After 15 years and $115 billion of taxpayer dollars spent on failed “nation-building,” it’s time for the U.S. to let go of Afghanistan. (The actual “total cost of war and reconstruction” which includes all U.S. military spending, has been estimated at $783 billion by the Cost of War project at Brown University.)
The situation in 2016 has been described by one senior U.S. government official as an “eroding stalemate.” That’s optimistic. We are losing whatever has been achieved there and the Afghan government is slowly collapsing under the Taliban onslaught and its own ineptitude driven by corruption.
The Taliban control more territory now than at any time since their overthrow by the U.S. in 2001 with the Afghan government controlling only two-thirds of the country — during daylight hours. Since January 2016, the Taliban have contested five provincial capitals, carried out some of the largest terrorist attacks in the capital city of Kabul, and have pressed attacks in all 34 provinces of the country, with an average of 68 attacks a day.
As a result, the Afghan army and police forces have incurred about 15,000 casualties so far this year, with civilians suffering more than 5,000 casualties, the highest levels ever recorded. An estimated 1.2 million Afghans have been displaced because of the fighting and are living as refugees in their own country, with another 85,000 opting to leave the country in the first six months of 2016 alone for the migrant trail to Europe.
Adding to the Taliban threat, ISIS has now established itself in two eastern Afghan provinces and Al Qaida operatives are active in seven provinces, according to a recent report in “The Guardian.” With opium production also up by 43 percent in the country, there is no shortage of funds to fuel the insurgency and corruption.
According to a 2016 World Bank report, the social and economic gains achieved with international assistance over the last 15 years are also quickly eroding due to war and corruption.
The Obama administration has opted to leave 8,400 troops in Afghanistan in 2016 in a support role to the Afghan army, down from a high of 100,000 in 2010. And the U.S. completely pays for the Afghan army and police forces. On the civilian side of reconstruction, the U.S. continues to pour money into the country for “nation-building.” At the Brussels Afghanistan “Donors Conference” in early October, the international community pledged another $15 billion in support; the U.S. is the largest contributor.
Given the abysmal results achieved so far, isn’t it time to re-evaluate U.S. foreign policy goals in Afghanistan? Recently, a group of U.S. generals and former U.S. ambassadors to Afghanistan announced that a “generational commitment” of assistance was still required of the American people toward Afghanistan to see it securely to the end goal of … what? Nobody can give a coherent answer to that question, indicating that we have seriously lost our way.
Most Americans have forgotten about Afghanistan (or no longer want to hear about it) and are not aware of the ongoing costs in American lives and resources. It’s time for the next American president to drastically change direction and explain it to the American people.
That direction should be to start the pullout of Afghanistan after 15 years of failure to achieve any lasting policy objectives there. The U.S. should immediately stop the multitude of civilian “nation-building” programs that have been so costly and failed to achieve their unrealistic goals. U.S. funding for the Afghan army and police forces should be put on a diminishing schedule that would stop entirely after two years, forcing Afghanistan to finally stand or fall on its own.
It’s time to let go of Afghanistan and end the 15-year drain on American lives and resources.
Mark Kryzer, of St. Paul, is a former State Department foreign service officer who has worked with numerous agencies and international organizations designing and managing nation-building programs in Afghanistan since 2003.