New Approaches to America’s Longest War

New Approaches to America’s Longest War


Even though the Islamic State has lost much of its territorial holdings in Iraq and Syria, it would be a mistake to assume that security in the Middle East is no longer a serious concern. In fact, recent headlines highlighting America’s successes against terrorism in the Middle East may promote complacency and naiveté across the American populace, while violence and terrorism in Afghanistan continue to be alarming.

More than 140 Afghans were killed in terrorist attacks during the final two weeks of January. [1] The Islamic State and the Taliban have both been active near Kabul, and the recent attacks represent a trend of increasing violence in the area. Even more concerning, a recent rebellion within the Afghan government raises questions about its governing capacity and internal stability. In mid-February, four former members of the Afghan national intelligence agency shot and killed 16 of their colleagues before fleeing to join the Taliban.[2] It should come as no surprise that the phrase “failed state” and “Afghanistan” continue to float around in the same sentence.[3] By this bloody metric, it seems that America’s 16-year occupation hasn’t proved fruitful. One can’t help but wonder: how did we get here, and what can the United States do to help Afghanistan become more peaceful and stable?

Decades of Strategic Failure

In 2001, the Taliban was in control of Afghanistan, just as it had been since 1996. In the aftermath of 9/11, the United States determined that ousting the Taliban and installing a government in Afghanistan that did not support Al Qaeda would increase U.S. national security.[4] The US and its allies quickly drove the Taliban out of Kabul, setting up a provisional government in the area. This early success is likely the reason why 93% of Americans supported the war in early 2002.[5] But support for the war has continuously declined since then, as has the appearance of a coherent American military strategy. Although the Obama administration was able to reduce troop commitments from over 100,000 in 2011 to under 10,000 by the end of his term, its strategic successes were limited.[6] Neither President Bush nor President Obama was able to find the silver bullet for Afghanistan, and the Afghan government continues to be wrought with corruption and violence.

Current plans do not appear to be much more promising. Last year, former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson explained the Trump administration’s plan in Afghanistan in somewhat concerning terms. The plan, he said, was “to have the Taliban understand, you will not win a battlefield victory – we may not win one, but neither will you – so at some point, we have to come to the negotiating table and find a way to bring this to an end.”[7] Unfortunately, history does not appear to be on Tillerson’s side. America’s plan during the Vietnam War was eerily similar; Johnson’s National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy explained America’s military strategy in Vietnam as one that aimed to produce a battlefield stalemate, which “would eventually compel the Vietnamese Communists to compromise their objectives.”[8] In general, it appears that this “battlefield stalemate” strategy is doomed to fail. Smaller insurgent groups generally do not defeat global superpowers like the United States on the battlefield; they do it by playing the long game and waiting for domestic political support for the occupation to wither away.[9]

Of course, the Trump administration is not simply sitting back and seeing what happens; it has instated a number of substantial reforms which differ significantly from Obama-era strategies. To start, Trump has emphasized getting rid of “artificial deadlines,” arguing that a policy with a prescribed due date is doomed to fail.[10] The upside of this change is that it represents a longer-term American commitment, which may make American threats targeted toward the Taliban seem more credible. The downside, however, is that it seems clear that America’s longest war will not end anytime soon. While Obama’s main focus was keeping American troops out of harm’s way, Trump seems more committed to bringing the conflict to a resolution, even if it takes a long time.

Trump has also added a few thousand troops to the region and removed a significant amount of civilian oversight, arguing that “micromanagement from Washington, DC does not win battles.”[11] This anti-Clausewitzian approach, which rejects his fundamental premise of “subordination of the military to politics” could lead to an increase in military engagements, as military commanders often are more willing to use their troops than politicians. Military professionals who have spent their whole lives learning the ways of war are often more willing to put their skills to use when given the chance, while politicians are often more wary of using their troops, and prefer to first seek diplomatic solutions.

