By Jeff M. Smith*
The U.S. has all the watches, but we have all the time.” This quote, sometimes attributed to a captured Taliban fighter, is among the handful of now-famous anecdotes produced by the Afghan War. “The U.S. hasn’t fought a 20-year war in Afghanistan. It has fought 20 one-year wars in Afghanistan,” is another likely to make its way to the annals of history.
Similarly, for at least the past 10 years it seems there have been at least ten different debates on the U.S. role in Afghanistan: Should we stay? Should we go? Should we switch strategies?
In 2015, I weighed in on one of those debates, suggesting that the U.S. should stay, albeit with one all-important caveat. There was a reason the Taliban had “all the time,” and it wasn’t a product of superior fighters, technology, or strategists. It was because they enjoyed the immense benefits offered by a safe haven in neighboring Pakistan, the equivalent of counterinsurgency kryptonite. For this reason, I concluded:
Ultimately, stability will elude Afghanistan so long as Pakistan seeks to keep the country weak, divided, compliant and free from an Indian menace that exists only in Islamabad’s imagination. Unless that calculus changes, or the U.S. is prepared to act like a global superpower and rein Pakistan in, America’s objectives will prove elusive, and U.S. troops will continue making sacrifices on a battlefield where the deck is stacked against them. Either get serious about Pakistan, or get out.
I wasn’t the first, or the last, to highlight Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. It has been one of the world’s worst-kept secrets. But where other analysts saw it as one of several comparably weighted variables obstructing progress in Afghanistan (alongside failures by the Afghan government and flaws in U.S. strategy), I’ve always maintained the “Pakistan factor” stands far and above the rest.
That is, even if America’s strategy were flawless, even if the Afghan government was free of all corruption, the safe haven the Taliban and their allies enjoyed across an international border was alone adequate to keep the conflict simmering indefinitely. Addressing Pakistan’s role in the conflict was not sufficient, but it was very much necessary.
In 2015 I still held a small sliver of hope that the U.S. would get serious about Pakistan. And on New Years Day, 2017, President Donald Trump suspended billions in U.S. aid to Pakistan. The aid cutoff never produced the apocalyptic outcome some regional experts long predicted, but it was never followed by a campaign of escalating pressure designed to compel a change in strategy by Pakistan’s generals. Ultimately, it was too little, too late.
Without a fundamental change in our Pakistan strategy, I didn’t believe a traditional “victory” in Afghanistan was possible. And I couldn’t support a commitment of 100,000 soldiers and a $100 billion annually toward a conflict I saw as deadlocked.
But my views on America’s role there evolved as the U.S. footprint shrank, eventually reaching 2,500 soldiers and roughly $30 billion annually. Most important, after suffering 496 casualties in Afghanistan in 2010, by 2016 that number had fallen to 14. In 2020, it was nine.
America’s role in Afghanistan was evolving from a full-fledged war effort to a high-end counterinsurgency support operation resembling other train-and-assist missions the U.S. conducts around the globe, albeit at a higher cost. This was a potentially more sustainable commitment if the financial contribution and casualties continued to shrink further in the years ahead.
President Joe Biden did not see it that way. By all indications, U.S. troops will be withdrawn from Afghanistan by the peculiar deadline of September 11, 2021. History will judge whether this was the “right” or “wrong” decision, but Afghanistan can make a mockery of such clean dichotomies. At the fork in the road, every path ahead is hazardous, each with their own unpredictable sets of costs and benefits.
The withdrawal will undoubtedly diminish America’s ability to influence events in Afghanistan, but her goals will remain the same: Support the Afghan government and seek to keep the balance of power tipped in its favor. Help to advance peace and reconciliation efforts. Try to defend gains in human rights protections, particularly for women and marginalized religious minorities.
Combat any terrorist threat to the U.S. that emerges from the country. Continue pressuring Pakistan to abandon support for the Taliban and Haqqani Network.
I don’t believe the Taliban is prepared to come steamrolling into Kabul the way they did in the 1990s. Rather, in Afghanistan’s most likely future lies the tragic extension of an internecine civil conflict that has endured at varying intensities for over 40 years. A conflict which has produced no real winners—only losers.
Yes, even the Taliban are losers in this affair. For while they excel at not being defeated, they have no real path to “victory” either, just an endless cycle of violence against their own countrymen.
There is only one party to this conflict whose goal it was to keep Afghanistan weak, unstable, and divided. Yet even this “victory” is bittersweet. From the jihadist ecosystem that the Pakistani military-security establishment helped cultivate sprang a number of deadly outfits that targeted the Pakistani people and state, claiming tens of thousands of lives since the U.S. invasion in 2001. Of late, the Pakistani military has tamed the most violent of these groups, but the geopolitical costs of Pakistan’s role in the Afghan conflict persist.
Because of Afghanistan, Islamabad finds itself increasingly isolated from the U.S. and much of the West, while tone-deaf diplomacy has alienated it from traditional allies in the Middle East, as they increasingly warm to India. Pakistan is left with China’s uncomfortable embrace and a flagging economy, sandwiched between a resentful, war-torn country to the west and a strategic rival to the east. Pakistani officials are correct when they say truly rooting out terrorism and extremist groups would be hard and costly. But not more costly than this.
Afghanistan reminds us why war can be the ugliest and most tragic of competitions, the one where even the winners lose.
*Jeff M. Smith is a Research Fellow at The Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, focusing on South Asia. He previously served as Director of Asian Security Program at the American Foreign Policy Council. Smith has testified as an expert witness before multiple congressional committees, served in an advisory role for several presidential campaigns, and regularly briefs officials in the executive and legislative branches on matters of Asian security. He is the author of ColdPeace: Sino-Indian Rivalry in the 21st Century (Lexington Books, 2014); and the author and editor of the forthcoming Asia’s Quest for Balance: China’s Rise and Balancing in the Indo-Pacific (Rowman and Littlefield, 2018).
This commentary originally appeared in Heritage.org.