The United States originally sent troops to Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001, in order to capture Osama bin Laden and topple the Taliban government, which had refused to give bin Laden up. But bin Laden is now dead–that’s D-E-A-D, dead–as are most of his close associates. So, the original rationale that took the United States into the heart of Central Asia is now irrelevant.
Unfortunately, the United States and its allies also decided the time was ripe to turn Afghanistan into some sort of Western-style liberal democracy, despite its lack of democratic traditions, deep internal divisions, high levels of illiteracy, poverty, interfering neighbors, and other significant obstacles. And Washington has been pursuing that elusive grail ever since, with about as much success as you’d expect.
At last count, that war has cost the United States more than a trillion dollars, and it is still costing American taxpayers some $45 billion per year. More than 2,400 U.S. soldiers have been killed and thousands more wounded, along with hundreds of contractors and coalition partners and thousands of Afghan civilians, soldiers, and police.
Today, the Taliban control more territory than at any time since they were ousted from power. Opium production is at an all-time high as well, despite the billions of dollars the United States has spent on various eradication plans. The Afghan government remains irredeemably corrupt, internally divided, and ineffective. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction have documented the remarkably low payoff received for all the US investment. Numerous aid projects ended up over budget or unfinished, with vast sums disappearing into the black hole of Afghan corruption.
Wars like this continue in part because 1) no one wants to fess up and admit the United States is not omnipotent, 2) they are being fought by volunteers rather than draftees, 3) U.S. casualty rates are now quite low, and 4) because it is easy to get distracted by Trump’s latest outrage and forget about a distant war that is rarely mentioned on radio or TV and is mostly confined to the back pages of the newspaper. And so, the war drones on, no pun intended, with little hope of either victory or withdrawal.