Monday the 8th of October marked the 17th anniversary of the war in Afghanistan. This has led to many calls for leaving, arguments about strategy, and complaints about waste. An opinion writer for the Washington Examiner, for example, wrote about the “hopeless” task “mired in poverty, chaos, and violence,” and repeated the word fail five times in a rather short piece. The departing commander of the mission, John Nicholson said that it is time “for the war to end.” Instead of going tit for tat and getting into the weeds of Washingto’s foreign policy, or just repeating standard talking points about isolationism, nation building, or neocons, I suggest we take a historical view of the war to help inform our view and have different expectations. The long-term historical view of different world powers suggests that America is making a reasonable investment to prevent a long-term resurgence of the Taliban and terrorists to prevent attacks on the homeland.
Modern American expectations are often far more impatient with their wars. Perhaps that is a result of the astounding victory in the Gulf War or maybe the 24-hour news cycle. Historically, Afghanistan operates on a different time table. In Afghanistan, for example, the British fought two wars, roughly a generation apart, and faced more deaths in each of them compared to America’s involvement. The first was from 1839 to 1842 and the British lost roughly 4,000 soldiers. Forty years later they again fought the Afghans and lost over 8000 people to fighting and disease. It might seem ridiculous to consider being in Afghanistan for 40 years, but for the British, their investment in men and material kept it generally peaceful, worked indirectly through local rulers, and was helped with the occasional surge of troops in an active war to protect British interests and keep them safe.
America has made similar commitments with similar results. In “The Savage Wars of Peace,” author Max Boot outlined the many small and messy wars that America fought throughout its history. America stayed 16 years in Haiti in between the World Wars, for instance. While they never fully eradicated the insurgency and turned the country into Mayberry, the Marines provided a measure of peace and stability as well as justice that improved the lives of the people. They built roads, bridges, and hospitals that made the supposedly evil imperial occupation a relative golden age for the nation.
Most importantly, it met American interests. The Monroe Doctrine essentially told Europeans (and American competitors) to keep their hands off Latin American countries. The Roosevelt Corollary at the beginning of the 20th century was a new hands-on policy that used targeted intervention to prevent chaos from inviting evil actors into the region, opening a door to competitors who could then launch attacks on the United States.
Afghanistan seems like a quagmire that doesn’t have a victory in sight. But similar to the British actions there in the 19th century, and Americans in Haiti, I would argue that America still has an interest in fighting there and should make a targeted investment in American security with the side benefits of people in areas that aren’t under Taliban control. America has suffered fewer casualties in a longer period of fighting than the British did there. Their investment in men and material keeps ISIS and the Taliban from having a secure foothold in the country and launching 9/11-style attacks or seizing territory like they did in Iraq. I would suggest that the U.S. should rein in spending on military projects and nation-building, or at the very least be much more discerning. They should also reconsider the number of troops assigned there and what would give us the most bang for the limited bucks we want to spend. For example, focusing more on a mobile strike force that can disrupt terrorist training camps instead of thousands of advisers might better fit this strategy and save money. This would give us a better return on the money we do spend there, and the security for the American homeland that we are seeking.
Afghanistan will never be Mayberry USA, and we should be willing to settle for an imperfect stalemate where the government rules most of the country or relies on warlords. But the school girls that can now attend school without being shot in the head and the Afghans that have hospitals and relatively safe markets appreciate the effort. The lack of a permanent and secure base in which bad actors can stage 9/11-style attacks helps all Americans and we should continue to make the investment for both reasons. It is never fun or easy to be called the world’s policemen or admit that America might be able to learn from empires throughout history. But taking a long-term historic view of Afghanistan might suggest that Americans need to temper their expectations, adjust their goals, and settle in for the long haul.