U.S. should extricate, not escalate, Afghanistan presence

America's longest war isn't getting any younger. With its 15-year anniversary five months behind us, there's no telling when the Afghanistan war might end. But if our time there has taught us anything, it's that sending thousands more American troops into the fray would only prolong it further. Yet, with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis preparing a recommendation on the path forward in Afghanistan, the administration may be considering just that.

Last month, Gen. John Nicholson, commander of the American-led military coalition in Afghanistan, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. has "a shortfall of a few thousand" troops in Afghanistan that he sees as necessary to turn the tide in our favor. On Thursday, Gen. Joseph Votel, head of U.S. Central Command, echoed that assessment, testifying before the same committee that there is "a shortfall of a few thousand personnel needed to conduct the complementary mission of training, advising, and assisting" the Afghan military.


Given the Taliban's intractable position in Afghanistan in spite of a 15-year campaign to wrest territory from its grasp, it takes a special kind of relationship with reality to think that a few thousand more troops will accomplish what over 100,000 couldn't. That's all the more true when you consider that civilian contractors working for the Pentagon in Afghanistan outnumber U.S. troops by a 3-to-1 margin.

Offering an opposing view to General Nicholson's and General Votel's testimonies, Michael Sheehan, the former ambassador for U.S. counterterrorism efforts and chair of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, testified before the House Armed Services Committee last month: "Afghanistan and Iraq are important, but I caution about creeping troop increases. Thousands of advisers begin to 'look and smell' like an occupation, and that creates many of the problems that you seek to solve."


Like most American military involvement in the Middle East, our role in Afghanistan has if anything strengthened the resolve and reach of extremist and anti-American organizations. Paired with the "look and smell" of occupation, incidents like the American attack on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in 2015, or the American airstrike last month that reportedly killed 18 Afghani civilians, become particularly powerful recruitment tools for violent extremists.

Of course, while military operations are prone to tragic mistakes and institutional failures, our failure to end the war is a policy failure, not a military one. Two consequences of that failure are the lives lost and taxpayer dollars squandered. Specifically, 2,350 Americans have lost their lives in the war, and while estimates vary greatly, some mark the civilian death toll at over 31,000. As for tax dollars, some estimates put the cost of the war to taxpayers at $4 million — per hour. The National Priorities Project, an organization working to shed some much needed light on America's spending priorities, estimates that as of this writing, the U.S. has spent over $765 billion on the war.

There are currently about 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, and nearly 30,000 civilian contractors working for the Pentagon in Afghanistan. Rather than escalating our presence, President Donald Trump should extricate our forces from a war that can't be won and leave in place only enough troops to defend the American embassy. That doesn't mean America shouldn't work to heal the damage wreaked by 15 years of war. America can and should play a key role in supporting diplomatic and humanitarian strategies to end the fighting, seek political solutions and rebuild Afghanistan's infrastructure. Even a tiny fraction of $4 million per hour would go a long way in these efforts.

In any foreign policy equation, the question of whether our policies are making Americans safer should be paramount. So should the question of whether the results of our policies are worth the tremendous cost in American lives and dollars. But often overlooked is the question of whether our policies make the regions they apply to, and the world overall, safer. That last one's important to include not only because as human beings we should care about people whether or not they're American, but also because ultimately, national security is tied to global stability. In measuring the U.S. policy of endless war in Afghanistan, it's telling that there's simply no need to state the obvious answer to all three questions.

Paul Kawika Martin (Twitter: @PaulKawika) is the senior director for policy and political affairs at Peace Action, the nation's largest grassroots peace organization. He spent time in Afghanistan in 2010 and is based in Silver Spring, Md.