Two thousand, three hundred American lives lost, 20,589 Americans injured, and nearly $1 trillion spent since 2001. That’s the tale of the tape in Afghanistan.
To those who fought and served on the ground in Afghanistan, neither the numbers nor the futility revealed by the Washington Post’s exposé on the “Afghanistan Papers” is a surprise. Instead, it simply sharpens the lens on questions that should have been asked repeatedly by policymakers over the past 20 years: What is the strategic objective of the United States in Afghanistan? What does victory look like?
When the war began, it was clear that the immediate objective was to destroy the Taliban, al Qaeda and anyone else who helped perpetrate the 9/11 terrorist attacks. By 2008, when I was there leading a counter-IED team in Maiwand in Kandahar Province, the objective and goal no longer were clear.
Billions of dollars have been lost in an unending attempt to “win hearts and minds” through school construction, wasteful attempts at economic development, and elimination of Afghanistan’s opium crop. Meanwhile, the Taliban attacked those schools, mutilated the girls who dared to attend them, and then stole the cash and diverted it into the drug trade and support of their terrorism. Throughout it all, opium eradication helped to turn the local populace against American troops. Ultimately, the Afghanistan Papers bear out the fact that none of this moved us closer to victory.
The Afghanistan Papers also appear to prove that many well-educated, well-trained and otherwise responsible adults simply gave into inertia with regard to U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. Along the way, largely meaningless metrics counting patrols, schools built, wells drilled, and other such numbers populated PowerPoints in command posts and briefing rooms. Not only did the metrics not really track progress, they didn’t answer the question of what we were supposed to progress towards.
After tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, I firmly believe the only success that we can achieve in Afghanistan is the creation of a regionalized Afghan security force that can deter, and sometimes destroy, local security threats. Nothing more. In other words, the residents of tribal villages could be trained to fend for themselves and their families, and to run enough interference with the local Taliban, helping to prevent the country from once again descending into a terrorist haven. This goal long has been realistic, achievable and pragmatic.
However, instead of striving for such a realistic objective in a place whose residents do not even consider Afghanistan to be a country, NATO policy nationalized the conflict and deployed Afghan soldiers to far-flung locales to fight for people and turf to which they felt no bond, all while attempting to build Afghanistan into something it never wanted to be: a centralized, westernized nation state.
Afghans, far from being particularly interested in joining a “community of nations,” simply want to survive. While in Afghanistan, the counter-IED team I led once was called to an IED detonation at the end of a long driveway, leading to a multigenerational family compound. The bomb had detonated at the “T” where the driveway and road intersected. An American vehicle had been disabled with no casualties. As I walked up on the scene, it was clear that the bomb had been buried at this location for quite some time — mud had caked over the surrounding area following a long-past rainstorm, and tire tracks leaving the compound clearly had been avoiding the bomb’s position.
I summoned my interpreter and asked the family elder how he had known to avoid the bomb site and why he had not made American forces aware so we could have removed it. After asking the question what seemed like a dozen times and only receiving some variation of “Inshallah” — indicating that God had willed it — he finally answered, “How could I tell you? You are not here at night when the Taliban comes and threatens to kill my children and takes our food. They are watching me talk to you now and they will find me when you leave. What would you do, were you me?”
It was a fair question, for which I had no good answer. But the desperation of his situation was clear, as was his willingness to sacrifice American troops to ensure his family’s safety. Meanwhile, the ultimate strategic objective of my troops’ efforts was not at all clear. While our immediate mission was to eliminate the IED threat and those who built and emplaced IEDs, the end goal of the war effort was not.
While the Post’s analysis of the Afghanistan Papers hones in on manipulated metrics, memos and interviews, it largely misses the biggest — and more significant — problem: To be successful in war, you need to define victory and drive to that victory with unrelenting force of will. This never happened in Afghanistan after the initial push to destroy the perpetrators of 9/11. This mistake does not lie with those in uniform, but with those holding political office over a couple of decades.
Since 2001, I have lost brothers-in-arms, friends and family in Afghanistan — and I have friends deploying there still today. I do not consider this matter to be academic. When I ran for the U.S. Senate in Wisconsin in 2018, I often talked about the need to bring mission clarity to Afghanistan on the campaign trail. Every time I brought this up in front of audiences, they enthusiastically agreed. Meanwhile, I have been shocked by the indifference shown by politicians.
To wit, 354 members of the U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to show their displeasure with President Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria. Yet, where has the outrage been as the Afghanistan war has droned on for years, with Americans dying in an attempt to achieve a completely unclear mission? Absent.
Notable events may cause most members of the political-media class to react and change course, but they often lack the clarity of vision and purpose that drives real results. The American people have suspected this for some time, and this suspicion explains much of our current political environment.
This is far from an anti-war screed; war has a necessary and terrible place along the spectrum of diplomacy. However, if the stakes are such that politicians determine it is necessary to send an American to fight in a war, it is also necessary that those politicians make their reasoning and objectives clear to all involved.
This is a rational demand for American citizens to make of those who represent them in public office, and we must forcefully make this demand going forward.
Kevin Nicholson is president and CEO of No Better Friend Corp., a conservative public policy group in Wisconsin. He is a combat veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps (Iraq, 2007 and Afghanistan, 2008-2009) and was a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2018. Follow him on Twitter @KevinMNicholson.