Afghanistan’s War

(Bloomberg) -- The longest war in American history has gone on for more than 17 years. The U.S. and its NATO-led allies marked the official conclusion of their combat mission in Afghanistan in 2014. But with the goal of stabilizing the country unachieved, plans for the exit of the coalition have been repeatedly put off. In his third year in office, U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed an eagerness to withdraw his country’s forces, which make up 14,000 of the 17,000 foreign troops there. That would leave a weak Afghan military vulnerable to further advances by the Taliban, the Islamic fundamentalists who once ruled the country and have reclaimed significant patches of it.

Afghanistan’s War

The Situation

Conflict in the country has escalated since the Afghan military officially became responsible for security in 2014. The radical group Islamic State established a presence in the country’s east and has claimed credit for terrorist attacks. The larger threat is the resurgent Taliban. Roughly 11 percent of Afghanistan’s population now live in areas under the control of the Taliban and other insurgents, and more than a quarter are in contested regions. The Afghan military, which receives training and advice from the U.S. and its allies, has been hampered by insufficient air power and heavy combat losses and desertions. In an effort to wind down the conflict, the U.S. engaged in peace talks with the Taliban in early 2019. The two sides discussed a withdrawal of foreign troops, a pledge by the Taliban to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base, and whether the Taliban would end its refusal to negotiate directly with the Afghan government, which it considers a puppet of the U.S.

The Background

In 1989, the Soviet military pulled out of Afghanistan, after a decade-long occupation that had made the country a front line in the Cold War. The U.S., which actively supported the Soviets’ opponents, including radical Islamist factions, also disengaged. Bloody chaos followed until the Taliban seized the capital Kabul from the feuding warlords who had all but leveled it. The Taliban imposed stern theocratic rule and gave the terrorist group al-Qaeda a base. In 2001, after the Taliban refused to extradite al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden following his group’s Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., the U.S. invaded Afghanistan. When Bin Laden and the Taliban leadership fled, the U.S. mission morphed into a nation-building undertaking — but with limited military resources, as the U.S. focused on a separate war in Iraq. Eventually, more than 50 nations joined the coalition led by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. In 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama ordered a “surge” in forces that reached a peak of 140,000 in 2011. Military commanders reported progress on the ground, but war fatigue at home, especially after the killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan, led Obama to start winding down the American troop presence. Doubts that the Afghan military could stand on its own prompted him to leave the last of them in place when he turned the presidency over to Trump in January 2017. Within a year, Trump had deployed an additional 3,500 U.S. troops to the country. An estimated 212,000 people have been killed in the conflict in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. The U.S. appropriated $132 billion for Afghanistan’s reconstruction from 2002 through the end of 2018. 

The Argument

There’s widespread agreement in the U.S. that the war against the Taliban can’t be won militarily. The U.S. commander in charge of American and coalition forces, General Scott Miller, said just that in an interview with NBC in October. There are divisions, however, over how fast and under what conditions the U.S. should exit the fight. On one end are those who say it’s important to first negotiate a political agreement that would constrain the Taliban in the event they regain power. In this scenario, the Taliban would pledge to never again allow a global terrorist threat to emanate from Afghanistan and to respect the country’s current laws and constitution, that is, refrain from reinstituting strict Islamic law. On the other end are those who say such assurances from the Taliban would be meaningless. They say the priority should be to stop pouring lives and money into remaking Afghanistan when it isn’t working and wasn’t the original motivation for the war. 

The Reference Shelf

  • A report by the UN Secretary-General detailed the challenges facing Afghanistan.
  • Quarterly reports by the U.S. Special Inspector for Afghanistan Reconstruction include a section on security.
  • A U.S. Congressional Research Service report on Afghanistan reviews issues for U.S. policy. 
  • Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies compares U.S. challenges in Vietnam and Afghanistan. 

Glen Carey contributed to this article. Terry Atlas contributed to the original version. 

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