On September 11th, 2001, this author lived (and still lives) in northern New Jersey, about thirty minutes from the Twin Towers. The September 11th attacks touched the author lightly. He spent the morning tracking down relatives in New York City. His grandfather watched the second plane crash into the Tower #2. Four men from his town were killed in the attacks.
That autumn, America struck back with righteous fury the likes of which had not been seen since Pearl Harbor. Using special forces and CIA paramilitary teams who worked with warlords friendly to the United States, in just a few months, the United States deposed the Taliban and triumphantly entered Kabul. The Taliban retreated to the mountains and, from there, Operation Enduring Freedom morphed into a nation building exercise and by 2006, a counterinsurgency.
Eighteen Septembers later, the United States is still in Afghanistan, making Operation Enduring Freedom the nation’s longest war. The United States currently has about 14,000 troops in Afghanistan costing between $45-$50 billion annually. At Operation Enduring Freedom’s peak in 2011, almost 100,000 American troops were in Afghanistan at a cost of $100 billion. 2011 was also the bloodiest year of the war for the United States, which lost 499 men. Overall, since 2001, the United States has spent nearly a trillion dollars in Afghanistan. During that time, the US has lost nearly 2,500 dead and more than 20,000 wounded. It is estimated that more than 100,000 Afghans, both civilian and military, have been killed since 2001.
The United States is spending nearly $5 billion annually on the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces totaling more than $66 billion through 2016. The Afghan National Army numbers over a hundred thousand men divided into six corps, each divided into three or four regional brigades. Since 2014, that army has taken a larger and larger roll in the war on the Taliban, partially accounting for the drop in US combat deaths since 2011. In 2018, the United States lost 14 dead. Additionally, the United States has spent more than $29 billion on civilian assistance to Afghanistan since 2001. However, much of the military and civilian aid sent to Afghanistan is pilfered, lost in the Afghan government’s corruption and the nation’s history of tribal largesse. The ANA would likely collapse without American support.
It is true that America’s effort in Afghanistan has improved the life of the average Afghan, somewhat. In 2019, an Afghan’s life expectancy is 52.1 years. Just over 38.8% of Afghanis can read. But, despite nearly two decades of international assistance, Afghanistan’s economy is still moribund, its GDP amounts to $20 billion. Afghanistan exports a paltry $784 million in goods, mostly textiles, except for the nation’s number one export, opium; that’s after 18 years. There is little to gain from staying in Afghanistan and little more that the United States can do for Afghans. So, President Trump is trying to find a way out of the morass.
The American State Department announced that the two sides have an agreement ‘in principle’ and are said to be close to a deal. That deal includes the withdrawal of 5,000 American troops from Afghanistan and closing several bases. The Trump Administration is moving cautiously. Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo refused to sign an agreement with the Taliban as doing so would have given diplomatic recognition to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, the Taliban’s official name for the country after seizing power in 1996. But talks did continue. However, after an American serviceman was killed in a Taliban attack last week, President Trump cancelled secret negotiations that were to take place at Camp David. Trump accused the Taliban of using the attacks as leverage in negotiations and asked in a Tweet, ‘How many more decades are they willing to fight?’
This is a typical Trump negotiation tactic, reminiscent of his last-minute cancellation of a trade deal with China, and his use of tariffs to pressure Mexico into helping secure the border. The Taliban was near to achieving what it wanted through diplomacy, but damaged their own negotiations through violence. Perhaps showing how close the two sides truly are to a peace deal, the Camp David talks would have included President Ghani.
Trump is wise to conduct peace talks with the Taliban. Negotiations between the United States and the Talban center around two issues. The Taliban insists that American and Coalition forces completely withdraw from Afghanistan. In return, the United States says the Taliban must not allow terrorist organizations such as Al Qaida and ISIS to operate in Afghanistan. As of this writing, these talks had not involved the Afghan government. The Taliban says it will only negotiate with President Ashraf Ghani when foreign forces have completely withdrawn from the country.
Despite enormous blood spilled and treasure spent by the United States, in 2019, the Taliban controls large swaths of territory and contests the government for control of areas outside all of the nation’s cities. There is no victory in sight.