Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

It Still Doesn't Get Worse Than Afghanistan

| July 09, 2018

From alienating allies to starting trade wars, Trump has made plenty of foreign-policy errors. But his biggest blunder is the one Obama handed him.

What's the dumbest aspect of contemporary U.S. foreign and defense policy? There's no shortage of worthy candidates: the fruitless pursuit of strategic missile defense, which has cost more than $200 billion since the 1980s but still can't provide convincing protection against even a nuclear pipsqueak like North Korea; President Donald Trump's foolish flirtation with a global trade war, and especially his transparently comical claim that imports from Canada — Canada? — constitute some sort of national security threat; or even the blank check the United States has given its various Middle East allies to interfere in places such as Yemen, mostly unsuccessfully. And don't get me started on Trump's handling of North Korea or Iran.

These are all valid contenders — and there are no doubt others — but for my money (and yours), the single most indefensible and brain-dead aspect of U.S. foreign policy today remains the fruitless but never-ending effort to defeat the Taliban and achieve some sort of meaningful victory in Afghanistan. The United States has been trying to do this for so long that the arrival of Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Kabul on Monday, on the heels of the country’s latest broken ceasefire, went unnoticed by most Americans. Many have probably forgotten (or never knew) how America’s involvement in Afghanistan even started — including some of the troops now being sent there.

A quick review: The United States originally sent troops to Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, in order to capture Osama bin Laden and topple the Taliban government, which had refused to give bin Laden up. This decision was clearly the right one, although U.S. commanders bungled the Battle of Tora Bora and let bin Laden slip away into Pakistan. But bin Laden is now dead — that’s D-E-A-D, dead — as are most of his close associates. So, the original rationale that took the United States into the heart of Central Asia is now irrelevant.

Unfortunately, the United States and its allies also decided the time was ripe to turn Afghanistan into some sort of Western-style liberal democracy, despite its lack of democratic traditions, deep internal divisions, high levels of illiteracy, poverty, interfering neighbors, and other significant obstacles. And Washington has been pursuing that elusive grail ever since, with about as much success as you’d expect. At last count, that war has cost the United States more than a trillion dollars, and it is still costing American taxpayers some $45 billion per year. More than 2,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed and thousands more wounded, along with hundreds of contractors and coalition partners and thousands of Afghan civilians, soldiers, and police.

What does the United States have to show for all these sacrifices? Today, the Taliban control more territory than at any time since they were ousted from power. The number of civilian casualties peaked in 2017 and remains on a similar pace this year, and the number of insurgent attacks per year has been rising steadily too. Opium production is at an all-time high as well, despite the billions of dollars the United States has spent on various eradication plans. The Afghan government remains irredeemably corrupt, internally divided, and ineffective. In a further sign of internal disarray, last week the New York Times reported that government forces were attacking a militia controlled by an ally of exiled Afghan Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum, an anti-Taliban warlord who is at odds with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“It Still Doesn't Get Worse Than Afghanistan.” Foreign Policy, July 9, 2018.

The Author

Stephen Walt