In April 2002, in the early days of what would become the longest war in American history, President George W. Bush offered a rousing summary of the United States’ goals in Afghanistan. “We will stay until the mission is done,” he said in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute. “Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army, and peace will be achieved through an education system for boys and girls which works.”
Since then, the United States has repeatedly sent more troops to Afghanistan; by 2011, U.S. force levels topped one hundred thousand. Drone strikes and special operations raids have weakened al Qaeda’s leadership and killed Osama bin Laden. But almost all of Bush’s other goals remain out of reach. Today, the Taliban is gaining ground, the Afghan army is suffering unsustainable losses, and the government in Kabul is corrupt and riven by ethnic divisions. Eleven thousand civilians were killed or wounded in Afghanistan last year—the highest toll since the United Nations started keeping track in 2009.
If more troops fail to reverse the Taliban’s momentum, the United States should quietly change course.
On June 15, the Associated Press reported that Washington would soon order around 4,000 more U.S. soldiers to Afghanistan; a formal announcement is expected in the coming weeks. The additional forces would join the 14,000 NATO troops already in the country—roughly 9,000 of whom are American. The advocates of such a surge, including ISAF Commander General John W. Nicholson and CENTCOM Commander General Joseph Votel, argue that sending more trainers and advisers would strengthen Afghanistan’s army and police and reassure its fragile government. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis has also said that he is considering loosening the restrictions on U.S. airpower—which is currently limited to targeting terrorist groups and providing in extremis support to Afghan forces—to blunt the Taliban’s momentum and reduce
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