Finally, it is worth noting that Trump’s new plan for Afghanistan is more like a new set of guidelines than a cohesive military strategy. He has made a number of tactical changes but hasn’t presented a fundamentally new strategy, or comprehensive plan for defeating the Taliban. For example, Trump changed the rhetoric around the Afghan government, referring to it as “a partner and a friend,” but he didn’t present a unified plan for working with the Afghan government to defeat its domestic foes.[12] Furthermore, although Trump claimed that America will stop “nation-building” and start “killing terrorists,” there have been no on-the-ground tactical changes to suggest such a shift. The terminology has changed and military commanders may now use phrases like “capacity-building” and “enabling,” but for all intents and purposes, America is still nation-building in Afghanistan.[13]

The Idea of Full Withdrawal

There is certainly a case to be made for the United States pulling out of Afghanistan altogether. Almost 2,400 US troops have died there since 2001, and when you take into account both the direct and indirect costs and the cost of the war in Afghanistan has reached almost two trillion dollars.[14] For all that time and money, one would hope to see significant improvements in Afghan security and governance. The numbers on how much land is controlled by the Taliban and other insurgent groups vary, but one report found that as of October, the Taliban controlled 14% of Afghanistan, up from 7% in 2015.[15] Regardless, if 17 years of expensive U.S. military deployment have not defeated the Taliban, will anything?

However, there are some reasons for reassurance. For one, it is better to have the Taliban control of 14% of Afghanistan than virtually all of it, as they did in 2001. Furthermore, it’s fair to say that governance quality in Afghanistan has improved since the United States arrived. According to one commonly cited system for measuring quality and freedom of governance, the Polity IV system, governance in Afghanistan has improved from a -7 in 2001 to a 1 in 2014 (where -10 is full authoritarianism, and 10 full democracy.) [16]

Regardless, the more relevant question is not how effective US policy toward Afghanistan has been up until now, but where it should be going into the future. Although politicians like to simplify the conflict by emphasizing this binary, the United States does not have to constrain its options to either “stay” or “leave.” It is important to consider what strategic changes the United States and the Afghan government can make in order to improve Afghan security and governance.

A More Nuanced Approach

One step the United States can take is to reconsider the number of drone strikes it uses against Afghanistan. Drone strikes have been the United States’ weapon of choice in recent years, despite a very contentious track record. In 2017 alone, the US used at least 2607 drone strikes in Afghanistan.[17] That’s over seven per day. This deluge of strikes is part of a larger strategy of leadership targeting, in which the US tries to take out high-level insurgent officials to fracture their organizations.

Unfortunately, this strategy has seen limited success. As Columbia professor Austin Long explains, leadership targeting can be effective, but only against poorly institutionalized groups.[18] The Taliban, however, is highly institutionalized: it has clear lines of succession, functional specialization, and standard operating procedures. All three of these elements make it easy for the Taliban to replace fallen leaders. Long points out that although assassinations of mid- and high-ranking Taliban members are disruptive, they are not nearly impactful enough to cause the fragmentation, in-fighting, and collapse that would occur from such assassinations in less institutionalized groups.

Additionally, drone strikes can be actively harmful, as they isolate and radicalize local populations. The literature on drone strikes is diverse and complicated; a number of studies argue that drone strikes are effective because they kill terrorists, while others say they fuel terrorist recruitment by killing innocent civilians. Even if there is no conclusive evidence on the efficacy of drones, it is clear that the United States has to tread carefully if it hopes to maintain its approval in Afghanistan. Although the feelings of Afghan citizens toward US involvement are not immediately clear, the United States does have the reputational disadvantage of being an occupying power. Through extensive field work and survey distribution, Yale Professor Jason Lyall found that civilian attitudes “are asymmetric in nature.”[19]. Lyall wrote that when the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), made up largely of US troops, harmed civilians, local support for the Taliban increased; when the Taliban harmed civilians, however, there was no commensurate increase in local support for the ISAF. He concluded that Afghan citizens may be partial toward the Taliban, possibly because they feel some sort of connection and shared understanding with Taliban members. This isn’t to say the US should not conduct any operations in Afghanistan for fear of upsetting civilians; only that it should be careful, especially since the president recently committed to loosening civilian oversight over military actions, which would reduce the government’s ability to check back military aggression.

