I spent the last decade-and-a-half listening to the nation’s military leaders explaining, over bacon and eggs, how the U.S. was making progress in Afghanistan. Ever since 2001, officers and their civilian overseers would regularly stop by the Fairmont Hotel in Washington, D.C., to explain to a bunch of reporters how the nation’s longest war (although it didn’t reach that point until June, 2010, when it eclipsed Vietnam) was going, and why it was worth pursuing.
I did that as a reporter for Time Magazine, where the rules of the road required a certain detachment that kept one from using barnyard epithets as their justifications for the fit-and-start war unraveled year after year. But I’m no longer constrained by such strictures, which leads me to say: poppycock. One can only take the constant spinning for so long before becoming dizzy and cynical over can-do officers who can’t-do—and lack the guts to say it can’t be done given the tools they’ve been given. Their failure to do so cheats every Afghan-bound young man and woman wearing the uniform.
As an American stung by 9/11’s horrors, I wanted the U.S. military to wipe the perpetrators out. In the Pentagon’s hallways in late 2001 there was an expectation that the war would be over quickly, and it was, in terms of toppling the Taliban. I traveled to Afghanistan in the early years, charting the war’s progress. Almost imperceptibly, the U.S. charter was growing into a mammoth mission to groom a cohesive nation instead of the patchwork of warlords that Afghanistan had always been.
Last week, President Trump declared his intention to stay this course. “We will always win,” he told soldiers at Fort Myer, just across the Potomac from the White House. “In the end, we will win.” But even the senior member of his Cabinet acknowledged that the minor tweaks Trump is proposing are unlikely to make any real difference. “You will not win a battlefield victory,” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told the Taliban the day after Trump spoke. “We may not win one, but neither will you.”
How’s that for a call to arms?
So now is a good time to revisit those Defense Writers Group breakfasts to recall the conflict’s gilding since President George W. Bush launched the U.S. invasion on Oct. 7, 2001. Its aim was to punish the Taliban for sheltering Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda, which had carried out the 9/11 attacks that killed nearly 3,000 the month before. Since then, the war has cost the nation 2,304 lives and ultimately will cost more than $1 trillion.
Things looked promising at the beginning. A little more than a month after the invasion, the Taliban were ousted from Kabul. A week after the capital’s fall, Richard Perle, chairman of the Pentagon’s Defense Advisory Board, predicted the Taliban’s days were numbered. “The Taliban was pretty entrenched in Afghanistan,” Perle said Nov. 20, 2001. “Regimes that rule by terror and intimidation, when that grip is challenged, go a lot faster than we think they will.”
Mopping up was all that was left to do. “The main focus of our military activity there is finishing the job against Al Qaeda and the Taliban,” Doug Feith, the Pentagon’s No. 3 civilian leader, said in February 2002. “That is what we are really concentrating on.” Afghans were already calling a national confab to set up a new government. “We are interested in having the loya jirga process succeed some time in the late spring and produce a permanent structure for an Afghan government,” Feith added. “We view it as a matter of promoting the kind of general political stability in the country that serves our interests in not having Afghanistan revert to serving as a base for terrorism…our strong inclination is to work as quickly as possible to put the Afghans in the position where they can perform the security functions throughout their country that are necessary.”
But Feith—like pretty much every American who has touched Afghan policy since 2001, including Trump—tripped on whether or not the U.S. was—is—engaged in nation-building. “If Afghanistan is run by the Afghans, and the country is not used as a base for terrorism against us, then we have no interest in the way they run their own lives,” Feith said. “We do not think of ourselves as going in there and building their nation.”
But that remains, more than 15 years later, a distinction without a difference. If the U.S. requires a terrorist-proof Afghanistan, and Afghanistan can’t produce that on its own, the U.S. will stay there indefinitely.
In the war’s early years, there was an earnestness to generals’ reports from the front. In January 2004, the chief of U.S. Central Command, responsible for overseeing the war, rattled off positive metrics. “All of those things point to a stabilization of the situation in Afghanistan, not a worsening of it,” Army General John Abizaid said over breakfast. “So I'm feeling pretty good about how things are going against the Taliban.”
Did that mean the U.S. had turned a corner after more than two years of fighting? “I don't want to use the term turn the corner, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, or any of those types of terms,” he said. “I'd say we've made good progress.” That was nearly 14 years ago.
Twenty months later, another four-star general suggested that corner was getting closer. “The fundamental problem in Afghanistan is to ensure that the central government continues its program of outreach and makes its presence felt out in the countryside, that develops instruments of good governance, that there be, as rapidly as possible, a rule of law that is enforceable and manages to solve the No. 1 problem, which is narcotics,” Marine General Jim Jones (then the NATO chief, later Obama’s first national security adviser) said in October 2005. “Let's be clear, that's the No. 1 problem that Afghanistan has to face for its future, and if they can tackle that and make some progress on that I think they'll turn the corner.”
