Lucas Jackson / Reuters The fight goes on: near Jalalabad, Afghanistan, December 2014

Staying the Course in Afghanistan

How to Fight the Longest War

The cigarette glowed red as he took a drag, and the smoke rose rapidly as he exhaled. It had been a long afternoon. It had been a long war.

It was February 2010, and after months establishing a relationship, Pakistan’s chief of army staff, Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and one of us, Stan McChrystal, were having the kind of conversation senior military commanders are supposed to have, discussing the role of the NATO-led coalition’s efforts in Afghanistan and northwestern Pakistan. We’d spent hours alone, each laying out in detail a strategy for the conflict. While not quite my second home, the Pakistani army’s headquarters in Rawalpindi was now familiar ground, and Kayani, a colleague with whom I spoke easily. Nothing, however, could soften the blow of his message to me. “For the mission you’ve been given, you have the right strategy,” he told me. “But it won’t work, because you don’t have enough time.”

There was nothing revelatory in the general’s assessment, because like many others, I had already reluctantly concluded that it was likely correct. It may seem laughable that back in 2010, nine years after the war had begun and eight since I had first started serving there, we felt pressed for time. But for most of those years, the coalition’s efforts had been underresourced and poorly coordinated. And in December 2009, U.S. President Barack Obama had announced a commitment to begin reducing the United States’ role in 18 months. The clock was ticking. Still, the president had also decided to reinforce the U.S. effort so that it would comprise 150,000 U.S. and coalition forces and include an ongoing effort to train, equip, and advise 350,000 Afghan forces. If ever the United States had a realistic shot of success in its post-9/11 involvement in Afghanistan, it was then.

That was seven years of hope, effort, blood, and frustration ago. Today, anything that feels like success looks more distant than ever. The U.S.ernment in Kabul remains plagued by political infighting and corruption, and the Afghan security forces cannot control significant parts of the country. The Taliban, while no longer the idealistic young fighters that swept north in 1994 and not particularly popular with the Afghan people, have leveraged Kabul’s weaknesses to make gains in recent years.

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