Afghanistan: U.S. Poised to Extend a War it Can’t Win
Military historian Andrew Bacevich says the U.S. is could soon escalate the Afghan war rather than face the tough questions it would take to end it
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Maté.
After nearly 16 years of war, the U.S. military wants to send thousands more troops to Afghanistan. President Trump is expected to make a decision in the coming weeks. The head of NATO says this could coincide with additional forces from other alliance members.
JENS STOLTENBERG: We have received a request from our military authorities to increase our military presence in Afghanistan with a few thousand troops. We are now assessing that request. We will make decisions on the scale and the scope on the mission within weeks.
AARON MATE: A recent U.S. government report said last year was the deadliest so far for Afghan civilians and soldiers. So what could a U.S.-led escalation mean for this endless conflict? Joining me is Andrew Bacevich, a military historian and author joining me from Boston. Professor Bacevich, welcome.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Thanks very much.
AARON MATE: At the peak of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan, the troop presence there from the U.S. was around 100,000.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah.
AARON MATE: Now, it’s down to less than 10,000, and there’s talk of sending a few thousand more. Is there any chance this could have any tangible effect on the ground?
ANDREW BACEVICH: It seems unlikely to me. Now, to be fair, the American commander in Afghanistan, General Nicholson, the rationale that he is proposing for this escalation, a relatively small number of troops will improve the effectiveness of the current mission, which focuses not so much on trying to defeat the Taliban as enhancing the capability of Afghan forces to do that. Of course, that effort to improve the capacity of Afghan security forces has been going on for years and years and year at great cost, and you have to wonder why at this juncture, a relatively small number of additional U.S. and NATO forces is going to make all that much of a difference.
AARON MATE: Yeah. Especially when you have a situation where about a third of that Afghan military deserts their post every year, and the Taliban happens to control about a third of the country.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Right.
AARON MATE: Even if the strategy makes sense within that limited framework, is this perhaps possibly just the reflexive imperative of escalation where because the U.S. has been there for so long and has escalated, it’s going to, just by virtue of it being locked in this escalation strategy, it’s going to keep throwing in these troops for the sake of continuing the strategy, not necessarily for the sake of actually achieving anything?
ANDREW BACEVICH: This is a way to dodge confronting the first order question. Is this war winnable? Why? Is this war worth continuing after these many, many years? Are there or not some alternatives? To confront those questions is to confront the reality that this war is inescapably a military failure that rests at the feet of the United States. I think that the generals who called the shots in the Pentagon, the generals who run these wars like Afghanistan, and our political leaders are just exceedingly reluctant to face up to that reality, the reality that U.S. military power is limited and may indeed be irrelevant to some of the circumstances that we’ve committed our troops to.
AARON MATE: What sort of specific questions would the U.S. have to confront in order to change course?
ANDREW BACEVICH: I think the core issue here is whether or not it’s possible to negotiate a political solution, one that would, I think, necessarily bring the Taliban back into some sort of a political process. That’s exceedingly difficult for a lot of people to stomach. It seems to me, however, that that issue really belongs primarily to the people and to the political leadership of Afghanistan. Quite frankly, it’s a little bit difficult at this juncture to know what U.S. military efforts are contributing in one way or another.
AARON MATE: Okay. In terms of a possible model for a combination with the Taliban, just this month, we saw the return of the Afghan warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to the capital of Kabul.
ANDREW BACEVICH: Yeah. Right.
AARON MATE: Could you talk about who he is and whether that development provides a potential model to follow for talks with the Taliban.
ANDREW BACEVICH: He’s one of these Afghan warlords that’s been in the field fighting occupying forces in Afghanistan going all the way back to the days of the Soviet occupation. Again, I don’t have any deep understanding of internal Afghan politics, but it does seem to be that the people we call warlords exercise enormous influence. Warlords are not inclined to defer to any central … Warlords retain the option to switch sides depending on how they view the course of events, depending on how they define their own interests.
I think that maybe one of the things here is we need to back away from our inclination to view politics through an ideological prism. I don’t think ideology matters all that much in what’s going on in Afghanistan. It’s a matter of tribal loyalties, and those tribal loyalties are up for sale at any particular moment. Therefore, any political solution that might be negotiated is likely to be fairly tentative and could potentially come undone. But if the alternative is simply to continue a war that has now gone on for, just in our participation, has gone on for more than a decade and a half, perhaps it’s time to give politics a chance.
AARON MATE: Professor, on the issue of the political process, let’s talk about the outside players, not just the U.S. There were some efforts before to find a political settlement with countries like Pakistan and China. Russia recently has been convening talks with these countries. There was some talk last week when Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov visited the U.S. about U.S.-Russian cooperation when it comes to Afghanistan. Could that represent a possible breakthrough there?
ANDREW BACEVICH: I doubt it. I don’t think that we should take all that seriously Russian offers to cooperate with the United States. My guess is that President Putin, any opportunity he has to try to embarrass the United States, gain some advantage at the expense of the United States, that’s certainly what’s going on in Syria. My guess is that’s also maybe what’s going on in Afghanistan. Putin does not see Russian interests and U.S. interests aligning in any significant sense. Putin believes, and I think he believes with some reason, that U.S. and, more broadly, Western policy toward Russia since the end of the Cold War has worked to the disadvantage of Russia. It’s from his point of view, it’s payback time. I don’t think that there’s likely to be cooperation there.
I think perhaps the more interesting dimension of outside players is Pakistan. Pakistan is in cahoots with the Taliban. Pakistani interests in Afghanistan, again, are contrary to U.S. interests. Pakistan wishes to ensure that it, Pakistan, exercises great influence in Afghanistan regardless of who governs in Kabul because from the Pakistani point of view, that’s a vital national security interest there, too. It’s not likely that we’re going to get much by way of serious cooperation.
AARON MATE: I also imagine that Pakistan is not thrilled with the idea of a massive U.S. troop presence inside its neighboring country, Afghanistan. To what extent does that motivate the elements of its government and military structure that support the Taliban?
ANDREW BACEVICH: The U.S. troop presence at this time is not massive. It’s actually fairly limited, and indeed this proposed escalation is quite modest, but I think the larger point is probably correct. Nobody wants to see a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. I don’t think Afghans want that. Pakistanis don’t want that. Iranians don’t want that. Frankly, when you ask yourself to what degree does a long-term U.S. military presence in Afghanistan serve the interests of the United States, then it seems to me Americans shouldn’t want it either. Again, in a sense, we’re circling around this larger question, which has to do with whether or not there’s any rational, sound, strategically-based reason for continuing a war that has now gone on for more than a decade and a half.
AARON MATE: Andrew Bacevich, a military historian and author. Professor, thanks for joining us.
ANDREW BACEVICH: You bet.
AARON MATE: Thank you for joining us on The Real News.