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 the Afghan army’s casualties, which topped 15,000 in 2016.

These proposals raise a number of questions. Is a stable, secure Afghanistan achievable at any reasonable cost? What would the new measures accomplish? Why did earlier efforts fail?

The hard answers to these three questions are: probably not, almost nothing, and the enduring forces of history and culture. More troops are unlikely to make much of a positive difference. In fact, they may make things worse. Unless U.S. officials adopt more realistic, minimal goals in Afghanistan, the years ahead will look much like the present, but with slightly higher costs and more American and Afghan deaths.

A donkey transporting election materials in Panjshir Province, Afghanistan, June 2014.


At the heart of Washington’s problems in Afghanistan is the fact that the country is home to not one but five conflicts, four of which predate the U.S. invasion of October 2001. U.S. policy in the country has too often been blind to these disputes, and the tools needed to resolve them are neither exclusively military nor American.

Afghanistan’s first conflict is a centuries-long power struggle between the country’s largest ethnic group, the Pashtuns, and everyone else: the Tajiks, Hazara, Uzbeks, Aimaq, and a smattering of other, smaller ethnic communities. Pashtuns comprise less than half of Afghanistan’s population, but they have almost always run the country and are determined to keep it that way, generating resistance and a series of shifting alliances on the part of their rivals. The 2004 Afghan constitution sought to resolve this problem by concentrating power in the president’s office, delegating token powers to two vice presidents. But this generated such opposition from non-Pashtuns that, in 2014, a national unity government forced the president (a Pashtun, Ashraf Ghani) to share power with a chief executive (a Tajik, Abdullah Abdullah).

The result of this arrangement is a government that is strong enough to rule badly but too weak to rule well: Ghani and Abdullah are locked in perennial disputes over appointments, and the parliamentary elections planned for October 2016 were neither held nor rescheduled. Ethnic divisions replicate, fractal-like, down to the level of army platoons and municipal government offices. As higher-ups strive to keep their rebellious subordinates in the fold with promotions and cash rewards, bureaucrats and policemen fleece the people, wringing out the money they need to repay their patrons. Almost all the international community’s efforts to curtail corruption have failed. In fact, over the last decade, Afghanistan has risen on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index from 41st to seventh place.

Making matters more complicated, there is also a conflict among Afghanistan’s Pashtuns. The dispute between the southern elites of the Durrani tribe and the Ghilzai tribe of the rural, mountainous east stretches back to at least the eighteenth century; the Durranis defeated the Ghilzai and founded the Afghan state in 1747. With a few brief exceptions, Durranis ruled Afghanistan almost continuously until 1996, when the Taliban, led by a Ghilzai mullah named Mohammed Omar, seized power with Pakistan’s help. The United States’ ejection of the Taliban and elevation of Hamid Karzai as interim president in 2002 handed power back to the Durranis—a fact not forgotten by the Ghilzai, who still comprise the majority of the Taliban’s foot soldiers. Most of the violence now occurring in Afghanistan’s east is the latest act in this centuries-long play. Today’s Ghilzai have no trouble recruiting new fighters, particularly when they direct their anger toward the Western “crusaders” fighting alongside the Durrani-dominated government.

The new mini-surge will probably do just one thing: slightly slow the Taliban’s momentum.

Layered on top of these ethnic fissures is a third conflict: a culture war between progressive cosmopolitans in Afghanistan’s major cities and religious conservatives in the countryside. Such rural-urban divides are common around the world, but Afghanistan’s is particularly violent, and it remains the largest obstacle to improving minority rights, religious tolerance, basic schooling for girls, and health care for women. Like Afghanistan’s ethnic divisions, this conflict has a long history. In the late nineteenth century, Abdur Rahman Khan, Afghanistan’s so-called “Iron Emir,” introduced a number of modernizing reforms and refused to recognize the authority of rural religious leaders. The result was some 40 insurgencies over a twenty-year reign. When Abdur Rahman’s grandson, Amanullah Khan, tried to advance liberalism and women’s rights in the 1920s, the mullahs orchestrated another revolt that resulted in his abdication. Modernizers overreached again in 1979, when the Communist leader Hafizullah Amin tried to include women in a national literacy program, helping to prompt a conservative rebellion in the west. When Amin responded with mass arrests and executions, the resistance spread across the country, and the Soviet Union, fearing a CIA plot to destabilize the USSR’s southern border, invaded.

