Trump Administration Preparing To Stay In Afghanistan For The Long Haul
America's longest war seems likely to soon turn into America's never-ending war.
Just a few weeks after President Trump laid out his strategy going forward in a war in Afghanistan that will reach its sixteenth anniversary next month, The New York Times reports that the United States appears to be digging for the long haul:
KABUL, Afghanistan — Soon, American Embassy employees in Kabul will no longer need to take a Chinook helicopter ride to cross the street to a military base less than 100 yards outside the present Green Zone security district.
Instead, the boundaries of the Green Zone will be redrawn to include that base, known as the Kabul City Compound, formerly the headquarters for American Special Operations forces in the capital. The zone is separated from the rest of the city by a network of police, military and private security checkpoints.
The expansion is part of a huge public works project that over the next two years will reshape the center of this city of five million to bring nearly all Western embassies, major government ministries, and NATO and American military headquarters within the protected area.
After 16 years of American presence in Kabul, it is a stark acknowledgment that even the city’s central districts have become too difficult to defend from Taliban bombings.
But the capital project is also clearly taking place to protect another long-term American investment: Along with an increase in troops to a reported 15,000, from around 11,000 at the moment, the Trump administration’s new strategy for Afghanistan is likely to keep the military in place well into the 2020s, even by the most conservative estimates.
No one wants to say when any final pullout will take place, because the emphasis now is on a conditions-based withdrawal — presumably meaning after the Afghan government can handle the war alone. But President Trump has kept secret the details of those conditions, and how they are defined.
“Until he says what the conditions are, all that means is we’ll be there as long as we want, for whatever reason we want,” said Barnett Rubin, a longtime Afghanistan expert who advised the Obama administration. “And they don’t have to lie to do that, because the conditions will never be good enough to say we’re absolutely not needed.”
In practical terms, it means that the American military mission will continue for many more years, despite its unpopularity with the American public. Many military strategists, in America and Afghanistan, have already penciled in plans well into the ’20s, and certainly past any Trump re-election campaign.
At the NATO summit meeting in Warsaw last year, the allies, including the United States, agreed to fund the development of the Afghan security forces until the end of what was termed “the transition decade,” meaning from 2014, when Afghan forces began to take charge of their own security, until 2024.
“I would guess the U.S. has to plan on being inside Afghanistan for a decade or more in order for there to be any type of resolution,” said Bill Roggio, editor of Long War Journal. “It’s definitely past his first term in office, no two ways about it.”
The Green Zone expansion is aimed at making it possible for America and its NATO allies to remain in the capital without facing the risks that have in the past year made Kabul the most dangerous place in Afghanistan, with more people killed there than anywhere else in the country — mostly from suicide bombers.
In Kabul, thousands of Afghans still commute to jobs and even schools inside the zone, with only light searches for most of them, mindful of the resentment stirred by the Soviets’ heavily militarized central zone during their Afghan occupation. And the Green Zone in Baghdad has, its critics maintain, created an out-of-touch ruling class and Western community, and provided a magnet for protests while just moving enormous bombings elsewhere, further stoking popular discontent with leaders and foreigners.
The Kabul Green Zone expansion, which will significantly restrict access, was prompted, according to both Afghan and American military officials, by a huge suicide bomb planted in a sewage truck that exploded at a gate of the current Green Zone on May 31, destroying most of the German Embassy and killing more than 150 people. The loss of life could have been far worse, but Germany had evacuated its embassy a week before the bombing, apparently tipped off by intelligence sources.
The military recently appointed an American brigadier general to take charge of greatly expanding and fortifying the Green Zone. In the first stage of the project, expected to take from six months to a year, an expanded Green Zone will be created — covering about 1.86 square miles, up from 0.71 square miles — closing off streets within it to all but official traffic.
Because that will also cut two major arteries through the city, in an area where traffic congestion is already rage-inducing for Afghan drivers, the plans call for building a ring road on the northern side of the Wazir Akbar Khan hill to carry traffic around the new Green Zone.
