Quagmire in Afghanistan: 17 Years and Counting

Mike Pompeo, Ashraf Ghani
US Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo participates in a press conference with Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 9, 2018. Photo credit: U.S. Department of State / Flickr

For the US, Afghanistan is a little like Alice in Wonderland: it takes all the running we can do, just to stay in the same place.

In a little over a month, it will be 17 years since the US led an invasion of Afghanistan. It’s the country’s longest war, but only one phase in the 40 years of war that have been a part of contemporary Afghanistan.

Many Americans, especially with the amount of news being generated lately, have forgotten why their country went there, what role the US still might have there, and what has been the cost, in terms of both lives and treasure.

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, Jeff Schechtman speaks with Laurel E. Miller, a senior foreign policy expert at RAND and former acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the State Department.

Miller talks first about the impact that war fatigue might have on any attempt to find a diplomatic solution, and how the US and Afghanistan still see almost everything through very different sets of lenses.

One result is that, according to Miller, the conflict has been essentially stalemated for a decade and there is no indication on the ground or behind the scenes that the impasse is going to be broken.

Miller explains the ways in which the US has been both a stabilizing and a destructive force. Despite the grim history of military intervention, she believes Washington still has a role to play in Afghanistan, although not on the battlefield.  

She brings some clarity to the discussion of how the Taliban might be brought into the political mainstream, and how ISIS as the common enemy of the Taliban, the Afghan government, and the US just might provide the impetus for a broad diplomatic solution.

Miller explains that while Afghanistan’s neighbor Pakistan may not be able to play a significant role in diplomacy, Pakistani buy-in is an absolute prerequisite to any peace in the region.

While acknowledging the difficulty of trying to make peace in one of the most corrupt countries in the world, she offers a fresh look at possible ways out of the 17-years-and-counting conflict.


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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to Radio WhoWhatWhy. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

In just two months’ time, we will mark 17 years since the US invasion of Afghanistan, certainly the longest single military effort in US history. Our original goal was to destroy Al-Qaeda and oust the Taliban that were protecting them. Since that time, a great deal has happened, and mostly the law of unintended consequences has been the victor. Security and political stability still seem elusive. US government understanding of the country and the region still seems sketchy at best, and corruption still seems rampant. And even with all of that, some think real peace is still possible. Where we are today and what’s really happening on the ground, and what the US can do, even if it had the will and competence to do it, are our subjects today as I’m joined by our guest, Laurel Miller.

