"A broad consensus among the D.C. foreign policy establishment has held that America’s success in Afghanistan should be determined by the internal conditions of Afghan institutions. This has been a fatal mistake," writes Jacob Siegel in American Affairs.
In the Spring of 2012, my battalion arrived in western Afghanistan as the Obama troop surge, meant to break the Taliban, drew to a close. The Taliban remained unbroken, but our new mission was training and assisting the Afghan security forces. Like all supposed changes in policy for Afghanistan, this one amounted to less than advertised. Our “train-and-assist” phase of the war coexisted with a decade of nation-building programs, counterterrorist operations, ongoing counterinsurgency efforts, and assorted other State Department and government-backed nonprofit initiatives—which, together, pulled in many directions and arrived nowhere. The state of confusion ate at me for months until, finally, I had a eureka moment when we started getting orders to locate equipment left behind by other units and pack it off to shipping yards.
Then I understood: the generals’ metrics of success for the Afghan security forces we were assigned to train were only aspirational. The Afghans would never meet them; that was why we were leaving. In the meantime, we could buy a bit of time and space assisting our Afghan partners while doing some cleanup before the inevitable transition of authority set the stage for the final exit. Not long after that realization, our deployment was cut short, and our battalion loaded up again on C-17s and flew back to the states. I got home in the fall of 2012, believing that the war was in its final days.
Standard accounts of America’s longest war simply cannot explain why it still continues in its eighteenth year. More than 2,300 American service members have lost their lives in Afghanistan, and over 20,000 have been wounded there. An estimated 65,000 Afghan soldiers and police, and thirty thousand civilians, have been killed since 2001. The United States has spent nearly a trillion dollars on the war with few concrete accomplishments to show for it.