Americans may have lost sight of the Afghan war, but Donald Trump’s new chief of staff, General John F. Kelly, has not. He sacrificed his son to that war. He knows that what happens in Afghanistan does not stay in Afghanistan. Now, if he can focus West Wing minds, he may bring Afghanistan back to the public consciousness, where it belongs.
Americans pay more attention to fantasy sports, Instagram feeds, and “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” than they do to the longest war in America's history. If there is collective attention deficit disorder, it's understandable. The war is white noise.
War reporters call kinetic action “boom-boom.” Exploding stuff makes good pictures and gets attention. But nearly 16 years of boom-boom has dulled Americans’ senses, and their outrage. Years of fighting to turn out the Taliban evolved into nation building, troop surges and active counterinsurgency and then morphed into rounds of presidentially-ordered redeployments and more training of Afghan forces before creeping, finally, into the supposedly narrow counterterrorism mission that falls short of the withdrawal politicians every election cycle say they support.
Clearly, something happened along the way.
Boom-boom from the Afghan provinces is no longer a daily American popular concern. It is just a costly and disastrous daily reality. Iranians and Russians are bogging down American efforts, strengthening the Taliban's material abilities and resolve, and doing to the United States what it did to the Soviets in the 1980s during the last big bloodletting. Afghanistan’s boom-boom is background to the amplified daily White House dissonance. In June, Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee that America is "not winning in Afghanistan right now."
That's not to say the strategy isn't being reviewed or the military isn’t adjusting and putting pressure and preparing Afghan forces to lead the fight - of course it is. The US military is a learning organization that adapts to the facts on the ground and takes both force protection and its mission deadly seriously.
Publicly, however, America has lost interest and perspective on the greatest suck on its resources and strength in a generation. How can it be that Afghanistan, a legitimate war started in response to Al Qaeda's 2001 attack on the Twin Towers and meant only to topple the Taliban has turned into the quagmire now firmly into its third presidential administration? A war that was begun with 24 special forces troops, a few horses and some donkeys, in a supremely well-coordinated and conducted strike with native Northern Alliance forces action has turned into an infinite money pit, killing zone, and never ending story.
Candidate Donald Trump said Middle East wars had cost $6 trillion. Some peg America’s outlay at $33,000 borrowed per Afghan. The number changes depending on who’s counting and how.
The financial cost is one thing. The human cost is incalculable. Kelly knows this from his Afghan command and his personal loss – one of his Marine sons, 1st Lieutenant Robert Kelly, stepped on a landmine while leading his platoon in 2010.
Long-term war costs are always high. In Afghanistan, they are exorbitant. The cheap, quick and dirty Taliban overthrow at the end of 2001, however, cost America in other ways. The snap toppling of the Kabul Taliban leadership led to the hubris and overconfidence that America was on a roll. That the nation could use the victorious momentum to completely and independently change the face of the region before it fully completed the multinational job at hand in Afghanistan. America and its allies got distracted in Iraq, losing focus on this backward place with bare-bones sovereign state legitimacy. Afghanistan remains a jumble of tribes and a mix of disjointed topographies cobbled together and called a country.
Its geographic location is what makes it important. Its recent history is what makes it a threat. It remains one big breeding ground for an anti-American insurgency fed by a duplicitous Pakistan sympathetic and supportive of guerilla warriors. Even ISIS has now found a welcoming and fertile new breeding ground in and around Afghanistan. Russians and Iranians look at nearby Afghanistan and see the perfect place for payback and mischief against a faraway and politically aloof America.
Why do the United States and its allies stay in? It is a sincere question. The odds are tough, the conditions worse. What is required, not just for Congress, the military, and the American people is a clear and concise goal: What are U.S. troops supposed to be doing in Afghanistan? The mission needs to be defined and articulated for everyone.
Kelly’s discipline, clarity, and focus are legend. Kabul, Kandahar, Helmand, Nangarhar, Logar … they are faintly familiar to a tired and distracted American public. Those Afghan provinces, however, reside deep in Kelly’s sinews and soul. Bringing a flailing West Wing back to basics and to defining the Afghan mission could bring America’s attention back to an otherwise forgotten war. “Winning,” however, is something altogether different.
Markos Kounalakis, Ph.D. is a senior fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @KounalakisM.