Laurel Miller is a senior foreign policy expert at RAND. She served as the US State Department’s deputy and then acting special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, overseeing US diplomatic efforts in the region. She’s been an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and also at Georgetown Law. She’s been a senior advisor to the assistant secretary of state for European Affairs and senior advisor to the US special envoy for the Balkans. She’s been directly involved in peace negotiations in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Macedonia, and it is my pleasure to welcome Laurel Miller to Radio WhoWhatWhy. Laurel, thanks so much for joining us.
Laurel Miller: Thank you. It’s my pleasure.
Jeff Schechtman: As we talk about policy and the state of affairs in Afghanistan today and look at how long this has gone on, has the reality of fatigue from the war, from the politics of it, does that war fatigue play a role today in how we move forward from where we are now in Afghanistan?
Laurel Miller: Well, I think the idea of war fatigue does reflect a certain reality in that, among the Afghans, certainly, who’ve experienced not just 17 years of war, but 40 years of continuous warfare, there is unquestionably a desire for a more peaceful life in the country. I think the question of war fatigue as it applies to the United States is a bit more difficult to measure, given that the war doesn’t actually affect that many Americans. There may be a fatigue among policymakers in the sense of wishing to be done with the American involvement in Afghanistan, but I think it’s hard to say that there is a fatigue among the American population at large, or even the American political class at large. I also think the issue of war fatigue can be overstated in that there are many wars that last a very long time, and if you look back even 10 years ago, say, there was talk about war fatigue in Afghanistan and among the US and its allies, and yet here we are, 10 years later, still involved there.
Jeff Schechtman: The other part of that, of course, is the way in which the situation has changed so dramatically over the course of 17 years, and things that might have looked like a way out or a policy solution might no longer be the case as the state of affairs has constantly changed so much. Talk a little bit about that and the difficulty of trying to address the issues today in the context of where we are today, but also aware of what the history has been and understanding how things have changed in that context.
Laurel Miller: Well, there are ways in which the situation has certainly changed over 17 years, but there are many ways in which it hasn’t changed over the last 17 years. Conditions in Afghanistan have been modified as a result of the American and NATO presence in the country, and certainly as a result of the extraordinary volume of resources and financial resources poured into the country. But from, if you look at the situation from an Afghan perspective, as I mentioned earlier, there has been 40 years of continuous warfare, and the last 17 years, from an Afghan perspective, can be considered a phase in that long war rather than a distinctly separate war that has a distinctly separate trajectory.
Again, looking at the situation from an Afghan perspective, there are many who would see the United States’s involvement in the country very differently from the way the United States has seen it. They, not all Afghans, but for a significant portion of Afghans, they see the United States as having intervened in taking a side in an ongoing civil war, whereas the United States looks at its involvement in Afghanistan largely and predominantly in terms of the reaction and response to 9/11, and the effort to go after Al-Qaeda and its hosts in Afghanistan, setting aside this larger Afghan picture of the conflict.
I think one of the reasons why the United States seems to be stuck in Afghanistan and stuck with a stalemate in the country is because of this longer trajectory of the history of the conflict and this larger context, of which the US involvement related to 9/11, is just one component.
Jeff Schechtman: In that context, then, does the US have much of a role to play in trying to bring peace to the region today?
Laurel Miller: The US has been both a stabilizing force in Afghanistan, and a disruptive force in Afghanistan. The US has a role to play in trying to forge a more peaceful future in the country, but it’s not a role that’s going to be played largely on the battlefield in that it is extremely unlikely, both looking at this from the perspective of what’s happened over the last 17 years and the current situation right now, it’s extremely unlikely if not impossible for the United States to defeat the Taliban at any realistic level of US resources. What the US is capable of doing is shoring up the stalemate that currently exists in the battlefield on Afghanistan. But for the United States to forge a more peaceful future in Afghanistan, that’s going to have to be achieved through diplomacy and political negotiations rather than vanquishing the Taliban militarily.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little bit about what that diplomacy looks like. One of the things we often hear is the degree to which perhaps the Taliban can even be brought into the political mainstream. Talk a little bit about it from a diplomatic perspective.
Laurel Miller: Yeah. There have been fits and starts of US efforts to promote a peace process in Afghanistan over quite a number of years now, beginning around 2011. The US introduced into its policy, really one of the few changes in American policy over the 17 years was introducing this idea of trying to negotiate with the Taliban and forge a political resolution of the conflict there, but as I said, that diplomatic effort has proceeded in fits and starts without ever being truly prioritized over the military effort in Afghanistan. Very recently, there seems to have been some shift in American policy, or at least in the rhetoric of American policy, towards a heightened interest in seeking a negotiated conclusion to the conflict. Whether there is going to be a fully resourced, robust diplomatic effort to bring that to fruition is another question, though there are some signs of increasing intent on the US side to really try to make that happen. In particular, there have been reports recently that the administration may appoint a special envoy for Afghanistan whose mission would be to try to negotiate a peace deal.
Now, whether that will work, and whether the Taliban will agree to be involved in a peace process and reach a conclusion that brings them into the political mainstream, is another question. That’s a proposition that has to be tested through the diplomacy of negotiations. I think that probably that is possible, but you can’t know for certain until the effort is underway.
Jeff Schechtman: The overlay to that, I guess, is the degree to which ISIS is having an impact, and the fact that it’s both the enemy of the Afghan government and the Taliban.
