In a preview of his forthcoming book “Battlegrounds,” former National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster made the sensational claim Sunday on a “60 Minutes” segment that President Trump was effectively partnering with our enemy in Afghanistan and had “cheapened the sacrifice of the 2,300 Americans” who have died in the war. Rather than cast shade on the president, however, Gen. McMaster’s claims do more to expose the bankrupt nature of establishment thinking in Washington on matters of war and peace.
The former Army general told host Scott Pelley he believes Mr. Trump’s policy of winding down the Afghan war is unwise. Gen. McMaster thinks the U.S. should engage in “a sustained commitment to help the Afghan government and help the Afghan security forces continue to bear the brunt of this fight.” Gen. McMaster’s comments follow the path already set by former Trump aides, including John Bolton and James Mattis, grumbling about the president’s desire to end the war and withdraw. But is that criticism fair or accurate?
An assessment of available evidence suggests it is not.
First, we must conduct an honest evaluation of Washington’s track record on the war. October will mark the beginning of the 20th consecutive year American troops having been fighting and dying in Afghanistan. Eight years ago, as I chronicled in a detailed report, every U.S. commanding general from 2004 through 2012 claimed the war was going well, that things were getting better, and implied that with more time, we would win.
Each general’s assessment proved disastrously wrong. The claims of success by high-ranking officers didn’t stop in 2012, of course. The next year, outgoing commander Gen. John Allen went so far as to claim we had won the war. “This is victory,” Gen. Allen proclaimed, “this is what winning looks like, and we should not shrink from using these words.”
After a visit to Afghanistan in early 2018, the then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Joseph Dunford, said he could barely “restrain my enthusiasm” because of the progress he had seen, noting, “this is not another year of the same thing we’ve been doing for 17 years.” Yet, all these routine claims of success by our most senior ranking generals cannot obviate the impossible-to-hide reality that something very nearly the opposite is true.
In stark contrast to the two decades our generals have been claiming success to the American public, as of mid-2020:
• The Taliban has control over more of Afghanistan than at any time since 2001.
• Afghan civilians continue being killed at near-record rates of the war.
• The Afghan government was ranked the fifth most corrupt country in the world.
• Afghanistan produces a staggering 84% of global production of heroin.
For many years, significant majorities of the American public have been willing to give the generals the benefit of the doubt. No longer.
In 2010, 52% of Americans supported the Afghan war. After 10 more years of military failure, however, that support has dried up: A poll earlier this month from the Eurasia Group Foundation reveals a mere 15% of Americans agree with Gen. McMaster that the U.S. should continue fighting in Afghanistan “until all enemies are defeated.” The expanding percentage of veterans advocating withdrawal is even more noteworthy.
By a whopping 76% majority, veterans said they strongly or somewhat favored bringing the troops home from Afghanistan. Based on my own combat experience in Afghanistan, I argued in both 2009 and 2012 that the war was unwinnable and should be ended on the best terms available; the physical evidence was unmistakably clear even back then.
Combat veterans realize the war needs to end; that the United States is in a no-win situation and that the president is right in wanting to end the war. Status-quo Washington advocates, however, seem intent on pulling out all the stops to keep the war going, suggesting our fighting can only end when the Taliban and Afghan government reach a peace agreement.
I fully support the ongoing peace talks and hope they eventually succeed, but that outcome is far from guaranteed and just as likely to drag on without result indefinitely. We should not continue to allow our troops to bleed and die for a peace that may never come.
Generals like McMaster, Allen and Dunford want to continue fighting. They are almost hard-wired to believe they need just “a little more time,” just a few more troops and always more money, and then — they perpetually claim — they will win the war. But as the president, the American public and significant majorities of our veterans know, our military operations in Afghanistan should be terminated immediately because it is in our security interest to do so now.
• Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after 21 years, including four combat deployments. Follow him @DanielLDavis1.
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