How a Forever War Ends
Trump might well wrap up the war in Afghanistan, but only by giving up on America’s original goals.
President Donald Trump said in his State of the Union address that “great nations do not fight endless wars.” It was a clear signal that his administration has scaled back its objectives for Afghanistan and is headed for the exit. The only question now is whether the Taliban and their Pakistani sponsors will settle for a partial victory by participating in an Afghan government they do not wholly control, or whether they will bide their time until the occupation ends, then turn on those Afghans who have been fighting alongside U.S. forces and triumphantly return to power, governing as they did before the war.
The smart money is on the latter.
Trump is not the first American president to try to bring a “forever war” to an end. President Barack Obama promised to end the war in Iraq, and he did. But America’s adversaries there took the opportunity to reconstitute a threat significant enough that Obama had to reengage.
Trump is clearly cognizant of the political risk of repeating in Afghanistan Obama’s mistake in Iraq. He admitted in a recent interview, “We’re [in Afghanistan] because virtually every expert that I have and speak to say if we don’t go there, they’re going to be fighting over here.”
That is the challenge of ending wars. Even in circumstances where the victor has completely destroyed the opposing military, bringing the conflict to a satisfactory end is a struggle. President Abraham Lincoln and his Civil War generals Ulysses S. Grant and even William Sherman intended a conciliatory policy toward the defeated Confederacy to lessen insurgent resistance. Generals George C. Marshall, Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Omar Bradley worried that German “wolf packs” would prevent peace after World War II, just as Iraqi insurgents prevented peace on American terms in Iraq.
Wars end when the vanquished accept the outcome. Which is what politicians mean when they say there is no military solution. In an official document, the State Department noted, “President Trump was clear that military power alone will not end the war.” The Pentagon, too, accepts the subordinate role of military force, saying in March 2018 that its aim was “to achieve a political reconciliation, not a military victory.”
The enemy, in other words, gets a vote. And that is leading the United States to compromise its political objectives.
Terms of the negotiation evidently include the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Afghanistan within 18 months in exchange for commitment by the Taliban not to permit terrorist attacks to emanate from Afghanistan. But the Taliban were never really committed to the al-Qaeda objective of attacks on the “far enemy,” and they learned in these 17 years the cost of harboring groups that do attack. Giving that up to see the United States leave is, for them, a good deal—especially since a subsequent return to full power seems attainable. The incoming Centcom commander, Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie, testified that Afghan government “losses are not going to be sustainable.”
The United States is clearly indicating that it is willing to give up on what it was originally fighting to achieve: an Afghanistan not under the control of the Taliban’s repressive grasp. It will settle for no terrorist attacks on America launched from there, leaving Afghan forces that have suffered so much to achieve a better Afghanistan to grieve their losses, including the 45,000 Afghan National Security Forces that have been killed since 2014.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Ryan Crocker argues that the United States should “negotiate something that at least looks like a political agreement rather than an all-out surrender.” But why would the Taliban settle for anything less than all-out surrender? It controls or is contesting half the geographic districts of the country. Seven parliamentary candidates have been killed, two kidnapped, and elections have had to be postponed for three years because of violence. More than 100 countries are contributing to the mission in Afghanistan; all but Pakistan are likely to withdraw if the United States does.
The deal in the works looks to be self-reinforcing: It’s in the Taliban’s interest to keep its end of the bargain to get rid of coalition forces so it can take over the country, and it’s in U.S. interests because the president wants to wind down the commitment. The big losers in such a deal will be Afghans who believed the United States would stand with them as they bravely tried to create a brighter future. Because the war will not be over in Afghanistan just because the United States leaves. It will be over when those brave people are killed or concede.
The most important theorist of war from the 20th century, Thomas Schelling, wrote, “Coercion is the business of war.” Wars end when one side is destroyed, or when one or both give up what they were fighting to achieve. The United States is giving up what it was fighting to achieve, and the Afghan government is likely to be destroyed by the Taliban. So, yes, Trump will end America’s longest war, but both Americans and Afghans will have paid a very high price for what we achieved.