Laurel Miller: Right, but there are ways in which the ISIS presence in Afghanistan both complicates this picture and, perhaps perversely, creates a bit of an opportunity in this picture. The way in which it complicates the picture is this ISIS presence which emerged in the beginning of 2015 as another challenge on the battlefield in Afghanistan and adds another risk for the United States, given that ISIS does have a global and transnational set of ambitions. It’s a challenge to the United States. It’s a challenge for Afghanistan to deal with this presence.
The way in which it’s, as I said, somewhat perversely, a potential opportunity is that it is, as you mentioned, a common enemy of the United States, of the Afghan government, and of the Taliban, which does not share the ISIS ideology. This suggests that part of a peace deal might be capitalizing on that common ground to have some common purpose and action among those three elements, the United States, the Taliban, and the Afghan government, in going after ISIS.
Jeff Schechtman: Does the Taliban have the ability, even if they wanted to, do they have enough control to bring down the level of violence if, in fact, that was what was desired?
Laurel Miller: Probably, but again, this is something that would have to be tested through a peace process. One of the Taliban’s comparative advantages over the years since the insurgency arose around 2005, 2006 time period, is that they have worked very hard to maintain their coherence and their institutional integrity. They’ve done this by creating a balance between centralized control and authority and decentralized activity and a considerable degree of autonomy of operational action given to the rank, the commanders at the local level. They have been very reluctant to take any steps that would compromise their coherence, because that’s been, as I said, their significant comparative advantage in this conflict.
What that suggests to me is that they will be very careful in any early moves, in particular, that they would take in a peace process, because they would not want to disrupt the overall consensus within the organization, and I think they would be reluctant to make any moves in reaching final agreements in a peace process that would compromise their consensus and cohesion. But if they succeed in maintaining that consensus, they, I think, can be expected to, on the whole, be able to hold their fighters to any peace deal that they make. But I don’t think there’s anyone who thinks that a peace process in Afghanistan will resolve 100% of the violence in the country. That’s too tall an order to expect, but significantly reducing the violence and ending the major part of the insurgency is something that probably can be achieved.
Jeff Schechtman: The other elephant in the room, so to speak, in all of this is the role of Pakistan. Talk about that.
Laurel Miller: Pakistan has been a supporter of the Afghan Taliban. Their reasons for supporting the Afghan Taliban are somewhat complex, but essentially come down to their views of India and what they see as an existential contest or competition between India and Pakistan. The Pakistanis want to see an Afghanistan that is friendly to Pakistan and not friendly to India, lest Afghanistan become a fertile ground for Indian activity against Pakistan that would leave Pakistan feeling encircled by its archenemy. Pakistan seeks to have influence, not necessarily control, over politics in Afghanistan, but seeks to have influence in Afghanistan, especially in the areas that are contiguous across its very long border with Afghanistan. It’s also never believed that the US conflict in Afghanistan, that the US military mission in Afghanistan would succeed, and so it’s been hedging its bets all these years. Pakistan has to be part of the solution in Afghanistan, at least in the sense of accepting and acquiescing in a political solution there.
Jeff Schechtman: Can it play a role in effectuating that political solution?
Laurel Miller: It can. It can play a role in applying some pressure to the Taliban to negotiate in good faith, because it still provides safe haven for the Taliban leadership, which is not entirely resident in Pakistan, but is, to an important extent, resident in Pakistan, and has family members there. It can apply pressure, and it can also help substantively in shaping the contours of a political settlement in Afghanistan. It can’t have a controlling share of a peace process if this is going to work, but there’s no long-term solution to stability in Afghanistan over Pakistan’s objections. Pakistan has to be, at a minimum, accepting of any solutions that are created in Afghanistan, because Pakistan is going to be next door to Afghanistan forever. It is a wealthier and institutionally and militarily stronger country than Afghanistan, and it has the capability to either support stability there or undermine stability there.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that seems to be a part of all of this, it’s almost like a low-grade fever that’s a part of this entire region, is the degree of corruption that always seems to be there. Talk about that and the impact that it has on policy.
Laurel Miller: I mean, Afghanistan is not unique in having deeply embedded corruption, but it is, by all of the available measures, one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It’s, I would say, the main effect that this has in terms of the conflict is in eroding popular support in the country for the government. It’s very difficult for the government in Afghanistan to win the, to out-and-out win the hearts and minds battle in the country in light of the very significant levels of corruption. That doesn’t mean that there’s no corruption in the Taliban and that the Taliban is more popular than the government, which it isn’t, but this phenomenon certainly erodes popular support for the government in Afghanistan.
Frankly, I mean, this is something that’s going to be a multigenerational challenge. There are no quick fixes to the problem of corruption at the scale that it exists in Afghanistan, and looking at the experiences of other countries around the world that have dealt with significant levels of corruption, it’s very clear that there’s certainly no fix that the United States can apply to this problem, and even with the greatest possible will on the part of Afghan leaders, it will still be a multigenerational effort.
Jeff Schechtman: Are there things, after all these years, that the United States still doesn’t understand about Afghanistan, Pakistan, and dealing in this region?
Laurel Miller: Yes. I mean, it depends on exactly what you mean by the United States. I mean, even within the government, there are, the US government, there are people who have been dealing with these issues for a long time and have significant expertise, and then there are policymakers who come and go, and over the course of 17 years, there have been a lot of decision-makers who have-
