The war in Afghanistan has lasted for 18 years and is the longest in U.S. history. It has cost over 4,000 American deaths — military and civilian. It began with an American military response to the 9/11 attacks directed by Osama bin Laden from Afghanistan. The initial objective of the G.W. Bush administration was clear: destroy the terrorist apparatus in Afghanistan, including the Taliban government that enabled it. It was not at all clear what would happen after that. Would U.S. forces pack up and return home — or would they remain in Afghanistan? President Bush had declared during the election campaign that his administration would not engage in “nation building” overseas. That suggested the United States would go in, do the job and get out.
However, America had an unfortunate history in Afghanistan of doing just that. When the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, the CIA supplied weapons to Afghan resistance forces. That effort was ultimately successful and in 1989, the Soviet army was forced to withdraw. At that point, Washington wrapped up its Afghanistan program and left. In the years that followed, a militant Islamist grouping called the Taliban emerged as the dominant force in Afghanistan. When bin Laden needed a safe haven to build and equip his terrorist network, he turned to the Taliban and they obliged. If the United States returned to Afghanistan, it dare not make the same mistake again.
The American assault on Afghanistan in 2001-02 was successful in that it crippled both al-Qaida and the Taliban. A new, nominally pro-Western government was installed in Kabul. Washington pledged ongoing support (military and economic) to help the Karzai-led government become established. It looked a lot like nation building. The U.S. effort included the first truly democratic elections in Afghanistan’s history. It is anyone’s guess whether continued American attention and support might have produced a viable Afghan government with genuine popular support. Before that question could be tested, the Bush administration made a fateful mistake: it chose to invade and occupy Iraq. As a result, Baghdad, not Kabul, became America’s priority. The Taliban, which had been displaced and damaged, but not destroyed, took advantage of the resulting vacuum to rebuild support, particularly in the rural heartland of Afghanistan.
President Obama inherited the U.S. occupation of both Afghanistan and Iraq and wanted to disengage from both — but felt trapped. In Afghanistan, the Taliban’s resurgence had persuaded U.S. commanders on the ground that more, not fewer, troops were required. Congressional leaders supported their call for a “surge” of U.S. forces. Obama was skeptical, but acquiesced. The subsequent buildup was temporary and its effect on the ground was temporary. President Trump came into office with a visceral desire to pull out of overseas conflicts. Nevertheless, like Obama, he found the Pentagon and his own advisors arguing to stay the course — even as reports from the field indicated that the war remained a stalemate.
Meanwhile, years of effort to engage the Taliban in diplomatic negotiations finally seemed to be getting somewhere. In recent weeks the outline of a tentative agreement became public and we now know that Trump had secretly scheduled a signing ceremony to be held at Camp David with representatives of the Taliban on — believe it or not — the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. Suddenly, in typical fashion, Trump tweeted that the pending deal was, in fact, “dead.”
The tentative agreement called for an immediate partial withdrawal of U.S. forces in return for a Taliban pledge that Afghanistan would never again be used for an attack on the United States. Presumably, this quid pro quo would be followed by negotiations between the Taliban and the Kabul government for a political formula for the country. A political settlement would trigger a full or nearly full withdrawal of U.S. forces.
For anyone with memories of the settlement that ended the Vietnam War, this all sounds disturbingly familiar. In that case, the United States agreed to withdraw its forces in return for a North Vietnamese pledge not to invade South Vietnam. As soon as U.S. forces were out, Hanoi violated its pledge and seized the South. Currently, Taliban forces are on the offensive and gaining ground in several areas of Afghanistan. Kabul has been repeatedly hit by truck bombs claimed by the Taliban. The original U.S. decision to stay in Afghanistan was based on an implicit judgment that U.S. support for the government and military (including extensive training) plus economic aid would produce institutions that could stand on their own with broad popular support. That assumption has not been validated. Today, the Taliban appears to be stronger and more deeply rooted in Afghan society than is the U.S.-supported government.
Will a returning Taliban actually prevent Afghanistan from becoming a launching pad for new attacks on the United States? Perhaps, or perhaps not. It is certain that a return of the Taliban will be a brutal, bloody business within Afghanistan. Modern institutions built with international support such as schools for girls, a free press and a professional civil service will become history. Links between the Taliban and militants in next door, nuclear-armed Pakistan will be strengthened.
But, if the United States stays on to protect what has been built, when will it end? The short answer is that we simply do not know. We do know that the current posture and tactics of U.S. forces have greatly reduced American casualties. Given only bad choices, it appears that the best course at this point is for U.S. forces to remain in Afghanistan indefinitely — to preserve what has been achieved and to prevent a cascade of events that would be far worse.
Marvin Ott is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center of the Smithsonian Institution. He is a summer resident of Cranberry Isles.