In a final stage, a still bigger Blue Zone will be established, encompassing most of the city center, where severe restrictions on movement — especially by trucks — will be put in place. Already, height restriction barriers have been built over roads throughout Kabul to block trucks. Eventually, all trucks seeking to enter Kabul will be routed through a single portal, where they will be X-rayed and searched.
Unlike Mr. Obama, Mr. Trump has suggested that American forces would remain in Afghanistan until victory.
But even his own generals have conceded that a complete military victory in Afghanistan is not possible. The only solution most see is to persuade the Taliban to sit down to peace talks — something they have refused to do as long as American soldiers remain in the country. And with the insurgents gaining ground steadily in the past two years, the Taliban have even less incentive to negotiate.
“It seems America is not yet ready to end the longest war in its history,” said the Taliban spokesman, Zabihullah Mujahid, after Mr. Trump announced his new policy. “As Trump stated, ‘Americans are weary of the long war in Afghanistan.’ We shall cast further worry into them and force American officials to accept realities.”
The Afghan ambassador to Washington, Hamdullah Mohib, said that talking about how much longer Americans may stay in Afghanistan obscures how different the years to come will be from the first 16 years.
“I think a lot of the discussions when people talk about American presence in Afghanistan, the memory comes of when they were actively involved in combat and bodies were coming back to the United States. That is no longer the case,” Mr. Mohib said. “The majority of those soldiers are helping us improve our logistics, organizational capabilities, putting systems in place. While yes, there is an element of counterterrorism operations, it’s largely airstrikes supporting the Afghan special forces.”
Here;’s a map of downtown Kabul showing what the expanded Green Zone and proposed Blue Zone would look like:
Given the fact that constructing these security zones and setting up the security protocols that will be used to police them will take the better part of a year or more, it seems rather clear that the Trump Administration and the U.S. military is planning for a long-term occupation in Afghanistan generally and Kabul specifically that has no end date in sight. It’s also a sign that, despite the fact that the United States has been involved in this war for nearly sixteen years now, and that the Taliban have been out of power for nearly that entire period, the insurgency that they lead has not only not been eradicated or confined to the mountain redoubts that it once could be found in, but it seems to be getting ever stronger. The frequency of bombings in Kabul, which is the most heavily patrolled city in the country, and other cities in the country, seems to have been on the uptick in recent years, and the number of civilians killed has gone steadily up. Additionally, as noted above, some of these attacks have even taken place inside or just outside the supposedly secure “Green Zone” where they’ve killed and injured mostly civilians but also on occasion American military personnel and diplomats. The only thing that expanding the “Green Zone” and implementing the “Blue Zone” seems likely to do is to result in these attacks being carried out in parts of the city that are more residential, thus meaning that more civilians will suffer while the Afghan Government and its American protectors sit securely inside what amounts to a modern version of a medieval castle. That’s likely to increase civilian discontent with the government and the ongoing and seemingly endless American military presence.
Given the U.S.’s history in Afghanistan over the past sixteen years, none of this should be a surprise. What started as a war to retaliate against al Qaeda for the September 11th attacks and to kill or capture its leaders soon morphed into a war against the former Taliban government and, then, direct involvement in what became a civil war between the government in Kabul and the Taliban, who fought alongside tribes in the north that it was able to either bribe or compel to provide fighters. As the war settled into that pattern, it largely disappeared from the front pages of American news coverage, overtaken instead by reporting from Iraq, which was a much more active combat zone that was far easier for networks to get reporters into. That doesn’t mean the war ended, of course, it continued largely in the shadows and soon earned the title of “America’s forgotten war.”
By 2008, Barack Obama was campaigning on the twin promises of finally ending American involvement in Iraq and stabilizing a situation in Afghanistan that was quickly spinning out of control as the Taliban were able to push back against government forces that proved to be less than adequate. This led to the troop surge of the early part of Obama’s first term and, for a time at least, it appeared that things were finally starting to stabilize in the country to the point where we could start pulling troops out. While the U.S. did begin to bring troops home and, so far at least, has not returned to the troop levels we saw immediately after the surge, things didn’t exactly go well as time went on.
