On May 1, 2003, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced an end to major combat operations in Afghanistan.
Speaking to reporters in Kabul, Rumsfeld talked about a shift in the mission, stating, “We're at a point where we clearly have moved from major combat activity to a period of stability and stabilization and reconstruction activities. The bulk of this country today is permissive, it's secure."
At the time of this announcement—over sixteen years ago—the US had lost 63 men and women in Afghanistan. This January, we lost four more, bringing the total of US service members who perished in America’s longest war to 2,298.
Private First Class Miguel Villalon of the Army was killed in an IED attack in Kandahar province on January 11. He was two years old when hijacked planes flew into the twin towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, the terrorist act which would ultimately result in his death. In 2010, he was 13 and embracing the important transition from middle to high school when troops endured the bloodiest year in Afghanistan, losing 710 men and women.
The extreme civilian death toll in Afghanistan continues to climb as well. It has been estimated that more than 43,000 non-combatants have been killed since the war started in the fall of 2001.
While Americans, Afghans, and coalition partners continue to shed blood, the war’s objective becomes more and more uncertain. Americans know the military is in Afghanistan as a response to the 9/11 attacks, but it is not obvious what constitutes a victory and withdrawal.
In December of 2019, a Washington Post report revealed extensive evidence that those creating policy and conducting the war effort were frustrated about the trajectory of the war. The documents exposed by Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock, now known as the “Afghanistan Papers,” unveil a troubling picture of frustration and lack of clarity among high-ranking military officers and government officials.
Congressman Max Rose, a veteran of the war in Afghanistan, describes in an official statement the concerning picture the Afghanistan papers reveal: “This report lays bare what was obvious to any soldier in the field: once we accomplished the initial mission of routing Al-Qaeda, politicians and bureaucrats embarked on a nation building exercise that went beyond what was achievable, and lied to the American people in the process.”
Using the Freedom of Information Act, The Washington Post fought in court for three years to obtain the documents from the US government, which include over 2,000 pages of interviews with officials and participants in the war. The documents consist of insiders’ observations of the war and how they feel about the way it has been conducted.
Richard Boucher served as Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs from 2006-2009. He explained his take on the war in an interview with SIGAR (Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction), an organization created by Congress to provide oversight for the Afghan reconstruction effort.
“If there was ever a notion of mission creep it is Afghanistan,” he said. “We went from saying we will get rid of Al-Qaeda so they can’t threaten us anymore to saying we are going to end the Taliban. [Then we said] that we will get all of the groups the Taliban works with. [Then further to having] our exit strategy be a stable government in Afghanistan.”
As a country, the US is familiar with this idea of “mission creep.” The conflict in Vietnam started with a few US advisors trying to prevent the country from falling into Communist hands and rose to a peak troop level of over 500,000 by 1968.
In his December 2019 statement, Congressman Rose highlighted this comparison to one of our nation’s most controversial wars. He stated, “Instead of learning from Vietnam, our leaders echoed the mistakes of a previous generation every step of the way.”
Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon continuously escalated the war in Vietnam as Americans grew sick of seeing troops and Vietnamese people dying on their television screens. Each president had the hope of re-election, and having Vietnam collapse with no objective victory would not bode well politically. Bush and Obama failed to de-escalate or withdraw, and now, Trump is navigating the same treacherous political waters. These waters are not just fraught with political danger. While presidents try to deftly avoid a foreign policy blunder, troops and civilians continue to be maimed and die.
A complete withdrawal will likely result in chaos, as the Afghan government—with US assistance—fails to quell the growth of the Taliban. In 2019, the Taliban was only becoming stronger, carrying out the highest number of attacks in a decade. The question is, how is there still an appetite for war? How are Americans not outraged, as they were in 1968? Where are the city-stopping protests against this creeping death toll far from home?
“We’re at war, America is at the mall” is a familiar saying often written on walls and inside porta-johns of US bases in Afghanistan and Iraq. It expresses frustration among those carrying out this unclear war policy, a frustration born from watching friends die and coming home to the revolving-door-style news cycle and the latest iPhone.
The current White House does not feel the pressure that Johnson and Nixon felt regarding the war in Vietnam. The public outcry is not there, largely due to the curated (or lack of) media coverage of the war. Since Vietnam, the military and press relationship has changed. It is harder for journalists to freely cover US military now, and the Department of Defense conducts few press briefings at the Pentagon. Recently, the Pentagon went over a year without giving a press conference from a top official.
However, the US is still in Afghanistan, a war that has cost over $2 trillion, and there is still little understanding of what a victory or complete withdrawal would look like.
In another SIGAR interview released with the Afghanistan Papers, Dan McNeill, a retired US Army General and Commander of US forces in Afghanistan from 2002-2003, and Commander of NATO forces in 2007-2008, weighed in on this lack of a clear strategy.
“I tried to get someone to define for me what winning meant, even before I went over, and nobody could. Nobody would give me a good definition of what it meant,” McNeill said.
With vague overarching objectives, the US military mission in Afghanistan failed to produce clear, attainable goals for service members to work towards.
“So for better or for worse, a lot of what we did, we did with some forethought, but most of it was reacting to conditions on the ground…we were opportunists,” General McNeill remembered.
The Afghanistan Papers reveal a level of confusion and frustration among commanders and officials involved in the creation and conduct of war policy. High-ranking officers and the enlisted both struggled to logically connect the daily tasks at hand on the ground in Afghanistan to the 9/11 attacks. The SIGAR interviews reveal that the US government had been aware of these strategic shortfalls, but failed to alter the course of the war.
It has been nineteen years since the US began its military mission in Afghanistan. Eighteen-year-olds signing their enlistment papers today still run the risk of perishing on Afghan soil. The war has cost the nation an unimaginable amount. The loss of life continues to grow.
The Trump administration is now working to negotiate with the Taliban for lasting peace—the same Taliban that we tried to defeat by attrition over the course of the war. They have only grown stronger, while the nation loses its appetite for war. How many more troops will die before the White House brings them home?
The Afghanistan Papers show Americans that there will likely be no “Victory Day” when the war finally concludes. There will be no clear finish line at the end of this decades-long war. In the meantime, troops continue to deploy and fight in this foreign land.
A reflection from Vietnam veteran and former Marine officer, William Broyles Jr., is a poignant reminder that while Americans patiently wait for the war to end, more humans will die as a result.
“Whenever I stand at the Vietnam memorial, I see their faces looking back at me,” he said. “I wonder what their lives might have been like, what they might have done for the world, what kind of fathers they might have been. And I think the same about the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who died on both sides, especially in those last six years after the peace talks began, when no one wanted to be the last to die for a lost cause.”
The Afghanistan Papers show Americans that the time for patience is over. Instead of waiting out the war as if it was a storm that will pass, the White House needs to devise a clear strategy to bring the troops home.