Another step the United States can take to reduce Taliban influence is forcing the government of Pakistan to actively oppose the Taliban. This strategy, which the Trump administration has begun to use, could be very effective, since much of the senior Taliban leadership still resides in Pakistan.[20] The Trump administration’s theory is that if the United States withholds the 255 million dollars per year it offers to Pakistan in military assistance, the US can start to influence their behavior.

Unfortunately, that’s not very much money. For reference, last year’s National League baseball MVP Giancarlo Stanton’s contract is worth 325 million dollars.[21] It is unclear whether or not this strategy will prove effective in the long run. As of November last year, Pakistan had not made any significant changes targeting the Afghan Taliban. Furthermore, as one US general put it, Taliban senior members are living in “comfort with plenty of drug money.”[22]

However, one option still has not been fully explored. Much of the discussion surrounding Afghan security has asked how to “beat” the Taliban and “win” the war. But if two decades of violent counterinsurgent tactics have failed, it may be worth recognizing nonviolent, diplomatic options. As University of Chicago professor Paul Staniland explains, certain powerful insurgent groups simply cannot be beat militarily. Because our military campaign in Afghanistan has failed to defeat the Taliban, Staniland suggests that “crafting local deals and allowing Afghans to construct workable bargains is therefore the best option.”[23] This suggests looking for diplomatic solutions with Taliban leaders, which offer them a certain amount of sovereignty and power but require them to lay down their arms. Fortunately, Afghan president Ashraf Ghani has already started taking steps in the right direction. At the end of February, Ghani offered to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate political group if they agree to commit to a long-term peace deal.[24]

It is uncertain whether this diplomatic approach will succeed, but the United States certainly should endorse it and assist the Afghan government in its negotiations if Taliban leaders do agree to come to the table. It is clear by now that neither side in this conflict will achieve a decisive military victory. In a country that has been overcome by war and instability for the past two decades, it may be time to give diplomacy a chance.

Works Cited

[1] Joseph Hincks, “What to Know About Afghanistan’s Recent Terrorist Attacks,” Time, February 1, 2018,

[2] Ayaz Gul, “Rare Insider Attack Kills 16 Afghan Intelligence Operatives in Helmand,” VOA News, February 11, 2018,

[3] “Why States Fail and How to Rebuild Them,” The Economist, January 7, 2017,

[4] “The History of the Afghanistan War – CBBC Newsround,” March 7, 2012,

[5] Frank Newport, “More Americans Now View Afghanistan War as a Mistake,”, February 19, 2014,

[6] Andrew Rafferty, “The War in Afghanistan: By the Numbers,” NBC News, August 22, 2017,

[7] David Elliott, “Opinion | What Trump Needs to Learn From Vietnam,” The New York Times, September 16, 2017, sec. Opinion,

[8] Ibid.


[10] John Hannah, “Trump’s Afghanistan Strategy Could Actually Work,” Foreign Policy (blog), September 1, 2017,

[11] Jeremy Herb, “Five Key Pieces of Trump’s Afghanistan Plan,” CNN, August 21, 2017,

[12] Gerald F. Hyman, “Trump’s New Afghanistan Strategy Isn’t Really a Strategy,” Text, The National Interest, November 17, 2017,

[13] Elliott 2017

[14] Ibid.

[15] Nick Walsh, “Taliban Control of Afghanistan on the Rise, US Data Reveals,” CNN, January 30, 2018,

[16] Monty Marshall, “Individual Country Regime Trends, 1946-2013,” Center for Systemic Peace, June 6, 2014,

[17] “Afghanistan: Reported US Covert Actions 2017,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, 2018,



[20] Jim Michaels, “Trump’s Pressure on Pakistan Is Major Test of New Strategy to End War in Afghanistan,” USA TODAY, January 4, 2018,

[21] Erik Boland, “Stanton All Smiles at First Yankees News Conference,” Newsday, December 11, 2017,

[22] “No Trump Effect: Taliban Enjoy on Drug Money in Pakistan’s Safe Havens,” The Economic Times, November 29, 2017,

[23] Paul Staniland, “States, Insurgents, and Wartime Political Orders,” Perspectives on Politics 10, no. 2 (2012): 243–64.

[24] “Afghan President Offers to Recognise the Taliban,” Aljazeera, February 12, 2018,