Marcus Ranum discusses the status of the war in Afghanistan and the ever-enduring belief of the military that seems to be immune to repeated failure, that if they just get more troops, they can win whatever war they are currently engaged in. This is what general Stanley McChrystal told president Barack Obama when he was appointed in 2009 to take charge of the war. McChrystal felt that with 40,000 more troops, he could capture and hold the Taliban stronghold of Helmand, thus delivering a crushing blow. Obama gave him 30,000, NATO allies gave another 10,000, Helmand remained defiant, and McChrystal was fired for insubordination. This was the basis for the satirical film War Machine.
Now the cycle is being repeated with a new military commander for the war and a new president. As Marcus says, Donald Trump is merely the latest US president to fall prey to that logic.
Trump, of course, is sending more troops. 5,000. The metric is wrong: 5,000 heads won’t do anything. If there were a winning strategy that 5,000 heads could meaningfully be applied to, then it might make sense. But, since the US hasn’t got a plausible strategy for winning, those 5,000 heads are going to be doing exactly what the 65,000 or so heads that were losing before were doing: wandering around occasionally shooting people, and then going back to base. Which is more or less what the 500,000 heads in Vietnam did. In 1968 there were 510,000 US military in Vietnam – a country with about the same population and area as Afghanistan. The terrain is very different, but only in style; in substance they are equally rotten places to fight and hold and both countries have porous borders that allow insurgents to regroup and resupply. The US never had a chance of winning in Vietnam and we don’t have a chance of winning in Afghanistan. Yet we’re ruled by fools who listen to the military and continue to trickle troops back and forth, as if 5,000 more soldiers will make a difference to anyone except them and anyone they kill.
My suggestion is this: since Trump is immune to embarrassment, he should withdraw US troops from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, and declare victory. Have a ticker-tape parade.
Marcus is right that Trump is probably the best person to pull this off because he can lie shamelessly in the face of all evidence that he ‘won’ the war and his supporters will believe him and everyone else will be relieved to see the end of this endless conflict.
But that is assuming that Trump thinks strategically about how to get out of the mess. I suspect that he won’t do it unless he can persuade himself that pulling out actually constitutes a military victory. That might be a level of self-delusion that is too difficult even for him.