The United States has been at war in Afghanistan for over 16 years. As of this writing, America has approximately 8,500 troops there now, mostly regulated to an advisory role. The Trump administration is reportedly sending an additional 4,000 American troops to theater while authorizing the Pentagon to send more if it deems it necessary.
Why exactly are American troops still in Afghanistan? After the twin towers fell, America launched Operation Enduring Freedom with two objectives. One was to destroy al-Qaeda and their terror camps. The other was to punish any organizations that supported the terrorist network which, after they failed to turn over al-Qaeda’s leadership, included the Taliban.
That was in 2001. Since then, the mission in Afghanistan has gradually grown into a state building project. This change in objective was a consequence of the post-9/11 consensus that ungoverned spaces were a threat to American security. In order to keep America safe from terrorism, it was essential that America build a functional and democratic state in Afghanistan.
When evaluating American progress on the task of state building, the metrics are dismal. For starters, a sizeable portion of Afghanistan is either under Taliban rule or contested. As of February 2017, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction estimates that the American supported Afghan government has no control of 40 percent of Afghanistan. The remaining 60 percent of the country is under the command of the democratically elected government but it is clear that it is not being properly governed. Corruption and abuse of power is utterly rampant. Transparency International ranked Afghanistan the third most corrupt state in 2015, the World Bank’s Control of Corruption and Ease of Doing Business ranks Afghanistan 186 out of 190 for both “dealing with construction permits” and “registering property,” and when surveyed by The Asian Foundation, approximately 90 percent of Afghans responded that corruption was a problem in daily life.
Considering that this is what 783 billion dollars and 20,000 American casualties gets the American public, America should determine if it makes sense to escalate America’s longest war.
It is not clear that it does.
For one, al-Qaeda has had a safe haven in Pakistan. Up until his death, Usama Bin Laden had been managing the day-to-day operations of al-Qaeda from what some have referred to as the West Point of Pakistan. In his 2015 work The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism – From al Qa’ida to ISIS, former CIA official Mike Morell writes “Before the raid we’d thought that Bin Ladin’s deputy, Ayman al Zawahiri, was running the organization on a day-to-day basis, essentially the CEO of al Qa’ida, while Bin Ladin was the group’s ideological leader, its chairman of the board. But the DOCEX showed something quite different. It showed that Bin Ladin himself had not only been managing the organization from Abbottabad, he had been micromanaging it.” Other core leadership of the terror network have either been killed in Pakistan or suspected of residing there. Al-Qaeda’s presence has become so influential in their post 9/11 home that some even suggest that we have seen the “Pakistanization” of al-Qaeda.
Even if American attempts to eliminate al-Qaeda in Pakistan were successful, it is not even clear that the more dangerous branch of al-Qaeda is in Southern Asia. Under pressure from American drone strikes and special operations, al-Qaeda has become decentralized with arguable more threatening branches emerging in the Middle East and Northern Africa. Writing for The Washington Institute, Aaron Y. Zelin noted that “In many ways, the center of gravity for al-Qaeda has shifted from the AfPak region more to Yemen, Syria, and even Libya…” All three states are essentially ungoverned and if state building in Afghanistan is vital for American security then we should also pursue a similar strategy in these areas.
The truth is that despite having safe harbor in parts of Pakistan, the Arabian Peninsula, and Northern Africa, al-Qaeda has not been able to manage another successful terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11. Their failure to do so is because of an aggressive anti-terrorist strategy consisting of drone strikes, special operation raids, enhanced intelligence, and the multiple layers of homeland security established after 9/11. Fighting the Taliban and building a government in Afghanistan had little to do with this.
American priorities are mixed up. Washington is sending American men and women to defend a corrupt and self-serving government against an organization that has no larger goal beyond ridding their homeland of Americans. At this point the Taliban are not fighting for a restoration of an Islamic emirate but to expel foreign forces. Therefore, increasing the number of foreign fighters should only be expected to intensify the conflict. The main mission of al-Qaeda, however, has not changed which is to restore a “true” Islamic government in the Middle East. This goal is pursued by committing acts of terrorism against the United States. Al-Qaeda should therefore be defeated yet fighting the Taliban in order to deny al-Qaeda a safe haven when the organization already has several doesn’t seem logical. Instead of sending more Americans in harm’s way to defend a government whose democratically elected Vice President is currently on the run for torturing a political rival, the United States should seek a power sharing agreement with the Taliban and not worry so much about what style of government it leaves behind in Afghanistan.