected Afghan Analysts Network. In regards to the ANSF he wrote, “But there are many problems with the quality of the ANSF. Its fighters’ motivation remains low, its composition is ethnically unbalanced and it lacks logistical abilities… Desertions and other forms of attrition are high and combat losses rising. As a result, one third of all ANSF personnel must be replaced every year.”
But perhaps the most troubling issue addressed in the February 2012 AFJ article was a rhetorical question posed: “How many more men must die for a mission that is not succeeding?” Now we know the answer: according to official DoD figures, (PDF) as of this writing (22 January) 4,584 American men and women have been killed and wounded since the article was published (391 having lost their lives). In addition, according to United Nations figures, 9,458 Afghan civilians have been killed or wounded (2,754 killed) over the same timeframe; the bodies and limbs of over 14,000 human beings who were alive and whole when that article was published have been spent to perpetuate the façade of success.
Yet astonishingly, just one year ago at his change of command ceremony, General John R. Allen, commander of all US and allied forces, told the audience “This insurgency will be defeated over time by the legitimate and well-trained Afghan forces that are emerging today, who are taking the field in full force this spring. Afghan forces defending Afghan people and enabling the government of this country to serve its citizens. This is victory. This is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.”
Washington has been locked for many months in contentious negotiations with Kabul on the creation of a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) to govern post-2014 US military involvement. The vast majority of American combat troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan over the coming months despite the fact the insurgency remains a viable foe. There are ominous signs the Afghan Presidential election, set to take place just two months from now, may be even more corrupt than the 2009 version in which millions of votes were proven to be fraudulent. These and many other contentious issues will have to be addressed in the coming months. There is little hope we will be able to successfully resolve them, however, if we do not break from this self-destructive pattern of using polished talking points while ignoring the unavoidable reality on the ground.
We have asked tens of thousands of American men and women to sacrifice their lives and bodies to the war in Afghanistan, ostensibly in defense of American national security. Over the last number of years our most senior leaders have resolutely refused to admit what the evidence plainly confirms: our strategies and policies have failed. We must stop sacrificing the lives and limbs of America’s Soldiers, Sailors, Airman, and Marines to support “messaging” at the expense of the truth.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not reflect the opinion of the US Army or Department of Defense.
Daniel L. Davis is a Lt. Col in the US Army, stationed in Washington, DC. He has deployed into combat zones four times in his career, being awarded the Bronze Star Medal for Valor in Desert Storm and Bronze Star in Afghanistan.