George F. Will: A war without an objective, 6,000 days in
“The war is over.”
— Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld in Afghanistan (April 2002)
“I believe victory is closer than ever before.”
— Vice President Mike Pence in Afghanistan (December 2017)
Every thousand days or so, Americans should give some thought to their nation’s longest war. Becoming one of the longest in world history, the war in Afghanistan reaches its 6,000th day on Monday, when it will have ground on for substantially more than four times longer than U.S. involvement in World War II from Pearl Harbor to V-J Day (1,346 days).
America went to war in not-really-governed Afghanistan because it was the safe haven from which al-Qaida planned the 9/11 attacks. Mission gallop, not mission creep, turned that intervention into a war against the Taliban, who had provided, or at least not prevented, the safe haven. The U.S. mission was opposed by supposed ally-next-door Pakistan, which has supported the Taliban through its intelligence service — a fascinating, if dispiriting, story told in Steve Coll’s new book “Directorate S: The CIA and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
He reports that when Gen. Stanley McChrystal went to Afghanistan in May 2002, “A senior Army officer in Washington told him, ‘Don’t build Bondstells,’ referring to the NATO base in Bosnia that Rumsfeld saw as a symbol of peacekeeping mission creep. The officer warned McChrystal against ‘anything here that looks permanent. … We are not staying long.’” A decade ago, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said the U.S. objective was creation of a strong central government. Asked if Afghanistan had ever had one, he answered without hesitation: “No.” Which is still true.
Years into the war, U.S. officials heatedly debated “counterinsurgency” versus “counterterrorism,” distinctions that now seem less than crucial. Coll says, “The commanders starting a rotation would say, ‘This is going to be difficult.’ Six months later, they’d say, ‘We might be turning a corner.’ At the end of their rotation, they would say, ‘We have achieved irreversible momentum.’ Then the next command group coming in would pronounce, ‘This is going to be difficult. …’” Americans’ earnestness and valor in Afghanistan are as heartbreaking as they are admirable.
Today, as Vladimir Putin ignites Cold War 2.0, U.S. troops on the Rhine for 73 years serve vital U.S. interests. U.S. troops have been in South Korea for 68 years, and few doubt this deployment’s usefulness or think it will or should end soon. It is conceivable, and conceivably desirable, that U.S. forces will be in Afghanistan for another 1,000, perhaps 6,000, days.
It would, however, be helpful to have an explanation of U.S. interests and objectives beyond vice-presidential boilerplate about how “We will see it through to the end.” If the U.S. objective is freedom there rather than security here, or if the theory is that the latter somehow depends on the former, the administration should clearly say so, and defend those propositions — or liquidate this undertaking that has, so far, cost about $1 trillion and 2,200 American lives.
George F. Will is a columnist for Newsweek and The Washington Post.