Recently, at a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Mark Esper, President Trump's nominee to be the new secretary of defense, faced questioning on all sorts of subjects, including on his past position as the top Washington lobbyist for weapons-maker Raytheon and on Turkey's purchase of a Russian missile system. Strangely enough, however, one subject remained missing in action. Not a single senator asked the future Pentagon chief a single question about America's never-ending war on terror, specifically its almost 18-year-old war in Afghanistan.
If those senators didn't have the Afghan War in mind, however, the same wasn't true of the president of the United States who, just the other day, claimed that he had "plans" yet to be put into action for winning the Afghan war "in a week." As he put it, with Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan standing at his side in the Oval Office, "I just don't want to kill 10 million people... Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth... It would be gone. It would be over in -- literally in ten days. And I don't want to do that. I don't want to go that route."
I might have a few questions for future Pentagon chief Mark Esper about that "plan," I think. Then again, I'd also have a question or two for the authors of a recent Pentagon report suggesting that, "even if a successful political settlement with the Taliban emerges from ongoing talks" in Doha, capital of Qatar, between U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation Zalmay Khalilzad and Taliban leaders, the U.S. military should still "maintain a robust [counter-terrorism] CT capability for the foreseeable future" in Afghanistan. In other words, when it comes to the Pentagon, there's no such thing as over, ever. This was a point emphasized by General Mark Milley, the Trump administration's nominee to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in his own recent Senate hearings. He testified then that, peace or no peace, it would be a "strategic mistake" to withdraw American troops from that land anytime in the near future.
And that was the week that wasn't in Washington when it came to the Afghan War. In that mind-boggling context, consider the thoughts of retired U.S. Army major and TomDispatch regular Danny Sjursen, who once actually fought in the conflict that time forgot, on just why our war in that land never ends and whether it ever could. Tom
How America's Wars End (Messily)
And the Afghan War Will Be No Exception
By Danny Sjursen
Could Donald Trump end the Afghan war someday? I don't know if such a possibility has been on your mind, but it's certainly been on the mind of this retired U.S. Army major who fought in that land so long ago. And here's the context in which I've been thinking about that very possibility.- Advertisement -
Back in the previous century, it used to be said that "only Nixon could go to China." In other words, only a longtime cold warrior and red-baiter like President Richard Nixon had the necessary tough-guy credentials to break with a tradition more than two decades old in February 1972. It was then that he and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger traveled to Beijing and met with Communist leader Mao Zedong. In that way, they began a process of reestablishing relations with China (now again being impaired by Donald Trump) broken when the Communists won a civil war against the American-backed nationalists led by Chiang Kai-Shek and came to power in 1949.
By the same token, perhaps no one but Nixon could have eventually -- after hundreds of thousands more Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, and Americans died -- extracted the United States from what was then (but is no longer) America's longest war, the one in Vietnam. After all, in 1973, it was hard to imagine just about any Democrat agreeing to the sort of unseemly concessions at the negotiating table in Paris that resulted in an actual peace accord with a crew of Communists. But Nixon did so.
After those "peace" talks and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from that land, the corrupt, battered U.S.-backed South Vietnamese government barely held on for another two gruesome years before a massive Communist offensive finally took Saigon, the capital of the American-backed half of that country in April 1975. Images of U.S. military helicopters hastily evacuating American diplomats and others from Saigon would prove embarrassing indeed. Yet, in the end, little could have altered the ultimate outcome of that war.
Nixon, a cynic's cynic, evidently sensed just that. Yes, he would prolong the war to the tune of more than 20,000 additional U.S. troop deaths and seek to create a politically palatable pause between the withdrawal of American troops and the unavoidable Communist victory to come (at the cost of god knows how many more dead Vietnamese). It was what he called "breathing space." In the end, in other words, in the bloodiest way imaginable, he finally accepted both his presidential, and Washington's, limitations in what was, after all, a Vietnamese civil war.
Fellow TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich has referred to such realities as "the limits of power." As a longtime military man who once carried water for the American empire in both Afghanistan and Iraq, let me assure you that, almost two decades into the twenty-first century, those limits still couldn't be more real.
Recently, I got to thinking about Vietnam and Bacevich -- himself a veteran of that war -- while following the strange pace of the Trump administration's peace talks with the Taliban. It struck me that the president, his negotiators, and his loyally "deplorable" backers might (gulp!) just be America's best hope for striking a deal, 18 years late, to conclude the U.S. military's role in Afghanistan. If so, he would end the war that replaced Vietnam as this country's longest -- and that's without even counting the first Afghan War Washington fought there against the Red Army of the now-defunct Soviet Union from 1979 to 1989.- Advertisement -
An Unwinnable War
For someone like me who long ago turned his back on America's never-ending wars on terror, it's discomfiting to imagine the process that might finally lead to a U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan, especially one negotiated by The Donald and his strange team of hawks. Of one thing, rest assured: bad things will happen afterward. Afghans whom Americans are sympathetic to, especially women, will suffer under the heel of the kind of extreme Islamism that will be in command in significant parts of the country. And getting there could be no less grim. After all, President Trump, that self-proclaimed "deal-maker," has so far shown himself to be anything but impressive in striking deals. Nevertheless, he has, at least, regularly criticized the ill-advised Afghan War for years and his instincts, when it comes to that conflict, though unsophisticated and ill-informed, seem sound.
In a sense, the situation isn't complicated: the U.S. war in Afghanistan cannot be won. The Kabul-based government's gross domestic product can't even support its own military budget, leaving it endlessly reliant on aid from Washington and its allies. Its security forces have been taking what, last December, the American general about to become the head of U.S. Central Command termed "unsustainable" casualties -- 45,000 battle deaths since 2014. Those security forces simply can't recruit enough new members to replace such massive losses.