What followed was a nearly decade-long Soviet occupation that killed 15,000 Soviets and over one million Afghans. Much as Washington has done since 2001, Moscow paired its military operations with promises of economic aid, development, and support for a modern army. If Afghans wanted those things, they wanted them less than being left alone. With the help of the CIA and Pakistani intelligence, which funneled weapons to the most religiously extreme tribes, the mujahedeen bled the Soviets white. Moscow pulled out its troops in 1989.

A Canadian soldier at the forward operating base of Ma'sum Ghar, Afghanistan, July 2007. 
Finbarr O'Reilly / REUTERS


As the Americans rented out the Afghans’ services against the Soviets, another foreigner moved into the Pashtun lands with his own goals in mind. The Saudi who arrived in 1984 had none of the Americans’ advanced weapons, but he had Islamic credibility and a willingness to accept rather than change Pashtun culture, and he soon built a loyal following of fellow extremists.

Bin Laden’s presence in Afghanistan eventually led to the September 11 attacks, the U.S. invasion, and American demands that Pakistan abandon its support for the Taliban and the other Pashtun networks connected to al Qaeda. Getting Islamabad to do so would prove nearly impossible, but American officials were insistent. On September 12, 2001, when Pakistan’s intelligence chief tried to explain his country’s history in the Pashtun region to Richard Armitage, the U.S. deputy secretary of state cut him off with three words: “History starts today.”  

Armitage was wrong. Pakistan’s support for extremism is part of Afghanistan’s fourth conflict: a cold war between India and Pakistan that preceded the U.S. invasion and continues to the present. Since partition, Pakistan has both feared and provoked war with India—a country with six times its population and a far more capable military. To counter Delhi’s conventional advantages, Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence has cultivated relationships with Pashtun extremists to threaten India asymmetrically and to provide strategic depth for a potential guerrilla war in Afghanistan’s mountains. Because Pakistan views these partnerships as essential to its own survival, more than a decade of American diplomacy has failed to sever them.

Indeed, despite Pakistan’s duplicity, Washington has continued to be one of its army’s strongest patrons. In exchange for this support, the United States has repeatedly asked Pakistan to undertake military operations against Islamist extremists in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas. That has helped provoke yet another insurgency—the Pakistani Taliban, which is separate from but connected to the one in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s war in its own Pashtun lands is perhaps the most important of all the Afghanistan-related wars, for it has further radicalized Pakistan’s population and militarized its government, weakening the only country in the world with nuclear weapons and a large Islamist following.


These are the forces pulling Afghanistan apart and away from U.S. influence. Pakistan will continue to support Afghan Pashtuns at almost any cost because it sees such actions as a hedge against Indian coercion; fifteen years of careful U.S. diplomacy have not altered Islamabad’s calculus. Rural Pashtuns will keep resisting any attempts to rule their lands or change their culture, whether carried out by Afghan, Pakistani, U.S., or NATO troops. Governors and warlords will continue to prey on Afghan civilians, turning them away from Kabul and toward the Taliban. None of this will change anytime soon, and certainly not as a result of deploying four thousand more U.S. troops.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul, June 2017.
Omar Sobhani / reuters

Indeed, the Trump administration's new mini-surge will probably do just one thing: slightly slow the Taliban’s momentum. That will have no real effect on the larger dynamics that are preventing a sustainable peace in Afghanistan. In fact, an increase in troop levels might make things worse, because the Taliban has historically responded to American surges with escalations of its own. Since 2003, every significant U.S. troop increase has been matched by higher levels of violence and more civilian casualties. Those who support raising troop levels yet again must explain why this time will be different. They must also explain why more troops would calm rather than inflame the passions that fuel Taliban recruiting and give the movement its resilience. Critics of counterterrorism operations often lament that violent approaches only “mow the grass”: they kill some terrorists, but new ones rise up in response. Deploying more American troops to Afghanistan’s Pashtun lands, where resistance to outsiders and the cultural links between honor and violence are deeply ingrained, would not just mow the grass but add water and fertilizer as well.