But Afghanistan’s progress soon slowed, in part because the American military was preoccupied by a second war it had launched in Iraq. The breakfast chats became markedly less sunny. “In the immediate term our objective—immediate term meaning the next year or so, one to two years max—our object is really to reverse the momentum that the insurgency had been gaining,” Mike Vickers, the Pentagon’s top counter-insurgency civilian, said in July 2009. “The first step is really to reverse that and drive it in the other direction.”
By early in the Obama administration—after nearly eight years of war—Marine General John Kelly (now Trump’s chief of staff)—said the U.S. would not be able to kill its way to victory. Instead, it would need to put enough U.S. troops on the ground to be “consistently out there with people” to reach “a solution in any war of this nature.”
“Chasing the bad guy is not the answer,” he said in February 2009. “We can win the 10-second firefight every time,” said Kelly, whose son, Robert, would be killed in Afghanistan the following year. “The kinetic thing, chasing bad guys, killing bad guys, is part of the solution,” he said. “But the real solution is connecting with the people, and protecting the people, and more importantly, helping the people protect themselves.” Later that year, Obama ordered a surge of 30,000 more troops into Afghanistan, boosting U.S. forces to their peak of 100,000 in 2011.
By May 2010 the light at the tunnel’s end was once again growing brighter. “In (the southern town of) Marjah I walked down through the main market and basically walked down a street that we wouldn't have flown over a couple of months ago,” General George Casey, the Army’s top officer, said at the time. “There's a sense of positive momentum there.”
More good news followed. “We saw positive progress across the board, whether it be the tactical situation on the battlefield or whether it be the capability and competence of the Afghan security forces, the development of governance, both at a district and provincial level,” Major General Richard Mills said in May 2011 after a spending a year as the senior Marine in Afghanistan. “I think it is important that we ensure that the American people understand that there is progress being made in a very difficult war. It‟s a tough situation, no question about it. But there is progress being made.”
Yet that ended with Obama’s decision to bring the troops home. He declared combat over in 2014, cut U.S. forces by 90%, and the Taliban have been regaining ground ever since. He, and the American people, had lost the will to keep fighting. The war went from a full boil to a steady simmer, with U.S. casualties low enough to keep fighting ad infinitum.
As a result, after a decade of war, the breakfast reports became incredible—literally, fiction.
By April 2012, Major General John Toolan, back after a year as the senior Marine in southern Afghanistan, was predicting the Taliban’s neutralization. “I’m pretty convinced that by 2014 the Taliban leadership…is no longer conducting day-to-day business in Afghanistan,” he said. “They’re being targeted, and they’re losing influence in an exponential fashion…that’s going to allow, this next two years, allow the Afghan government, governance that’s been established, the Afghan security forces to get their job done and win the support of the local people.”
By April 2013, Afghanistan was shouldering more responsibility. “By and large we’re seeing them step up to the plate to try to take ownership for their security, and they’re trying to take ownership for their government,” Major General Mark Gurganus said amid his tour as a senior Marine in the country. “They’re making steady progress.”
The last member of this early-morning chorus was Army Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster. “In Afghanistan, I think we have a tremendous opportunity…to give the Afghan people a chance at a future they deserve, which is much better than the horror they’ve had to live through in the last several decades,” McMaster, now Trump’s national security adviser, said in February 2015. “I think you can quickly see the dramatic changes and positive change in Afghanistan.”
Well now. Full stop. Afghanistan is nothing but a treadmill. The U.S has no will to win. If it did, Congress would declare war, with the backing of the American people. As it is, they can’t be bothered: 40 million people watched Obama’s televised address on Afghanistan in 2009; only 28 million—8.7% of the country—saw Trump’s.
The idea of building a nation that can stamp out terrorism only makes sense if you ignore the fact that several of the 9/11 hijackers plotted in Germany, and that the U.S. has its own homegrown terrorists. There is no move by the U.S. to attack Germany, or itself. Today’s terrorists don’t need bases and camps that can be destroyed by drones. They can meet in cyberspace, hidden in kitchens and dens the world over. Thousands of troops fighting for decades doesn’t deal with that.
Before winning the White House, Trump repeatedly called for the U.S. to pull out of Afghanistan. But at Fort Myer he declared his intention to follow the path of least resistance. He bent to the will of his troika of generals—Kelly, McMaster and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. His words echoed the sunny-side up optimism of Mills, Toolan and Gurganus, those three other generals who had come to breakfast.
“The military-industrial complex wins,” complained conservative firebrand and Trump ally Ann Coulter.
Now if it would only start telling the truth.
P.S. Harry Disch, who organized these Defense Writers Group breakfasts as head of the nonprofit Center for Media and Security, retired last week after organizing the sessions for 34 years. George Washington University’s David Ensor is picking up the baton. The breakfasts were valuable, in part, because the lack of TV cameras led to less showboating by all involved. Colleagues were willing to follow up on questions asked by others, something lacking in many such gatherings. Having attended perhaps 500 of them over 30 years—and switching from bacon and eggs to the fruit plate halfway through—I can attest that the discussions generally were more nourishing.