In 2014, President Obama announced an agreement with the Afghan government that would result in a gradual draw down of American forces and end to the war from the American point of view. , most if not all American troops would be out of the country by the end of 2016, with the possibility left open that a small training force would be left behind. Almost immediately, though, the Obama Administration began pushing back the pace of that withdrawal to the point that it soon became clear that the promise of an end to the war by the end of 2016 was not going to happen. As was the case with the gradual upgrade in American involvement in the war against ISIS, President Obama gradually began slowing down the pace of the American withdrawal, and walking back previous promises that we would be direct involvement in the war.
Consider this timeline:
- November 2014 – President Obama announces that American forces would continue to be involved in combat operations.
- March 2015 – President Obama announces that t the pace of withdrawal would be slowed even further on the occasion of a visit from newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.
- April 2015 – Various news sites report that American forces were involved in more than just the counterterrorism operations that President Obama’s original plan had said they would be limited to.
- October 2015, President Obama announced that the withdrawal of U.S. forces would be halted due to the ongoing threat posed by a resurgent Taliban in several Afghan provinces.
- February 2016 — President Obama announces that that American troops would be deployed back into areas of Afghanistan where active combat was occurring
- In July 2016, President Obama announced that American troops would be deployed back into combat areas in the country, a reversal of previously announced policy that had stated that American forces would largely be restricted to advisory and training roles while the Afghan Army took over direct combat with the Taliban.
- August 2017 – President Trump announces “new” strategy in Afghanistan that will require increasing American troop presence by at least 5,000 troops from its current level of roughly 12,000 personnel.
a pattern that I predicted would unfold in All of this sounds all too close to a pattern I predicted would unfold:
At this rate, it seem inevitable that we’ll reach a point some time this year when the President will announce, no doubt with frequent use of the word “regretfully” or some similar word, that the previous commitment to remove most American troops by December 31st cannot be met. That announcement will likely come either early in the year or after the election so as to minimize the political impact, but it is the inevitable next step in all of the delays to withdrawal that the Administration has announced over the past fourteen months. More likely than not, the President will simply punt the matter into the future, perhaps by delaying the “official” withdrawal date for six months or so, thus leaving the matter for the next President to decide. All of this will occur contemporaneously with likely future increases in American commitments in Iraq and Syria related to the fight against ISIS, thus leaving quite a lot on the plate for the next President that could very well significantly distract them from being about to carry out any domestic agenda.
That was written in February 2016, and so far I’ve been proven correct. This latest report is an indication that America’s Longest War is going to last even longer, that it will still be going on when voters head to the polls in November 2020, and that it will likely last long after that.
Quite honestly, this seems like a strategy that is guaranteed to fail. Yes, it’s true that we have ongoing military commitments that have lasted far longer than our involvement in Afghanistan has, but that misses the point. American forces have been in Europe, principally Germany and the United Kingdom, since the end of World War Two, for example, but they haven’t been involved in anything approaching active combat for seventy-two years now. The same goes for the American forces in Japan, although our bases there did serve in a support role during the Korean War and, to some extent, during the Vietnam War. We’ve had troops in South Korea since the armistice was signed in 1953, but again there hasn’t been anything approaching a combat situation there in sixty-four years. The same is true about commitments elsewhere in the world for the most part. American forces in Afghanistan, though, have been involved in combat in some form or another on a non-stop basis for sixteen years, and that doesn’t even count the activity that may have been engaged in by Special Forces or CIA assets during the Soviet occupation and the years leading up to the September 11th attacks. And it looks like this status will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. Doesn’t there come a time when we just have to tell the Afghans that we can’t do this anymore and they’re going to have to learn to either resolve their differences through negotiation or handle this civil war on their own?
As I said last month, we’re at the point now where the sons and daughters of men who fought in the early years of the war will be old enough to enlist in the military themselves. Many of those who were born before the September 11th attacks already are. This kind of multi-generational war is unlike anything we’ve seen in the past, and clearly can’t be healthy for the nation. Despite that, only a handful of voices in Congress and outside politics are even talking about the need to talk about the end of our involvement in Afghanistan. That pretty much guarantees that this war will continue as long as we’re willing to continue fighting it. Since it’s a war that doesn’t get shown on television very much and thus exists largely outside the consciousness of most Americans, that’s likely to end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy.