The president’s instincts were correct. Then the establishment intervened.
In a routine dating back to 2004, U.S. officials regularly claim that the latest strategy in Afghanistan is working—or as General David Petraeus said in 2012, the war had “turned a corner.” It hadn’t and it still hasn’t. In fact, evidence overwhelmingly affirms that the newest “new” strategy will be no more effective than those that came before it. It is time to stop losing U.S. lives while pretending that victory is just around the corner. It is time to end the war in Afghanistan.
Last week, one of the most brazen insider attacks of the war took place in Kandahar when one of the Afghanistan governor’s bodyguards turned rogue, killing three high-profile Afghan leaders and wounding the senior U.S. field commander, Brigadier General Jeffrey Smiley. Miraculously, the new commander, General Scott Miller, escaped harm. But in 2018, eight Americans have been killed in Afghanistan, bringing the American death toll to 2,351.
On October 7, 2001, President George W. Bush addressed the nation as combat operations in Afghanistan began. He emphasized that the American “mission is defined. The objectives are clear. [Our] goal is just.” Those objectives, he explained, were “targeted actions” that were “designed to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.”
By the summer of 2002, those objectives were fully met as the Taliban organization was wholly destroyed and al-Qaeda severely degraded. As of 2009, there were reportedly as few as 100 stragglers scattered impotently throughout Afghanistan. The military mission should therefore have ended and combat forces redeployed.
Instead Bush, and later Obama, transitioned the military mission—without consultation from Congress—into a nation-building effort that was doomed from the start. Candidate Donald Trump spoke of a different approach to the Middle East and railed against nation-building abroad. His instincts on Afghanistan have been consistent and correct from very early on. Had it not been for the relentless pressure of several key officials, the war might already have come to end.
After a December 2015 insider attack, Trump tweeted: “A suicide bomber has just killed U.S. troops in Afghanistan. When will our leaders get tough and smart. We are being led to slaughter!” According to Bob Woodward’s book Fear, Trump brought that same passion against the futility of the Afghan war into the White House.
Woodward wrote that at an August 2017 meeting on Afghanistan, Trump told his generals that the war had been “a disaster,” and chided them for “wanting to add even more troops to something I don’t believe in.”
Woodward claims that Trump then told the top brass, “I was against this from the beginning. He folded his arms. ‘I want to get out,’ the president said. ‘And you’re telling me the answer is to get deeper in.’” Under pressure—from the likes of Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Senator Lindsey Graham—Trump eventually gave in.
Events have since proven that Trump would have done the country a favor by resisting that pressure and sticking to his instincts to end the war. The violence keeps up at a record pace, civilian casualties continue to set all-time highs, and Afghan troops struggle mightily with battle losses. The president was right in August 2017 and his instincts remain solid today.
The longer Trump continues to defer to the establishment thinking that produced 17 consecutive years of military failure, the longer that failure will afflict us, the more casualties we will suffer unnecessarily, and the more money we will pour down the drain.
It is time for Trump to remember that it is futile to try to win the unwinnable and finally end America’s longest war.
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments, two of which were in Afghanistan.