The United States is the most powerful military power in the history of the world. Yet somehow we can’t win a war.
In this century, we have undertaken two major ones: Afghanistan and Iraq. The first is the longest conflict Americans have ever fought — more than 18 years — and shows no sign of ending. The second qualifies as the most catastrophic U.S. foreign policy blunder since Vietnam.
Together, these wars have left more than 6,700 Americans dead and more than 52,000 crippled, maimed, blinded and otherwise injured. The accumulated and future costs to American taxpayers exceed $6 trillion. We finally left Iraq without being able to claim victory, and we are still in Afghanistan. Our peerless military has failed at its mission.
That paradox actually helps explain the failures. They are not entirely, or even mostly, the fault of our military services. We proceed as though the best troops, the biggest budgets and the deadliest weapons are all we need. So we get ourselves into wars without understanding everything that victory requires. Then we fail to learn from the devastating surprises that we encounter.
Documents obtained by The Washington Post about Afghanistan set into stark relief how deluded and dishonest our leaders have been. The material consists of confidential interviews with more than 400 military and diplomatic people with firsthand knowledge, conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
What emerges from it is that they were failing and knew they were failing, even as the public was told the war was going well. “The American people have constantly been lied to,” the head of SIGAR told The Post.
Remember George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” May 1, 2003 speech proclaiming the end of “major combat operations” in Iraq? That day, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in Kabul, said the same thing about Afghanistan.
Shortly before returning in 2009, Army Maj. Gen. Edward Reeder, a Special Operations commander, recalled, “I was thinking that there has to be more to solving this problem than killing people, because that’s what we were doing and every time I went back security was worse.”
More than a decade later, the vicious cycle continues. Last year, U.S. officials told NBC News that the number of Taliban fighters had tripled over the previous four years. The number of Afghan civilians who died in 2018 was the highest on record.
We were trying to transform an alien society that we could barely begin to comprehend. After toppling the Taliban regime, we set up a centralized government in Kabul. The decision, said an unidentified State Department official, “was idiotic because Afghanistan does not have a history of a strong central government. The timeframe for creating a strong central government is 100 years, which we didn’t have.”
We made enormous efforts to build the Afghan police and army into competent partners. But those familiar with the effort, noted The Post, “depicted the Afghan security forces as incompetent, unmotivated, poorly trained, corrupt and riddled with deserters and infiltrators.”
One Afghan official asked district tribal leaders why 500 security forces couldn’t defeat a couple of dozen Taliban. The answer was that “the security people are not there to defend the people and fight Taliban, they are there to make money” — by selling their weapons and fuel. The enemy, lacking American weapons and trainers, had the most precious commodity in war: motivation.
Most of the billions we spent were wasted on ill-advised infrastructure projects or stolen by corrupt officials. Some of the schools we built were taken over by the Taliban — and converted into bomb-making factories.
The effort suffered from Bush’s rash decision to take on Saddam Hussein, yanking presidential and Pentagon attention away from Afghanistan. The lesson, said former special envoy for Afghanistan James Dobbins, was to “just invade only one country at a time.” By the time Barack Obama arrived, the Taliban had rebounded.
But neither Obama nor Donald Trump could bring themselves to admit we had no formula for winning. Like Bush, they stayed only to avoid the appearance of losing. Like Bush, they were willing to go on filling graves in military cemeteries to save face.
During the Vietnam War, John Kerry asked, “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?” To that question, our presidents have a ready answer: same way you asked all the others who died for it.