If President Trump is delivering on his promise to end the “endless war” in Afghanistan, he has chosen an awfully circuitous route to do so.
U.S. troop levels in the country have increased on Trump’s watch, and the tentative plan to reduce them by about 4,000 in 2020 would only return us to where we were at the start of his tenure. Per new data released by U.S. Central Command, the United States dropped a record number of bombs and other ordnance on Afghanistan last year -- 7,423. This surpassed the previous high set in 2018, and it reveals a marked contrast with the decline in munitions releases in Afghanistan toward the end of the Obama administration. Civilian casualties are up, too. Complete data for 2019 has yet to be released, but preliminary numbers suggest Afghanistan saw its most bloodshed in a decade. Further, it seems pro-government forces were responsible for nearly as many civilian deaths as the Taliban. Speaking of the Taliban, they control or contest Kabul’s control of at least half the country. A more precise figure is difficult to give, because last summer the Pentagon decided to just stop counting.
This mix of static deployment rates, increased violence and casualties, and a deliberate refusal to collect data that shows evidence of failure is not how you end a war. It’s how you stay at war forever, perpetually cycling through tactics and troops, wasting blood and treasure. It is the opposite of what Trump promised to do.
Washington is “very explicitly hoping to use the ramped-up strikes to gain leverage in the ongoing talks with the Taliban,” Frances Brown, who served as a senior official on the National Security Council for the Trump and Obama administrations, told The Guardian. In theory, that might make sense. But in practice, Brown continued, the “Taliban side is also using their own ramped-up violence to gain leverage.” Dropping more bombs is not forcing Taliban concessions at the negotiating table. It is simply making Afghanistan bloodier and prolonging the conflict.
This escalated bombing campaign is not only failing to achieve its stated goal. It is hurting ordinary Afghan people and fostering anti-American sentiment. It is making conditions in Afghanistan worse while contributing nothing to U.S. security or vital interests. It is not working, and nearly two decades of overwhelming evidence show that it will never work. To dub this war a “stalemate” is too generous.
If Trump is serious about wanting to end this war, he must turn off this destructive autopilot. Instead of fiddling with troop numbers, intensifying violence, and ignoring key metrics, he should bring U.S. soldiers home. To end the war, Trump should actually end the war.
As for an exit deal with the Taliban, by all means let diplomacy continue, but it can no longer be used as an excuse for prolonging this conflict. Extending this war in hopes of coercing Taliban concessions would be an indefensible self-delusion. We don’t need another year of record bombing. We need to get out of Afghanistan once and for all.
This is not to suggest that U.S. departure could magically bring peace to Afghanistan. Though every effort should be made to design a withdrawal as responsible as it is swift, even in the best scenario Afghanistan will remain impoverished and in turmoil after the United States departs. The Taliban will not disappear, nor will terrorism. But there is no credible argument that prolonging U.S. occupation and intensifying our air war is improving these grim realities. U.S. military intervention cannot solve Afghanistan’s political, religious, and economic problems. No matter the scale, it is the wrong tool for the job. We cannot bomb Afghanistan into peace.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities and contributing editor at The Week. Her writing has also appeared at CNN, Politico, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Defense One, and The American Conservative, among other outlets. The views expressed are the author’s own.