“[Y]ou can’t meet a general anywhere in the Pentagon who believes there is a military solution to the Afghan war,” Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.) mused in a recent radio interview. “That’s the main question I harangue them with when they come up to Capitol Hill to testify before our committees: I say, ‘Is there a military solution?’ And they all admit there is none. There’s been mission creep that’s now nation building, but they all admit no military solution.”
So why are we still fighting America’s longest war? Why continue our military intervention in Afghanistan after nearly two decades, when there is no prospect of anything resembling success?
The question becomes all the more pressing given that key players in the Trump administration appear to agree with the Pentagon consensus Paul describes. President Donald Trump himself has repeatedly expressed a desire to end the war, and he ordered a partial reduction in the U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan in December. His current secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, has acknowledged that peace in Afghanistan will have to be achieved via Afghan-led negotiations, not U.S. military action. Former Defense Secretary James Mattis said the same, arguing last year there is no “military victory” available to the United States. Rather, he said, “the victory will be a political reconciliation.”
Paul proposed three explanations for this gap between word and deed. The first is a personnel matter: “The problem is that several of [Trump’s] advisers that he has appointed don’t necessarily agree with him” about getting out of Afghanistan, Paul said. “So they either countermand his sentiments or talk him into delaying actually ending the war.”
Trump’s national security advisers have been particularly pernicious in this regard. First the office was occupied by H.R. McMaster, who endorsed “state-building in places like Afghanistan and Iraq,” and consistently seemed to steer Trump toward unjustifiably aggressive foreign policies. The seat is now filled by John Bolton, whose complete and reckless hawkishness is detailed anew in a lengthy New Yorker profile this week. “Bolton is a hawk,” Trump reportedly said of his adviser shortly before hiring him. “He’s going to get us into a war.” At the very least he’s managed to keep us in half a dozen, and it is unlikely Trump will be able to deliver on his more sensible foreign policy impulses so long as voices like these have his ear.