Let’s admit the obvious: Afghanistan War is unwinnable

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The Afghanistan War is unwinnable. Partnered with a corrupt and ineffective Afghan government, U.S. forces confront a robust and growing insurgency, substantively funded by skimmed American contracts. After 15 years of dysfunctional U.S. development schemes costing over $100 billion, Afghans remain near the bottom of most human development indices.

Beyond the counterinsurgency failures, many Afghans remain resistant to ideas imposed by foreigners. One Kentucky sergeant, frustrated by his team’s failed development mission, drawled to me, “The Afghans ain’t buyin’ what we’re sellin’.”

There is no good way forward. The systemic failure of the 21st-century American way of war and development cannot easily be reformed. The many entrenched beneficiaries, both Afghan and American, have perverse incentives to continue the futile war. “It’s the perfect war,” one intelligence officer told me. “Everyone is making money.”

Doing more of the same won’t yield a different outcome.

{mosads}With operations ramping up in Syria, Afghanistan is the forgotten war. Americans are often surprised to learn Afghanistan remains our largest military foreign engagement, with 8,400 troops plus untold numbers of special forces, and tens of thousands of contractors for the Department of Defense and other agencies.


U.S.-led coalition commander Gen. John W. Nicholson recently asked for “a few thousand” more troops to break “the stalemate.” U.S. Central Command head Gen. Joseph Votel said the new Pentagon strategy included more troops.

Neither explained how 2,000 more soldiers could change the direction of the war when 100,000 didn’t.

To fund Afghanistan operations, the Pentagon and State Department initially asked Congress for fiscal 2017 appropriations of $44 billion, later raised by over $11 billion, in part to maintain 8,400 troops in Afghanistan. About 70 percent of the amended Defense appropriations request is for Afghanistan. (Referentially, the initial budget request for Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [ISIS]/Syria operations was only $5 billion.)

Additional troops will require additional appropriations. Economists indicate the Afghanistan War alone will cost over $1 trillion; over $5 trillion for the two post-9/11 wars.

Endless war has stressed America’s military. Veterans Affairs is overwhelmed with post-9/11 wounded and disabled vets: over 1,600 amputees; 327,000 vets with traumatic brain injuries; and 700,000 vets who are 30 percent or more disabled. Post-traumatic stress disorder is rampant. And the burden most often falls on military families, struggling to assist vets wounded in body, mind and soul.

This sacrifice has accomplished little. Sixteen years into the American intervention, Afghanistan’s government is ranked among the world’s most corrupt: ninth on the Fragile States Index. In 2016, tens of thousands of Afghan security forces were war casualties, as were 12,000 civilians. The conflict displaced 600,000 Afghans, adding to the refugee crisis.

When the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, it was at the bottom of virtually every human development index — infant mortality, life expectancy, per capita income, literacy, electricity usage, etc. Since the invasion, the U.S. has spent more on development in Afghanistan — a country of about 30 million with a per capita annual income of about $400 — than was spent on the Marshall Plan, adjusted for inflation.

Yet despite $117 billion of U.S. development aid since 2002, Afghanistan remains a disaster zone, still near the bottom of virtually every Human Development Index. Afghanistan is a victim of “phantom aid,” development funding wasted through pernicious corruption and greed in both donor and recipient countries.

Each year since at least 2005, the Taliban’s strength has been growing at double-digit rates. Taliban shadow governments operate in virtually every province, and essentially control several. Analysts indicate insurgents now control about half of the countryside.

The insurgents are pressuring government centers across the country. Kabul is besieged with attacks, the latest on a military hospital where over 30 people were killed and dozens wounded. Insurgencies are centripetal: They start in the countryside and move into the government centers.

The Taliban have no need to go to the negotiating table. They are winning.

U.S. officials are calling the war “a stalemate.” The special forces’ dictum has long been that if an insurgency isn’t shrinking, it’s winning.

So this is not a stalemate. It is a lost war.

Generals, diplomats and politicians are arguing the U.S. can’t withdraw from Afghanistan because of the “investment” of American blood and treasure. There is the wisdom of that great economics concept, sunk cost bias. Smart people are careful to not to throw good money after bad.

President Trump is a pragmatic businessman, who knows when it’s time to stop the bleeding. He’s clearly not afraid to pull the plug on a lost cause — or a bad “investment.”

Douglas A. Wissing is a journalist who is the author of “Hopeless but Optimistic: Journeying through America’s Endless War in Afghanistan” (Indiana University Press, 2016) and “Funding the Enemy: How U.S. Taxpayers Bankroll the Taliban” (Prometheus Books, 2012). His work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and Foreign Policy. Follow him on Twitter @douglaswissing.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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