Afghanistan is often said to be America’s longest war, but that’s imprecise. Afghanistan is the longest battle in what some of us insist on calling The Long War. When did the conflict begin?
In 1996, Osama bin Laden issued a “Declaration of War Against the Americans.” Most analysts saw him as nobody a superpower enjoying a post-Cold War peace dividend need worry about.
In 1998, he signed a fatwa on behalf of the “World Islamic Front for Jihad Against Jews and Crusaders,” proclaiming that killing “Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it.”
Again, scant attention was paid until a few months later when two American embassies in Africa were bombed. In response, the Clinton administration fired a few missiles at an al Qaeda camp in Afghanistan.
Doubtless encouraged by such fecklessness, al Qaeda terrorists in 2001 hijacked passenger planes and flew them into the Pentagon and the World Trade Towers, killing thousands. (Or as Rep. Ilhan Omar prefers: “Some people did something.”)
But it was 22 years earlier when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini led a revolution in Iran aimed, in his words, at “establishing the Islamic state world-wide.”
So on which of these dates did the war begin? I think none of the above. I think our enemies, whose historical memory is more acute than ours, get a vote. And the rulers of the Islamic Republic of Iran, al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the many other jihadi groups now operating in dozens of countries all agree that the war they are waging began in the 7th century, when the first Islamic armies sprang from Arabia, conquering kingdoms, lands and peoples throughout the ancient world.
For more than a millennium thereafter, Islamic empires and caliphates ruled the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and much of Europe. The last of these, the Ottoman Empire and caliphate, was defeated in World War I and subsequently collapsed.
The 9/11 attacks were in retaliation for that catastrophe, as bin Laden himself later stated in a televised message. Thanks to the Taliban, which calls itself the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan” and a “sword of jihad,” he had the luxury of planning them in relative safety. Even following the attacks, the Taliban protected him. So U.S. military forces quickly and efficiently removed the Taliban from power. What went wrong after that?
“We didn’t give adequate attention to consolidating those military gains into a sustainable political outcome,” Lt. Gen. (ret.) H.R. McMaster, who served both in Afghanistan and as President Trump’s national security adviser, told me.
Worse, instead of waging a 17-year military campaign, the U.S. has waged “a one-year campaign seventeen times — and our strategy has been based on some fundamentally flawed assumptions about the nature of that conflict.”
The missions assigned to American commanders were often murky. “Under the Obama administration the Taliban was no longer declared an enemy,” Gen. McMaster recalled with astonishment.
“The Taliban was able to regenerate,” he continued. “They were able to take advantage of state weakness, and we’ve been in this cycle now where when we do commit the resources necessary, we announce at the same time our timetable to withdraw.”
“Fundamentally, war is a contest of wills. So if you say, ‘Hey, I’d like to negotiate an agreement; and oh, by the way, I’m leaving,’ how does that work? It doesn’t work.”
Mr. Trump and his advisers are now grappling with difficult choices. If our troops are to remain in Afghanistan, they should have a mission that is both clear and achievable, one that strengthens American national security.
Transforming Afghanistan into a liberal democracy seems unlikely. Definitively defeating the Taliban may require more resources that can be made available at a time when we have other battles to fight and other adversaries to keep in check.
A third option: Gradually and painstakingly strengthening the ability of the Afghan government to defend itself, and ensure that the country never again is used as a safe haven, training ground and command center for large-scale international terrorist attacks.
Call me an imperialist but I’m also not eager for us to abandon Afghanistan to fanatics who throw acid in the faces of little girls walking to school.
If what I’m describing is a mission impossible, the only sensible alternative is to retreat from the battlefield. But in that case we should be honest with ourselves about this slow-motion failure, and learn from it. We should imagine the benefits that will accrue to our enemies globally and plan accordingly.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad carries a curious title: Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation. He has been negotiating with the Taliban, and has announced a “draft agreement.”
My colleagues, Thomas Joscelyn and Bill Roggio of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal, characterize it as a “charade.” They are convinced that, at best, it will provide the United States with a “decent interval” before Afghanistan is used “as a hub for international terrorism once again.” They believe the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda has never been stronger.
Bolstering their thesis, the Taliban earlier this month announced a new offensive: “Al-Fath Jihadi Operations.” Al-Fath means victory.
Afghanistan is a battle in a war that began in the distant past; a war that we’re not yet winning; a war that is likely to go on for years to come. Many Americans and Europeans find the prospect of such an “endless war” intolerable. Our enemies, by contrast, are patient and determined. The advantage that gives them should not be underestimated.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.