Last week, on the always-excellent podcast Bombshell, hosts Erin Simpson, Loren DeJonge Schulman, and Radha Iyengar discussed—among other issues—America’s continued military effort in Afghanistan. There was an evident sense of exasperation when the discussion turned to comments made by President Trump, in the wake of a series of deadly attacks, where declared that the United States was not interested in negotiating with the Taliban.
The exasperation is entirely understandable. The United States has been at war in Afghanistan since 2001. The instances where both civilian officials and military commanders have confidently said a turning point was in sight have continually piled up over the years, while actual turning points remain illusory. The increased number of military personnel the president committed to Afghanistan last fall was supposed to force the Taliban to the negotiating table. If the president says the United States will not negotiate, then what was the purpose of the troop commitment? And what is America’s endgame after more than 16 years of war?
Simpson, Schulman, and Iyengar discussed a post by Max Fisher of the New York Times Interpreter blog, which laid out six options for what the future holds for Afghanistan. The sixth option, Fisher notes, is the most likely:
Neither the government nor the Taliban are strong enough to retake control. Outside actors like the United States and Pakistan may be unable to impose their vision of victory, but they can forestall losing indefinitely.
Foreign aid can sustain the government, even as its control of the country shrinks. There is little to stop the Taliban from carrying out ever more brazen attacks in the capital. The death toll, already high, would probably rise.
Eventually, the stalemate would almost certainly break, hurtling Afghanistan into one of its possible endgames. But it is difficult to say when.
“It’s hard to think of an analogous case,” said Ms. [Francis Z.] Brown, the Carnegie [Endowment for International Peace] Afghanistan expert.
Few modern wars have raged this long, this destructively and with this much outside intervention. If there is an obvious way out, history does not provide it.
The Trump administration seems willing to continue to throw resources into the fight in Afghanistan, with more than $48 billion included in its fiscal year 2019 budget request, despite lacking an idea of its endgame there—or, seemingly, ways of measuring whether its approaching. Yet neither those dollars spent, nor the lives Afghan civilians or American military personnel that will be lost in the process, are likely to register with the American people. Meaning, the status quo will likely prevail for as long American officials want it to.