Editor’s Note: CNN Films’ “Legion of Brothers” goes into more detail about Afghanistan and the early days of America’s secret war in the country on Sunday, September 24 at 9 p.m. ET.
America’s longest war continues to trudge on and the bodies continue to pile up.
The summer of 2017 has been a bloody one in Afghanistan, with the death toll numbering in the hundreds. Suicide bombers have targeted funerals and banks. A massive blast in June killed at least 150 in the capital of Kabul. Another this month rocked a Shiite mosque.
According to the United Nations, the number of civilians killed in a six-month period reached an eight year record high.
More than 15 years after Operation Enduring Freedom began, the Taliban is again making major gains in Afghanistan – and shows no signs of abating. The government there controls only 63.4% of the country, as of August last year.
US President Donald Trump was due to make an announcement Monday evening about his plans for the future of America’s commitment in Afghanistan. Analysts believe that whatever he decides, there will be no swift end to the conflict.
How did we get here?
The United States first invaded Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
The Bush administration accused the country’s then Taliban government of sheltering al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who had masterminded the previous month’s September 11 terrorist attacks.
The Taliban offered to hand over Bin Laden for trial, but only to a third country, rather than directly to the United States. Washington refused the offer and launched air and ground attacks, joined shortly thereafter by US allies.
Although al Qaeda was quickly pushed out of Afghanistan, and the Taliban government easily removed by the end of 2001, the war dragged on.
“The focus shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq – that was a major strategic error,” Rodger Shanahan, research fellow at Sydney’s Lowy Institute West Asia Program, told CNN.
“You can’t fight two wars simultaneously in those two complex environments. So you could say it was an opportunity lost.”
By the time Obama took over the presidency in 2009, the Taliban had regrouped, and by December of that year, US intelligence officials were openly labeling the insurgency as increasingly effective.
The new US President poured troops into the country – at one point there were as many as 100,000 — but by the time the troops started to withdraw in late 2011, the Taliban, though diminished, remained undefeated, and began once again to grow.
Now, in 2017, with fewer than 10,000 US troops left in in Afghanistan, mostly working as trainers, the war continues to drag on into its 16th consecutive year, with no end in sight.
“The Taliban … today holds more ground in the country since the US ousted the jihadists in early 2002,” Bill Roggio, editor of FDD’s Long War Journal, wrote in April
What does the US want in Afghanistan?
Since the conflict began in 2001, the United States has spent more than $800 billion in appropriations alone on the war in Afghanistan. Figuring in associated funding, such as veterans’ care, the number easily exceeds $1 trillion.
The cost in lives has also been high. More than 2,200 US troops have been killed in Afghanistan, as well as thousands of allied forces. Tens of thousands of Afghan civilians and military have also died in the conflict.
And so the question arises, if the war has become seemingly unwinnable, why doesn’t the United States just leave?
Shanahan said one of the reasons is Washington wants to avoid leaving a free space in Afghanistan for terrorists to plan and execute attacks, such as existed in the lead-up to the September 11, 2001, attacks.
“You need to destroy that safe-haven element and as part of that strategic aim, you want to build Afghan governance so that it can control the areas it supposedly has sovereignty over,” he said.
“So ultimately, if you achieve the second aim, you achieve the first.”
Hameed Hakimi, research associate at the London-based Chatham House Asia Program, said the US military only wanted one thing. “The military side in Afghanistan would tell you they don’t want all these years to have been wasted,” he said.
What are Trump’s options?
There was a sense of optimism in Kabul around Trump, said Hakimi, who visited Kabul earlier this year. “There was an expectation that he will do things a bit different from Obama. There was a sense in Afghanistan that (Obama) is overcautious, he’s slow,” he said.
A new President though does not necessarily translate into new solutions.
Shanahan said defeating an insurgency through force alone is incredibly difficult.
“They have safe areas they can transition in and out of and if you have adjoining areas that give you freedom of action, it makes it virtually impossible to wipe out an insurgency,” he said.
The Taliban, he said, “can drop over the border into neighboring Pakistan and wait out whatever surge comes your way.”
Michael Kugelman, deputy director and senior associate for South Asia with the Asia Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center, said Trump’s options were limited. “This much is clear – there are no good options in Afghanistan,” he said.
Trump can’t hope to “win,” he said. “The best we can hope for is some type of negotiated end to the war, but it’s hard to imagine the US, Afghanistan, or any other stakeholder offering incentives that are sufficiently enticing to bring the Taliban to the negotiating table. The Taliban is scoring big victories on the battlefield. Why would it want to quit when it’s ahead?”
But Hakimi said there is a divide within the Taliban now between the older leaders, who remember the days when they were in power, and the hot-headed young fighters.
“You might be able to quite successfully reconcile a bunch of old men – they’ve been in the business 20 years – but it’s a different story when you talk about a young man with a gun,” he said.
All agreed a surge of US troops onto the front line would be no solution at all.
“You can’t simply end it by pounding these people,” Hakimi said.