Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are calling on President Trump to send more troops to Afghanistan, as the top U.S. commander in that country recently recommended while reporting that the war was at a stalemate. The senators wrote in an op-ed in The Washington Post that the Trump administration had to “treat Afghanistan with the same urgency as the fight against the Islamic State, or this stalemate risks sliding into strategic failure.”
It’s not the first time McCain has engaged in magical thinking in lieu of actual proposals. What the senators don’t explain is how the Afghanistan war is not already a strategic failure. They re-iterated that the purpose of the war remained to “prevent terrorists from using the country’s territory to attack our homeland,” and that the U.S. was still there to pursue the perpetrators of the September 11, 2001 attacks and their “ideological heirs.” While they insisted Afghans were “fighting ferociously” against “common enemies,” a continued and intensified U.S. presence was required.
“If you’re just waiting to train the Afghans to be policemen and the military,” Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) told Reason in 2013, “it’s taken 11 years already. You can train a monkey to ride a bicycle in less time.”
Most of the identified perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks in Al-Qaeda have been killed in the last 15 years. The fighters in Afghanistan today are of a different generation, one that grew up knowing only that the U.S. has occupied their country since the start of the 21st century. The median age in Afghanistan is 18 and a half, too young to remember 9/11. The vast majority of Afghans have no idea what 9/11 was.
Moreover, since the passage of the post-9/11 authorization for the use of military force in 2001 and the concomitant war on terror, there are more territories around the world from which terrorists can launch attacks on U.S. countries, much of it in countries like Iraq, Yemen, and Libya destabilized thanks to interventions by the U.S. and its allies.
McCain and Graham mention the presence of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Afghanistan too, but don’t consider how the sustained U.S. presence in Afghanistan contributed to this reality. Instead, they complain about reports that Russia and Iran are assisting the Taliban. The article they cite report that Russia is allegedly aiding the Taliban in order to contain ISIS in Afghanistan—the Russian government says it has been in contact with the Taliban to broker a peace deal. Instability in Afghanistan affects Russia and Iran a lot more than the U.S. After 9/11, the Iranian government reportedly offered help in the fight against Al-Qaeda. The U.S. spent the next decade destabilizing both of Iran’s neighbors, Afghanistan and Iraq, and even creating new safe spaces for terrorists in the latter that did not exist before the U.S. invasion.
The two senators should not be surprised by the allegations about Russia—viewing the Taliban as preferable to ISIS is not an irrational position, especially in world capitals closer to Afghanistan than Washington. In Yemen, Saudi intervention in the civil war there, against rebels allegedly supported by Iran has created new safe havens for Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which the U.S. has long maintained is planning attacks on the U.S. homeland. The same proponents of a more aggressive war on terror view Saudi Arabia, which has also for decades funded radical Islamist movements, as an ally, Russia as a would-be villain, and Iran as an arch-nemesis.
Donald Trump’s praise of the authoritarian Vladimir Putin has not, as yet, translated into an effort at more dialogue about issues like Afghanistan. And while Trump has not ripped up the Iran nuclear deal as many other Republican presidential hopefuls promised to do, neither has he indicated in any way that more dialogue with Iran is possible. Instead, Saudi Arabia, the country whose actions have helped Al-Qaeda grow in Yemen and whose alliance with the U.S. Trump wasn’t afraid to question during the campaign, is getting more weapons. Trump has so far appeared deferential to military decision-makers, so a marked troop increase with a wider remit seems likely. But perhaps, given his year-plus-long feuding with McCain, Trump might consider McCain and Graham’s arguments in The Washington Post and how they represent the interventionist line of thinking he often rejected on the campaign trail, and rethink an approach to the war on terror that’s pretty McCainian so far.