Although hardly news, it bears repeating that the Afghanistan War stands as the longest in all of United States history. By election day, it will have entered its 16th year. Our next president will surely inherit the war there, just as Barack Obama inherited it from George W. Bush. Here is a situation where the phrase “endless war” is not hyperbole; it accurately describes reality.
Given this depressing fact, one might think that those aspiring to the office of commander in chief would have something to say about how they intend to win or at least curtail that conflict, or perhaps why the U.S. should persist in such a costly endeavor. But in their lengthy convention speeches, neither Donald Trump (who spoke for 75 minutes) nor Hillary Clinton (who spoke for 66) found the time to even mention Afghanistan.
Their silence hints at what we can expect in the weeks between now and November: a campaign in which the opposing candidates will vigorously impugn one another’s qualifications for high office while dodging any serious examination of core national security issues. Of bellicose posturing and the insipid recitation of platitudes, there will be plenty. Of critical analysis probing the recent failures and disappointments resulting from U.S. military interventions, expect very little.
For a long time now, Americans have displayed a tendency to sanitize, marginalize, or altogether forget wars that resist incorporation into the preferred triumphal narrative of U.S. history. Afghanistan falls into the category of the best forgotten.
Yet however inconvenient, Afghanistan demands attention. For here the United States first set out to test the proposition that has formed the cornerstone of our national security policy since 9/11: That the deft application of U.S. military power can not only eliminate those threatening to do us harm, but also install in their place a stable political order conducive to liberal values.
In Afghanistan, the United States and its allies have succeeded on neither count, despite considerable sacrifice and expenditures exceeding one trillion dollars. Notwithstanding many years of Western tutoring, the Afghan government, currently dependent upon international donors for 70% of its operating revenue, has shown little capacity to stand on its own. Efforts to root out pervasive corruption have gone nowhere. Opium production flourishes, with Afghanistan persistently supplying 90% of the world’s heroin. Although no longer at the helm in Kabul, the Taliban persists and by some estimates is growing stronger. Hardly less troubling, Islamic State has established a local Afghan franchise.
The operation once grandly known as Enduring Freedom now goes by the bland name Resolute Support, the restyling itself a de facto admission of expectations ratcheted downward. The mission objective is now, in essence, simply to hang on.
Taken in toto, the present-day situation in Afghanistan represents a policy failure of staggering dimensions, matched in recent years only by the equally abysmal results achieved by U.S. efforts in Iraq, site of another long war that shows no signs of ending anytime soon.
Political calculation may provide Trump and Clinton with a continuing rationale to avoid subjecting the Afghanistan War to close scrutiny.
Because Trump's candidacy is fundamentally idiosyncratic, divining the reasoning behind his silence is necessarily a speculative exercise. But one real possibility is that he is oblivious to the events that have occurred in Afghanistan since U.S. forces began arriving in the fall of 2001 and so has nothing to say. Another is that there are other issues — Libya offering a prime example — that he can more readily hang around Clinton's neck.
As for Clinton, she may be reticent to remind voters that it was during her husband's presidency that Islamist militants in Afghanistan first laid the basis for the 9/11 conspiracy. In that sense, the less said about that country the better. Then there is this additional factor: Clinton has gone out of her way to emphasize her cordial relations with senior military leaders, no doubt hoping thereby to bury a residual impression of the Democrats as an anti-military party. For her to focus critical attention on Afghanistan will necessarily call into question the performance of senior officers who commanded U.S. and NATO troops there and came home without getting the job done. As the prominent role allotted to one of those commanders at the Democratic convention suggests, Clinton appears less interested in holding generals accountable than in securing their endorsement.
If the candidates don’t turn to Afghanistan on the stump, we may hope — indeed, should insist — that the upcoming presidential debates oblige Trump and Clinton to address questions like these: What specific lessons do you take away from this longest of American wars? Please explain how you will apply those lessons once in office. As for Afghanistan itself, where do we go from here?
To evade such questions would be an abdication of responsibility.