New statistics about the United States’ generational war in Afghanistan show that President Trump’s 2017 surge of more than 7,000 troops there failed. The latest figures represent an epitaph for a conflict now tied with the occupation of Haiti as America’s longest overseas misadventure.
Inheriting the war from George W. Bush and Barack Obama and influenced by then-National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, Trump increased the 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan to 15,000—it’s between 12,000 and 13,000 today—and returned what he called “attacking our enemies” to prominence within the war effort. It had taken a back seat to training Afghan forces since the Taliban shrugged off Obama’s larger troop surge.
The U.S. attack largely came from above. In October 2017, shortly after Trump announced his mini-surge, his then-commander, Gen. John Nicholson, pledged that a “tidal wave of air power” was forthcoming—one that would spell “the beginning of the end for the Taliban.”
This week, the Air Force released statistics showing that Nicholson’s rhetoric was warranted, mixed metaphor notwithstanding. In 2019, the military conducted 7,423 airstrikes in Afghanistan, more than five times the 1,337 airstrikes of Obama’s final year as commander in chief. At the height of Obama’s Afghanistan surge, the high-water mark for airstrikes was 5,411 in a single year (2011). In three years, Trump has launched 19,146 airstrikes in Afghanistan, more than the 18,758 of Obama’s entire first term.
All of which was very Trumpian. The president has made no secret of his antipathy for the Afghanistan war: He punctuated his announcement of the surge by saying he had gone against his own instincts. Like Obama before him, Trump has complained to numerous close aides and friends that he’s felt boxed in by hawkish advisers. According to three people who’ve discussed the wars with Trump since 2017, he’s complained that he keeps getting told that withdrawal from Afghanistan (and Iraq) would make him “look weak” and “look soft,” something entirely anathema to Trump. The massive bombing campaign, in a way, offered a political alternative.
But it played into one of the war’s most persistent fantasies. “Clearly the notion that we can add more airstrikes and create some sort of decisive victory in which the Taliban surrender or sue for peace has not been realistic—not when there were 100,000 troops on the ground [and] not realistic today,” said Chris Kolenda, a retired colonel and Afghanistan veteran who has spent the past decade calling for peace talks with the Taliban to salvage something positive from the war.
A just-released quarterly report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction underscores Kolenda’s point. It shows that Trump got nothing out of the Afghanistan war after putting in much. Far from the “beginning of the end” that Nicholson forecast, the Taliban is in some of its best shape since its overthrow by U.S.-backed forces in 2001.
The Taliban conducted 8,204 attacks during the final four months of 2019, the highest level for any late-year period since the 7,685 it launched in 2010. In September, when Afghanistan held its still-unresolved presidential election, the Taliban initiated “the highest number of effective enemy-initiated attacks”—attacks that kill or wound Americans or Afghans, civilian or military—in any month “since recording began in January 2010,” the inspector general found.
Overall, the Taliban conducted 29,083 attacks in 2019, which slightly surpassed its 27,417 attacks in 2018. That’s significant because the Taliban got off to a slow start in 2019: Attacks “appeared to decline early in the year while peace talks were ongoing,” the inspector general found. Among the casualties of those 2019 Taliban attacks were 23 U.S. service members killed and 192 injured—the highest recorded total since 2015, after Obama purported to end direct U.S. combat missions against the Taliban. Defense Secretary Mark Esper calls the war a stalemate, which is a generous self-assessment, one that underplays the Taliban’s achievement against a superpower.
The Afghan security forces got marginally larger at the end of 2019, up to nearly 273,000 soldiers and police. But even as the Taliban were doing vastly more, the U.S.-built forces were doing less. They conducted fewer ground operations from October to December than they did at any other point during the year. Only 31 percent of those 534 operations occurred without U.S. help, making them more dependent on U.S. assistance than they were in 2018, when 55 percent of Afghan security missions didn’t involve American support.
Then there are the Afghans who must endure the war. Civilian deaths and injuries, according to data the inspector general took from the U.S. military command, remained at around 9,200 in both 2019 and 2018. More than 427,000 Afghans were internally displaced by conflict in late 2019, up from 356,297 in late 2018. An estimated 11 million Afghans, one out of every three, will face food insecurity in the coming months. A recently established U.S. program that compensates Afghans for deaths and injuries caused by U.S. and allied forces has doled out $11.28 million out of a five-year, $40 million fund.
That’s a rounding error compared what the Afghanistan war has now cost: $776 billion since 2001, the inspector general found. After all that blood and treasure, the World Bank still estimates that donor countries will need to bankroll Afghanistan between $4.6 billion and $8.2 billion annually through 2024 to prevent state collapse.
Kolenda is unprepared to call the war a failure. He believes that depends on whether and what a diplomatic settlement with the Taliban can yield, particularly on the core U.S. interest that Afghanistan not be used as a platform to threaten U.S. security. But a sort of meta-failure surrounds the overall U.S. approach, in his estimation.
“I think the failure is in an American way of war in which we have these large scale interventions against poorly trained, often discredited, developing world militant groups and these conflicts turn into quagmires,” Kolenda said. “The conventional wisdom that we get from much of the national security establishment that we add more troops, more firepower, [over] an infinite amount of time and you’ll get better results is a failed mentality that needs serious examination.”
That’s why Kolenda has pushed so hard for peace talks. The theory of victory put forward by Trump’s surge, identical to Obama’s before it, is that increased U.S. violence would pressure the Taliban into negotiating a settled peace. While Trump, to his credit, pursued direct peace talks with the Taliban, causality ran directly opposite the theory. The war didn’t drive the Taliban to the table, the need for U.S. extrication drove the Americans to the table.
What happens at the table next is a matter of speculation. Trump abruptly canceled peace talks in September, when they appeared on the verge of delivering an agreement—though without the U.S.-sponsored Afghan government, which is on the outside of talks looking in—something that shocked the Taliban. The talks are back on, but senior administration officials are hedging on them. Esper said last month the U.S. could draw down forces “with or without” a peace deal, though to 8,600 troops—slightly higher than Trump’s pre-escalation level.
It contradicts the logic of Trump’s escalation: that intensified fighting is necessary to compel the Taliban to agree to terms. But the reality is that dubious proposition died during Obama’s surge, when secret preliminary talks with the Taliban during the height of the war broke down, and the war has operated on its own momentum ever since. That’s why Trump, when announcing the resumed talks in November, shrugged over Taliban making a peace deal: “If they do, they do, and if they don’t, they don’t.”
Matching that blasé attitude is Trump’s willingness, according to three sources who’ve discussed the war with the president, to blame the persistence of a conflict he escalated on advisers who cautioned against bringing the troops home.
“He’s the commander in chief. If he wanted it done, he could just say so,” said a former senior administration official who’s repeatedly discussed Afghanistan with Trump. “But he falls back on [implying] his people won’t let him.”