“I spent my 20th birthday in Afghanistan,” a former soldier of mine once joked. “And then I spent my 30th birthday there.”
He died in 2014 of an accidental overdose of prescription drugs. He was on active duty at the time, still rotating back and forth, deployment after deployment.
He was a great soldier.
I was 23 years old when I first set foot in Afghanistan. Barely a year out of college. I’ll be 40 next year.
The other 23-year-olds I served with are now crusty lieutenant colonels. They are eyeing retirement.
We’ve been in Afghanistan for a very long time. It has cost us a trillion dollars and thousands of lives.
If my own story doesn’t resonate, take the kids in the second grade classroom on Sept. 11, 2001. They were seven when President Bush read to them “The Pet Goat.” They are now 23. They’re adults. They are the same age I was when I led troops into Afghanistan as an Army officer.
This is the prism through which I watched President Trump’s speech to the nation last night about our commitment in Afghanistan.
Unfortunately I didn’t hear anything original or innovative. I didn’t hear anything that hadn’t already been tried.
What I heard was the President rattle off a tired approach that’s gotten us where we are now: no closer to a resolution than we were in spring 2002. What’s sad is that one doesn’t even have to be a professional analyst to pick this disappointing nonsense apart.
Trump said, “a core pillar of our new strategy is a shift from a time-based approach to one based on conditions.”
Not surprisingly, President Obama said the same thing about Afghanistan in 2009, that “security conditions will determine how many forces can leave and how fast.” But more to the point, we are clearly not on “a time-based approach” now or we wouldn’t still be in Afghanistan. You don’t stay in a place for 16 years when you have a timetable to get out.
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Trump also repeatedly talked about avoiding a “hasty” withdrawal. The thing is, there is no such thing as “hasty” when you’ve been muddling around in a war for this long.
Trump went on, telling us that “another fundamental pillar of our new strategy is the integration of all instruments of American power — diplomatic, economic and military — toward a successful outcome.” Of course, this has never not been America’s strategy in Afghanistan.
As a special envoy, Richard Holbrooke spearheaded an effort by Hillary Clinton’s State Department to achieve peace in Afghanistan through diplomacy. We’ve pumped billions of dollars in aid money into Afghanistan. U.S. companies like Rumi Spice (which imports Afghan saffron) have been encouraged to do business there in an effort to reform Afghanistan’s agricultural sector. And, of course, we’ve had a continual military presence in Afghanistan since three weeks after 9/11 — a presence which has cost over 2,400 U.S. lives.
We’ve tried it all.
Trump finally explained that his last pillar consists of no longer being “silent about Pakistan’s safe-havens for terrorist organizations.” He accused Pakistan of “housing the very terrorists that we are fighting.” He said “that will have to change.”
President Obama didn’t tolerate that either. That’s why he ordered the cross-border raid to kill Osama Bin Laden. It’s why U.S. intelligence agencies have worked with the Pakistani government since 9/11 to capture — in Pakistan — other plotters like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh. It’s why we subject Pakistan and Afghanistan and the area in between to a relentless pounding of drone strikes.
It’s why U.S. troops have been in Pakistan for longer than they’ve been in Afghanistan. I would know. I arrived in Pakistan with the 101st Airborne Division in November 2001.
Again, there is nothing new here in Trump’s pillars.
This repetition is a form of national madness. We lost the plot in Afghanistan so long ago, most Americans fighting there don’t even remember 9/11. That probably goes a long way toward explaining why there’s so little popular support among Americans for a continued military presence in Afghanistan — much less one that consists of adding 4,000 troops (as is being reported).
There is no U.S. military solution in Afghanistan now. There was once, a long time ago, when it came to killing, capturing or driving out the Al Qaeda operatives who planned and executed the 9/11 attacks. That military operation was largely a success, culminating in the killing of Bin Laden more than six years ago.
Today, I don’t know what success would even look like in Afghanistan. And it’s clear the Trump administration doesn’t either.
All I know is that when Trump adds these 4,000 U.S. troops, or whatever the exact number is, it might include one of the kids who listened to President Bush read “The Pet Goat” on 9/11. And that doesn’t leave me with a good feeling. Because I read my own son “Curious George” last night. And it deflates me to think he could eventually be sent to fight in the same place I did, so long ago. For what?