- US troops are still fighting in Afghanistan nearly 20 years after first arriving in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.
- The US mission in Afghanistan has gradually expanded over those two decades, but Afghans need to determine their country’s future, according to William Ruger, who was nominated by former President Donald Trump to be US ambassador there.
- “We failed once we expanded the war aims beyond what was both necessary for us and accomplishable,” Ruger told Insider.
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The US war in Afghanistan reached its 19th anniversary in October, with several thousand US troops still on the ground, a presence that has been prolonged by the gradual expansion of the US mission there.
“We’ve actually accomplished quite a bit and … we actually won the war we needed to fight,” William Ruger, vice president for research and policy at the Charles Koch Institute, told Insider in an interview this month.
Ruger took leave from his job as a college professor teaching courses on international security to deploy to Afghanistan as a Navy intelligence officer from 2008 to 2009. A decade later, former President Donald Trump nominated Ruger to be US ambassador there.
The US needed to do three things in Afghanistan, Ruger said: decimate Al Qaeda’s ability to strike the US, punish the Taliban for supporting terrorism against the US, and capture or kill Osama bin Laden.
“We’ve accomplished all three,” Ruger added. “We failed once we expanded the war aims beyond what was both necessary for us and accomplishable.”
The disarray of US efforts to rebuild Afghanistan has been evident in assessments by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, the lead US oversight authority for Afghanistan.
“We found the stabilisation strategy and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context,” read a May 2018 SIGAR report.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan â€” we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a retired Army general who oversaw the Afghan war during the Bush and Obama administrations, told SIGAR in one of many confidential interviews obtained by The Washington Post.
John Sopko, head of SIGAR, has been unsparing in his public comments. The US-led counternarcotics effort in Afghanistan “has just been a total failure,” Sopko said in November 2019, adding that pervasive corruption “is a national security issue” in Afghanistan.
“Afghanistan is a very challenging place,” Ruger told Insider. Even with what the US has committed â€” 775,000 troops deployed, with nearly 24,000 killed or wounded, and nearly $US1 trillion spent since 2001 â€” remaking Afghanistan “was still more than you could ask of us,” Ruger said.
“I think at that point you just have to ask yourself, were those goals required in order to keep us safe and to keep us prosperous?” Ruger added. “I think the answer is no.”
‘One vital interest’
The Trump administration in its final months made progress on extricating the US from the two-decade war. In a February 2020 deal, the US agreed to withdraw its troops within 14 months and the Taliban agreed on steps to prevent terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base.
The US and the Taliban have accused the other of violating that agreement, and Taliban-Afghan government talks that were to follow have stumbled, but the US withdrawal has proceeded, with troop levels dropping to 2,500 in January. (There were also more than 6,000 US citizen contractors in Afghanistan at the end of 2020.)
“Today, the United States is closer than ever to ending nearly two decades of war and welcoming in an Afghan-owned, Afghan-led peace process,” then-Acting Defence Secretary Christopher Miller said on January 15. (That drawdown appears to contravene restrictions that Congress included in the most recent defence spending bill.)
The war and its resolution now loom over President Joe Biden.
Biden has said the US “should bring the vast majority of our troops home from the wars in Afghanistan and the Middle East and narrowly define our mission as defeating al Qaeda and the Islamic State.” But Biden has also suggested that several thousand US troops could remain as a counterterrorism force.
Lloyd Austin, a retired Army general and Biden’s nominee for defence secretary, told senators this week that the administration would “make every effort that we can to ensure” that “this conflict end[s] with a negotiated settlement.”
“This conflict needs to come to an end, and we need to see an agreement reached, and in accordance with what [Biden] wants to see, I think we want to see an Afghanistan in the future that does not present a threat to America,” Austin said.
Ensuring Afghanistan isn’t used as a base for attacks against the US is the “one vital interest” there, “and I don’t believe that that requires a permanent or semi-permanent military presence,” Ruger told Insider.
The counterterrorism mission can be conducted with forces based outside of Afghanistan, argued Ruger, who said keeping troops there would be bad for Biden and for the US.
“If we break the deal with the Taliban, then the Taliban is going to reengage with targeting US forces there. That’s going to lead to more American deaths,” Ruger told Insider. “If Biden breaks the deal with the Taliban and keeps forces in the country, then… he will own the results.”
Ruger’s nomination for ambassador to Afghanistan â€” a job unfilled since January 2020 â€” was announced in September, but Congress didn’t act on it before its session ended on January 3.
Whoever takes that role should focus on supporting the military withdrawal and the talks between the Taliban and Afghan government, Ruger said.
“The future of Afghanistan needs to be determined by Afghans,” Ruger said, pushing back on characterizations of a military withdrawal as “abandoning” Afghanistan. “While we can be supportive,” Ruger added, “we need to start to be approaching Afghanistan in a more normal fashion.”
Even those who acknowledge the need to draw down Middle East conflicts criticised Trump’s hasty attempts to do so, and Ruger said suddenly withdrawing military and financial support from Afghanistan “would be irresponsible and destabilizing.”
Financial aid in particular “is a carrot that we can use in the negotiations,” Ruger told Insider. Afghanistan is “going to have to be weaned off of that to be sustainable, but it shouldn’t be with the snap of our fingers.”
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