It’s been a little more than a year since President Donald Trump announced what he claimed was a major change in America’s strategy for the war in Afghanistan. The change was actually relatively minor, but the bottom line was not: the United States was staying. A year later, the war is quickly approaching its seventeenth anniversary, yet there is no end in sight. And while the outgoing U.S. commander in Afghanistan says progress is being made, events on the ground suggest otherwise.
In an essay last week for Foreign Affairs, political scientists Tanisha Fazal and Sarah Kreps explained why the war is likely to continue. They provide four reasons:
- First, the United States has become increasingly allergic to legal formalities that govern wars, bound them, ensure domestic legislative oversight; and help to end them;
- Second, the American public is isolated from the physical consequences of the war because only a small percentage of the country serves in the military;
- Third, fewer Americans who do serve are likely to be killed as advances in military medicine allows many to survive wounds that would have led to their death in previous wars; and
- Fourth, because the war has been paid for through debt rather than taxes, it has no direct financial impact on the American people.
All four reasons add up to a fairly simple fact: the war may be long, but for the American people, it’s also painless.
I’ve discussed research by both Fazal and Kreps elsewhere before—including in the wake of President Trump’s announcement a year ago—and the bottom line remains the same now as it did then. America’s political leaders do not want the war “lost” on their watch, while its military leaders—though often reluctant to start wars—tend believe in seeing the job through to its end. Meanwhile, the American people are ambivalent. They do not see the war as worthwhile, but they also do not want to withdraw from it.
As Fazal and Kreps explain, the public can indulge its ambivalence because it pays no cost for doing so. As a result, it has no incentive to put pressure on elected officials to produce some sort of resolution in the war, and in turn, political and military leaders can kick the can down the road without fear that they will be held accountable. Absent the public experiencing its cost in some tangible fashion, a year from now, we will be approaching the war’s eighteenth anniversary—meaning there will be Americans soon fighting in the war who were not yet born when it began.