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Opinion | Scott Gilmore

A zombie war in Afghanistan

Afghan security personnel arrive at the site of a motorcycle bomb explosion in front of the Jami Mosque in Herat on June 6. HOSHANG HASHIMI/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

“We are not winning in Afghanistan right now. And we will correct this as soon as possible,” Secretary of Defense James Mattis told lawmarkers in Washington this past week.

No, we won’t. The White House this week decided to allow the Pentagon to set its own troop levels to get the job done. But it won’t matter.

We have lost the war in Afghanistan. In fact, we lost it years ago, perhaps as far back as the spring of 2006, when the Taliban were able to relaunch their insurgency in earnest. Every year since America and its allies have pretended that not only was the war not lost, but that we were in fact just about to win it.

Just drop a few more bombs. Build a few more schools. Deploy a few more troops. We tried that and more — again and again. Year after year.


Victory never came. So we just declared victory, announcing the end of the “mission” in 2014.

But the war didn’t die. It kept marching on. There are 13,500 coalition troops in Afghanistan, of whom 9,800 are from the United States. This does not even include the thousands deployed in the region, in dozens of military bases that support the mission.

Soon, people born before the Afghan War even began will be old enough to enlist in the US Army.

American allies have dwindled as the years rolled by. One by one they have quietly reduce their troop levels, pulled back to Kabul, or withdrawn completely, citing budget constraints or domestic political pressure. Some have just declared their particular mission a success, and gone home. But there are few real successes to be seen.

Harvard economist Linda Bilmes tried to calculate the total cost of the post-9/11 wars to American taxpayers. She concluded that when you took into account “long-term medical care and disability compensation for service members. . . military replenishment and social and economic costs,” the total was at least $4 trillion.

That is the annual federal budget of the United States. It is eight times larger than the entire inflation-adjusted budget for the moon landings. It would cover all the healthcare costs of every single American for over a year.


There have been 2,399 American deaths in Afghanistan since 2001. And that is only a small fraction of the full price in human lives. The Watson Institute at Brown University calculates that there have been 104,000 fatalities during this time, of which 31,000 were civilians.

The strategic price was steep too. The Pentagon and State Department have used up countless IOUs with allied nations, as they spent years going from capital to capital begging and cajoling for more coalition troops or larger aid programs. A network of regional support bases do not come free either. They make local rivalries and conflicts, like the one we saw recently between Saudi Arabia and Qatar, America’s problem too.

What has this incredible investment in lives, dollars and political capital purchased? The Taliban now control more territory than they have at any time since 2001. Al Qaeda continues to operate in Afghanistan. ISIS is now there as well. In Kabul the embassies, government ministries, and aid agencies are forced to hide behind massive blast walls. On the other side, Afghans are terrorized by truck bombs. One recent explosion killed over 150 people right in the center of the city.

It is time to truly leave Afghanistan. It is time to pull coalition forces out, to bring back the trainers and to leave Afghanistan to the Afghans. We have to accept defeat.


What will the country look like when we finally leave? Sadly, very similar to what it looked like on Sept. 10, 2001. The government will control the capital and a few of the larger cities. Rebel forces will hold or at least threaten the rest. The ragged democracy will be replaced by less fair but probably more stable tribal politics. Governors and warlords will carve out spheres of influence, as will regional powers like Iran, Pakistan, and India.

After a full pullout Washington will no longer need to beg and bribe Islamabad to stop funding the Taliban. And the Pentagon will still have more than enough assets in the region to attack terrorist camps. Aid dollars will be freed up and could be redirected to fight malaria or tuberulosis — not an insurgency.

Ending the war in Afghanistan will likely mean more suffering for the Afghan people who will continue to endure poverty and corruption. They will still be abused by Afghan forces on both sides of the conflict. Their loss is heartbreaking and sickening to those of us who were deployed or worked in Afghanistan, or to those of us who lost loved ones.

There is not going to be a happy ending — more years won’t change that. There are limits to the use of military power. Diplomacy won’t solve every problem. Aid dollars can’t buy peace. Nations are not built, at least not by outsiders. These are the basic truths that cost us and the Afghans so much to learn. It is time finally accepted them and brought this zombie war to an end.


Scott Gilmore is a former Canadian diplomat and aid worker who worked in and focused on Afghanistan for more than a decade. Follow him at @scott_gilmore