The United States’ only enduring national security interests in Afghanistan are to protect the U.S. homeland from terrorist attacks emanating from Afghan soil and to prevent a regional destabilization that would threaten Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Transforming Afghanistan into a liberal, modern state is the least realistic path to those goals. If more troops fail to reverse the Taliban’s momentum in the next twelve months, the United States should quietly change course.

Washington should limit itself to preserving its aviation and special forces in Afghanistan’s east, using them to target international terrorist organizations and guarantee the survival of the Kabul government. It should provide military assistance only to Afghan army and police units that are free from corruption and human rights violations—an approach that would probably result in a dramatic reduction of the 6,400 U.S. trainers currently in the country. And it should increase its aid and reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan’s peaceful areas, which have helped extend the average Afghan’s life expectancy by a decade, while abandoning development efforts in areas that are too dangerous to do such work properly.

Washington should limit itself to preserving its aviation and special forces in Afghanistan’s east.

The United States must also be more aggressive in its peace negotiations, and that means convincing the Afghan government to be more flexible in accommodating Pakistan’s interests. For centuries, Afghan leaders have ruled primarily by controlling a few population centers and the key roads between them, leaving rural areas alone. The United States should encourage the current Afghan government to adopt a similarly minimalist approach. This may result in Taliban control of some parts of Afghanistan, but it would also preserve Pakistan’s need for strategic depth, satisfy the Taliban’s demand for a foreign exit, and grant Afghanistan’s Pashtuns the dignity of living free from foreign influence. It is the least bad of a range of bad options.

Critics might argue that abandoning Afghanistan’s Pashtun lands would hand the Taliban and al Qaeda a propaganda victory and create new safe havens from which terrorists could destabilize Pakistan. But the current approach has already done both of those things. The presence of Western forces in Afghanistan is propaganda enough for al Qaeda and the Taliban, and after more than 15 years of combat, neither the United States nor Kabul has been able to control Afghanistan’s east or south—a point made clear in 2015, when the United States was surprised to find a large al Qaeda base just 70 miles from Kandahar

The question now is not how to defeat the Taliban permanently but how to manage the international terrorist threats emanating from the Pashtun regions. An American de-escalation might accomplish that goal. History suggests that, without the unifying force of a foreign invader, Afghanistan’s various Pashtun factions will fight each other instead of the West. New terrorist bases can be destroyed with cruise missiles, air strikes, and Special Forces raids. If the United States seeks to occupy and liberalize every terrorist safe haven in the world, it will run out of troops long before the terrorists run out of land.

A reasonable chance of success is a precondition for the moral use of military force. Bush’s dream of bringing Afghanistan into the international liberal order no longer passes that test, if it ever did. Indeed, the chances of victory in Afghanistan now seem slimmer than ever. Trump’s erratic behavior and hostility toward NATO have alienated U.S. allies, who provide more than a third of the troops now in Afghanistan. The escalating conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Somalia, and Yemen are creating more competition for American military resources. And the White House’s proposals to gut the State Department and USAID would weaken some of the few efforts that are actually bearing fruit in Afghanistan.

The last sixteen years have shown that the best tools for fighting terrorism are strikes against terrorist leaders, sparingly used; financial tools that find and freeze terrorist accounts; and a strong and sustainable homeland defense. It is time for the White House to acknowledge that most of the U.S. troops in Afghanistan are doing very little on any of those fronts, at the considerable cost of $23 billion per year. Doubling down on an unsuccessful war is not an act of strength or persistence: it’s trying the same thing again and expecting a different result.

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now