There is an old Afghan folk tale that portrays a foreigner balancing two connected trays attached to the handheld weighing device used in South Asian bazaars. The foreigner carefully loads one tray and then the other with frogs. Just as he puts the last few frogs on one tray and then the other, some frogs on the first tray hop off. As the foreigner returns those frogs to the tray, frogs on the second tray hop off or jump to the other tray. Before long, all the frogs are in motion, moving in one direction or the other, and the foreigner gives up.
Like the folk tale, the Afghanistan conundrum could not be simpler for all of its complexity. What can the U.S. do differently than other great powers did over the millennia, including Alexander the Great, Mongols, Chinese, British and the Soviet Union, to bring a profoundly ungovernable country to heel?
Put somewhat differently, what should Donald Trump do to avoid the continuing, reliably deadly stalemate in a now 17-year old conflict -- by far the longest war in American history-- that shows no sign of ending, other than what he did on December 19 in unilaterally ordering the withdrawal of 7,000 of the 11,000 American troops in Afghanistan and all 2,000 troops in Syria?
A shocked Marine Lieutenant General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr., the incoming commander of Central Command, had this to say: "If we left precipitously right now, I do not believe [the Afghan forces] would be able to successfully defend their country. I don’t know how long it's going to take. I think that one of the things that would actually provide the most damage to them would be if we put a timeline on it and we said we were going out at a certain point in time."
But for once, I'm kind of sort of with Trump.
This is because the answer is that no strategy will work in Afghanistan even if his order appeared to be yet another instance in which he was doing the bidding of Vladimir Putin since Russia, after the Taliban, would be the greatest beneficiary of an American pullout there. (And Russia, after Bashir al-Assad and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, would be the greatest beneficiary of an American pullout in Syria.)
My focus here is primarily on Afghanistan, something of which I know not a little as an historian, avid reader of the history of its history and deep skeptic of American foreign policy under Republican and Democratic presidents alike.
This post-9/11 war, which in its most crucial early phase in 2002-2003 was robbed of materiel and men in service of the neocon wet dream of bringing democracy to Iraq, has taken about 2,300 American lives at a cost of more than $1 trillion, and another 1,200 lives of coalition soldiers, not including the thousands of GIs with severe physical and emotional problems who return home to a country, Veterans Affairs system and president ill equipped to deal with them.
(On top of that $1 trillion to underwrite the Afghan misadventure, the U.S. has spent another $5 trillion to prosecute the so-called War on Terror.)
Afghan casualty estimates are all over the place, but the consensus view is that they have passed 111,000 for soldiers, civilian and militants combined. Meanwhile, the inept and deeply corrupt Afghan government controls barely half of the country. The Taliban remain attractive to local tribal chieftains, the people who really run Afghanistan, because they are comparatively less corrupt, while the Afghan army is inept and has little loyalty to officers or the government.
General McKenzie's reasoning is that since we've gotten nowhere in 17 years, we have to stay. And the uproar over Trump's order from many of the same neocons that pushed Dubya to invade Iraq has been deafening.
I would like to think Trump's order is actually kind of shrewd as it pertain to Putin because both the Syrian and Afghan quagmires will be an enormous drain on the Kremlin budget and his already marginal popularity, but we should know better.
I also would like to think that Trump's order is a break with the decades-old Republican doctrine of Forever War, that perfect imperialist manifestation of Pentagon-defense contractor collaboration, as well as collective amnesia regarding the last disastrous war. Iraq? Was there a war in Iraq? Vietnam? Was there . . . But again we should know better.
In this light, the resignation-in-protest of James Mattis as defense secretary would seem to be a not-bad thing, but yet again we should know better. Former Boeing executive Patrick Shanahan, Mattis's acting replacement, has zero foreign policy or military experience, but is a personification of the Forever War doctrine. And Trump's failure to consult American allies about the withdrawals is not the doing of a maverick who is forging a new and long-overdue American foreign policy. (Oh, wait! Trump did consult with the vile Benjamin Netanyahu and Erdoğan.)
No, Trump's failure to consult and his order are more knee-jerk reactions from a man profoundly unfit to be commander in chief. Besides which, there always will be another unwinnable war to fight if the generals and defense contractors get too uppity.
As no less an eminence than John McCain sang, "Bomb, Bomb, Bomb Iran!"