America’s inevitable war is now an invisible one

By Michael Kugelman
Story highlights
  • Michael Kugelman: Sixteen years since US troops entered Afghanistan, the enduring conflict seems largely forgotten
  • To eliminate terrorism, we must work to incorporate an economic and diplomatic strategy along with our military strategy, he writes

Michael Kugelman is deputy director and senior associate for South Asia with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center. The views expressed here are his own.

(CNN)Sixteen years ago this Saturday, US troops entered Afghanistan.

The decision to dispatch troops was prompt, and the public reaction in America was mostly positive. There was a sense of inevitability: The United States had experienced the deadliest-ever terrorist attack on its soil. It was time to go get the bad guys who planned it and the hosts that offered them sanctuary.

Michael Kugelman

In relatively short order, the deed was done: The US-led mission eliminated the sanctuaries inhabited by al Qaeda and removed its Taliban hosts from power.
And yet, soon thereafter, Americans were reminded of an inconvenient truth: Ending wars is harder than starting them. This was a bitter lesson from Vietnam, and one that would later resurface in Iraq.
Indeed, ever since Washington’s immediate objectives were achieved in Afghanistan, it has struggled badly to explain why US troops continue to fight and die in a faraway land. This struggle to articulate a strategy has taken on added urgency as the Taliban insurgency has gained more steam. According to multiple estimates, it now controls more territory than at any time since US forces entered the nation in 2001.
At the same time, in recent years, a resilient al Qaeda has reared its ugly head in Afghanistan. In 2015, US forces discovered what they described as the largest-ever al Qaeda training camp there. That same year, ISIS formally announced its arrival in the country. Today, despite months of punishing US airstrikes — including the deployment of the infamous “mother of all bombs” in April — it retains a stronghold in eastern Afghanistan.
America has spent hundreds of billions of dollars in Afghanistan. More than 2,400 American soldiers, and more than 31,000 Afghan civilians, have died in the war. And yet the sobering reality is that despite this immense sacrifice in lives and resources, the chief gains from the war’s early years have effectively been reversed.
It’s not just on the security front where US efforts have fallen far short. For years, Washington has attempted to rein in Afghanistan’s drug trade, which helps fund the Taliban insurgency. First the poppy fields were sprayed with pesticides. Then came the quest to establish alternative livelihood programs for farmers. The result? Opium harvests have set new records in recent years.
Then there’s the Afghan economy. Afghanistan is the top recipient of US foreign assistance, with more than $7 billion received in 2014 and more than $4 billion envisioned for 2017. And yet the country’s GDP growth rate plummeted from more than 14% in 2012 to just 1.5% in 2015. The Afghan economy has yet to recover from the departure of foreign combat troops in 2014, which shattered a war economy that had produced a fragile veneer of fiscal stability.
All of this helps explain why the conflict in Afghanistan has morphed from an inevitable war to an invisible war.
Indeed, in recent years many Americans — from inside the beltway to deep in the nation’s heartland — have seemingly forgotten about it altogether. It was barely mentioned on the presidential campaign trail last year.
In all likelihood, Americans want to wash their hands of a war that’s alternately frightening, frustrating, and confusing. Also, in a nation without a draft, most Americans have no direct or personal link to a war essentially being fought by a vanguard of valiant volunteers. Some have described coming home and having uncomfortable encounters with their disconnected fellow Americans, who can only muster an awkward “thank you for your service.”
Perhaps Dominic Tierney, writing in the Atlantic in 2015, said it best: “Raising the topic of Afghanistan is like mentioning mortality. There’s a profound desire to change the subject.”
Fortunately, this summer, the war reentered the spotlight. In August, President Trump announced a new strategy for Afghanistan.
Trump, to his credit, has given American soldiers in Afghanistan a strategy — one with clearly stated counterterrorism-focused objectives that include “obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaeda … and stopping mass terror attacks against America.” For the first time in years, an American commander in chief has laid out a new strategy for success in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately, this strategy is vague. In particular, it offers few details about what means will be used to achieve its crisply defined ends.

In reality, if America wants to eliminate terrorism in Afghanistan and produce more overall stability, it will need an accompanying economic and diplomatic strategy. It will also need help from friends like India but also from troublesome states like Pakistan and Iran. None of this will be easy.

So don’t expect American fortunes in Afghanistan to improve. In all likelihood, the United States will have to endure a difficult new era in an unending war.
And, with the war already having receded from the headlines since Trump unveiled his new strategy, expect the silence to be deafening.
The article appeared in CNN opinion 6/10/2017

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