American soldiers in Kandahar, 2014

DoD photo by Spc. Ariel Solomon, U.S. Army

Is the War in Afghanistan Winnable?

For 17 years, the United States has had troops fighting in Afghanistan. The war there began in October 2001, just after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S. The goal was to oust the repressive Taliban regime, which had allowed the terrorists who planned 9/11 to operate freely out of the country. The conflict in Afghanistan is now the longest in our nation’s history, and President Trump has increased the number of troops on the ground in Afghanistan as part of an effort to stabilize the country. The Trump administration is also trying to launch negotiations with the Taliban in an effort to end the conflict. Two experts—one from a public policy think tank that favors international cooperation and the other an academic expert on international politics—disagree about whether American goals in Afghanistan are achievable.

Jim McMahon

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the United States quickly toppled Afghanistan’s Taliban regime, which had harbored the terrorists responsible.

Unfortunately, in the years that followed, the U.S. didn’t devote enough resources to the war in Afghanistan, and the Taliban were able to regain strength. As a result, Afghanistan remains wracked by violence, even as important political achievements have occurred.

Stability in Afghanistan remains important to U.S. interests, and we can achieve that. But we can’t do it alone. The Afghan government must convince the Afghan people that their best hope for the future lies not with the Taliban but with a central government in Kabul that addresses their needs.

We can and must succeed in Afghanistan to ensure security at home.

We’ve already made huge strides. While the Taliban and other extremist groups continue to carry out high-profile attacks, these are essentially acts of desperation, as their control remains limited to rural regions and their leaders remain outside of Afghan territory. Unlike under the brutal era of Taliban rule, Afghans are free to choose their leaders. In many parts of the country, women and girls have rights that in the past they could only dream of. Millions of children unable to attend school during the era of Taliban rule now have hope for the future. American troops and involvement have been key to these successes, and if we remain focused on our mission in Afghanistan, more progress will follow.

On the flip side, the risks of a hasty American withdrawal are clear. One need look no further than the damage done by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, which led to the rise of ISIS and eventual attacks on the U.S. homeland. In Afghanistan, the stakes are high. The U.S. presence there is essential to ensuring that terrorists don’t use the country as a safe haven from which to attack us, as they did during the 1990s and on 9/11.  

As the U.S. continues to support an often struggling Afghan government, the task appears difficult, but we can and must succeed in Afghanistan to ensure security here at home.


German Marshall Fund of the United States

Afghanistan: By the Numbers

$1 trillion

ESTIMATED COST of the Afghanistan war by October 2019.

Source: Anthony Cordesman at The Center for Strategic and International Studies


NUMBER of U.S. troops killed in Afghanistan since
the war began.

Source: Department of Defense, as of Dec. 3, 2018.


NUMBER of U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan. That’s down from a high of almost 100,000 in 2010.

Source: Department of Defense

Despite 17 years of American involvement, the war in Afghanistan is essentially a civil war, and for this reason, it’s not winnable.

Most civil wars are neither won nor lost. Rather than having a decisive outcome, they’re usually ended by a negotiated settlement or a cease-fire. When the fighting is stopped in this inconclusive way, the conflicts tend to reignite years later, sometimes becoming even more violent than they were before. This is what has happened in Afghanistan for decades: Since 1963, the country has repeatedly lapsed into civil wars. The United States is heavily involved in the current one.

In addition to this history that makes it unlikely this war can be won, Afghanistan is vulnerable to ongoing conflict for another simple statistical reason: It’s one of the poorest countries in the world, and lack of economic development makes countries susceptible to civil war.

This is essentially a civil war that the U.S. has gotten deeply involved in.

There are also regional forces that are preventing the U.S. and the Afghan government from defeating the Taliban. Neighboring countries such as Pakistan continue to stoke the conflict to advance their own interests. For example, Pakistan allows Taliban fighters to use its territory along the Afghan border as a safe haven to retreat to when they’re being pursued by American forces. Until that border is secured—and even if Pakistan were willing, it probably wouldn’t be able to—the war will be unwinnable.

The other factor in this conflict is that it can’t be resolved by an outsider. Two superpowers—the Soviet Union in the 1980s and the U.S. since the 9/11 terrorist attacks—have tried to impose their will on Afghanistan. Both have failed, because Afghans refuse to be governed by foreigners.

Once the U.S. leaves Afghanistan, it’s inevitable that the Taliban will consolidate their control over the country. The best the United States can hope for is that when that Taliban-led government collapses—which I believe is also inevitable within a few years—whatever new Afghan government replaces it is stable and effective.


Prof. of International Politics Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

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