Dereliction of Duty II: The Afghanistan Years
Former CIA Chief of Station
There has been a lot of writing lately on Afghanistan as the new administration struggles with what do to there, just as the previous administration struggled mightily to define both the mission and the end game. In the absence of any good ideas, or any solutions, the last administration tragically kicked the can down the road for eight years, pursuing the status quo of a policy pretty much everyone knows has failed.
Obama’s advisors told him he faced two broad choices: 1) stay the course, which would cost $50 billion a year and probably continue to go sideways, or 2) pull out of Afghanistan and see it almost immediately dissolve into a problematic festering petri dish of terrorists, like the disaster which is Iraq and Syria. Unfortunately, many of President Trump’s current advisors are the same unimaginative military guys who have been suggesting the status quo for 16 years.
The bottom line is that there are no easy choices in Afghanistan.
There are no silver bullets but to keep kicking the can down the road, spending about $50 billion a year on the effort and accomplishing little to nothing, cannot be high on President Trump’s list of things he wants to do. The President is desperately looking for some alternatives and his military-centric cabinet seems incapable of coming up with anything other than to keep doing the same thing and to maybe surge another 4,000 troops to Afghanistan. Really? 4,000 more troops are going to turn this around? The “troop surge” is a common military strategy when things are going bad, but it’s not too creative.
Mikhail Gorbachev tried it when things were going bad for the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s. It didn’t work well for him, either. The Soviets withdrew completely on 15 February 1989.
The idea that the addition of 4,000 new troops in Afghanistan on top of the 8,500 already there is going to make a difference is absurd. We had about 100,000 troops in the country previously and we couldn’t “win.” The whole idea of the troop surge – more of the status quo – is nonsensical. This is as if you found yourself in charge of running a big black and white TV factory that was doing poorly because the market for black and white TVs had evaporated, but instead of making any changes to the product line, your management consultant’s advice was to double down on black and white TVs by starting to run a second shift of workers at the plant.
It’s like that old line, “We don’t know where we are and we don’t know where we are going, but we’re making really good time…”
In his book “Dereliction of Duty,” now current National Security Advisor LTG H.R. McMaster excoriated a whole generation of U.S. military leadership for not speaking truth to power and for not articulating their objections to the strategy then being used in Vietnam at the behest of Washington politicians. McMaster faulted the military leadership for not having developed good alternatives for policy-makers to what the military leadership knew in their hearts was a failed strategy and one that could not win. McMaster called it an abdication of the Generals’ professional and civic responsibilities.
What about Afghanistan today? Are we winning? What exactly is “victory” in Afghanistan? Are we just going to be in Afghanistan forever spending $50 billion a year? Are we going to be doing the “nation building” role forever, lest Afghanistan slip back into being a hot bed of terrorism? Does anyone have any plan other than to keep doing what we have been doing for the last 16 years, spending untold billions in blood and treasure every year because no one can articulate anything else we might do instead?
The real tragedy is that these bad decisions on the war in Afghanistan have real and lasting consequences. Thousands of young men and women are being sent into harm’s way in Afghanistan every year with an ill defined mission, in non-combat operations, just waiting to get shot at. The vast majority of our soldiers in Afghanistan never even leave the U.S. base.
There has to be a better way. There has recently been some talk about getting the big U.S. military footprint out of Afghanistan, saving tens of billions of dollars a year, and doing more work with private contractors in conjunction with Afghan forces. Is it a perfect plan? No, but you’re not going to find a “perfect” plan for Afghanistan because if there was one, we would already be doing it. But, I have been surprised at how quick some pundits are to poke holes in the idea while offering zero ideas of their own about what we should do other than the same status quo of the last 16 years. We had better start thinking more broadly about our options in Afghanistan and what the end game there might look like, otherwise some young smart colonel in the war college will be writing a sequel to McMaster’s book in a few short years titled, “Dereliction of Duty II: The Afghanistan Years.”