… come and gone who have had to go through the cycles of learning and relearning the same lessons over and over again. I think if I were to point to, at a policy level, one of the key problems in understanding, it goes back to a comment I made earlier, which is how you look at what this conflict is and what the nature of the conflict is. The US has… policymakers have tended to look at it from our own lens, our own viewpoint, of what happened on 9/11, why we initially invaded the country, why we toppled the regime, what we thought we were doing in aligning ourselves with certain figures in the country and not with others. From an Afghan perspective, that looks very different. Again, there’s not just one Afghan perspective, just like there’s not just one American perspective, but there were certainly Afghans who took advantage of the American intervention there and allied with Americans for their own purposes that were not about US national security, and there were others who looked at the American intervention as a taking sides in an ongoing conflict.
Laurel Miller: From a Pakistani perspective, it looks rather different, too. I mean, Pakistan looks at the situation in Afghanistan from the perspective of its own national security interests, which it conceives of differently than the United States looks at security interests in the region. From a Pakistan perspective, I’m not justifying it, to explain it, they see the American intervention as, again, as sort of another phase, another phase of American activity, another phase of international involvement in the region that will come and go and that they will be left with the longer-term consequences of American action and holding the bag, if you will, in terms of the outcomes there. That causes them to calculate the risks and benefits of really supporting the US mission there in a very different way than the US would wish.
Jeff Schechtman: For the Afghan people, what did they see, if anything, in terms of gains, in terms of security or political stability?
Laurel Miller: There are, I mean, unquestionably there are Afghans, particularly in the urban areas, who have benefited from the American, and not just American, but broader international community, involvement in the country. There are many more children in school. There are many more women who have been educated. There’s been better access to healthcare. There has been economic growth fueled by foreign resources, but there has been economic growth and access to media, indigenous Afghan media. It’s a more open society with more opportunity than there had been certainly during the Taliban period and the civil war period that preceded that.
Now, I mean, some of those advances have begun to erode as the American presence there began to diminish and the volume of dollars began to diminish. You’ve seen Afghans be one of the main groups, for instance, that’s been emigrating, migrating illegally to Europe, and in particular because of continuing insecurity and economic problems there, so I’m not trying to create an overly rosy picture, but the inputs of American resources have produced outputs in terms of benefits, as I said, in particular, for urban Afghans. For many Afghans in the rural areas, I think little has changed, and when you talk about advancements for women in the country, I think you do very much have to distinguish between the experiences of urban Afghan women and rural Afghan women for whom life has not changed greatly in the last 17 years.
But the United States didn’t invade the country in order to develop it economically and improve life for Afghans, as beneficial as that may be for Afghans. I mean, the point of all this nation-building was to try to deal with the security problem and to try to put the Afghan government on a footing which would enable it to attend to its own security requirements. I think there was a certain amount of naïveté in thinking that that could be done on a rapid timetable.
Jeff Schechtman: There have been some localized ceasefires recently, and there is more talk, it seems, about some kind of a diplomatic effort towards a peace process. Why now? What are the forces that are at play that are driving this at this particular time?
Laurel Miller: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think one of the forces on the American side unquestionably is that we have a president that a year, just a year ago, on the one hand recommitted to the mission in Afghanistan by announcing a policy of somewhat stepped-up military activity, but on the other hand, in announcing that policy, said quite openly that it really wasn’t what he had wanted to do or originally intended to do, leaving everyone with the impression that he had a great deal of reluctance in that recommitment to the American strategy there. I think that, plus a couple of other comments that the president has made since then, have shaken not just Afghan, but American policymakers’ and bureaucrats’ confidence in how enduring this American commitment really is to Afghanistan, and concerned that, frankly, the President could choose to pull the plug rather abruptly on the mission.
Even those who think that the mission has gone on too long and there should be a winding up of the engagement there, and/or a negotiation of peace, don’t, for the most part, think that that should happen abruptly, but should happen in a deliberate manner. I suspect that this has been one of the factors on the American side in getting many more people across the US government, particularly in the security establishment, to be talking about a peace process. I think there may also be the kind of fatigue that we talked about in the beginning among American policymakers. There are a lot of other hot spots around the world, a lot of other American priorities around the world, and while the United States could afford to continue the mission in Afghanistan at the current level, there are people who ask, “Why, and to what end? I mean, what does it really mean to just be doing the same thing over and over again for another 10, 17, 20 years?”
Jeff Schechtman: Laurel Miller. She’s a senior foreign policy expert at RAND Corporation. Laurel, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy.
Laurel Miller: Thank you. I enjoyed it.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you, and thank you for listening and for joining us here on Radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from Afghanistan (US Army).

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One response to “Quagmire in Afghanistan: 17 Years and Counting”

  1. So many questions and so many answers. But nothing germane asked or answered. Jeff is usually incisive. What is the interest of the U.S being there? How different are the Taliban and non-Taliban Afghans? Should we have anything to do with a nation that has such an anti-female, anti-civilization persona? Is male rape of children which seems to be a part of Afghan culture something the U.S. should abide by? Is the CIA in control of heroin production or at least the cultivation process? How many students attend the many schools that the U.S. built and paid for?