Yesterday, on October 7, the longest war in America's history, the war in Afghanistan, turned 16.
"On my orders, the United States military has begun strikes against al-Qaida terrorist training camps and military installations of the Taliban regime in Afghanistan," President George W. Bush said in a televised address to the nation from the White House Treaty Room on Oct. 7, 2001.
During those 16 years, the war has gotten a nickname, as wars do. This one is now known as The Forever War, and recent decisions by President Trump and his Defense Secretary Gen. Jim Mattis assure that this war will continue indefinitely. Many of us have put it out of mind, or forgotten about it, or grown weary of it. It's become for most Americans a kind of abstract thing, like white noise.
But for Colorado Springs, this war is personal. Our military editor Tom Roeder just reported that up to 6,000 of the troops that have been committed by President Donald Trump to a new surge of U.S. forces in Afghanistan will be coming from Fort Carson. In other words, we have skin in the game. Our adopted sons and daughters are soon headed to a war that has been going on longer than Vietnam, longer than World War II, longer than the Revolutionary War that created our country.
The deployment was confirmed by Patrick Murphy, who was the Obama administration's top Army civilian leader, during a recent speech at Fort Carson.
Murphy said the Fort Carson troops will head to the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, an area that has been repeatedly pacified by American forces only to return to insurgent hands.
Mattis confirmed last week the new Pentagon strategy will move U.S. troops, which means Fort Carson troops, closer to the front lines in an effort to increase the effectiveness of Afghan troops fighting the Taliban. The goal is no longer to eliminate the Taliban with U.S. troops, but to force them to the table to negotiate a political end to the war.
"Make no mistake, this is combat duty, but the Afghan forces remain in the lead for the fighting," Mattis told the Senate Armed Services Committee. He outlined a plan to allow U.S. troops to go on offensive missions, not just provide advice. They can call in airstrikes if need be. In other words, the war could very well ramp up in intensity again.
This plan has no end date, a deliberate strategy which is meant to telegraph to the Taliban that they can't just wait until the U.S. pulls out. "We intend to drive fence-sitters and those who will see that we're not quitting this fight to reconcile with the Afghan government," Mattis said.
That also means that our troops could be there for a while, that the longest war in U.S. history is open-ended.
So where are we after 16 years of war? Three presidents now have tried to grapple with the fight there, in a place known as The Graveyard of Empires. Nearly every war strategy in the book has been tried. How will our new strategy, this new surge, using our sons and neighbors, bring us closer to an end?
President Trump has promised to push authority for fighting the war out of Washington to the front-line troops. "Micromanagement from Washington, D.C., does not win battles," Trump said in announcing the new surge. "They are won in the field drawing upon the judgment and expertise of wartime commanders and front-line soldiers acting in real time - with real authority - and with a clear mission to defeat the enemy."
"Our troops will fight to win," he said. "From now on, victory will have a clear definition: attacking our enemies, obliterating ISIS, crushing al-Qaida, preventing the Taliban from taking over the country and stopping mass terror attacks against Americans before they emerge."
A clear mission is more important than anything, and the means and opportunity for soldiers to accomplish that mission. But read between the lines and our troops are not being asked to beat the Taliban militarily, only to prevent them from taking over the country. This is a kind of stalemate strategy where we hope, by military action, to bring the Taliban to a negotiating table. We're sending our soldiers over not to "win," exactly, but to create conditions for a peace negotiation.
It's difficult, while watching Ken Burns' wrenching documentary on the Vietnam War, not to see parallels in the Vietnam strategy and the Afghanistan strategy. Years after Vietnam, McGeorge Bundy, President Johnson's national security adviser during the war, told a biographer that he had personally approved a strategy that used just enough military pressure to achieve a battlefield stalemate, which "would eventually compel the Vietnamese Communists to compromise their objectives, forcing them to the negotiating table." But the Vietnamese never intended to negotiate because they figured they could eventually wait us out. Which they did,
Bundy told his biographer that there was a lesson to be taken away from the Vietnam War. "We ought not to ever be in a position where we are deciding, or undertaking to decide, or even trying to influence the internal power structure" of another country.
Should we be asking if that lesson is applicable to Afghanistan? We are sending Fort Carson troops over to Afghanistan not to "win" a war militarily, but to force a political solution.
It's vital that our troops understand the limits they are under, and the risks of such a strategy. What they need is mission they can complete, and a war they can end.
Our soldiers will go and fight unquestioningly, do whatever they are asked because that is what soldiers do. But for us here in Colorado Springs, this war cannot be a faraway, forgotten thing. The burden is on us as a community, as journalists, politicians, concerned citizens, pastors, fathers and mothers and sisters and brothers, to, more than anything, pay attention. To hold our decision makers accountable for the lives of our best and bravest, to make sure our politicians and generals treat every decision they make as a life or death decision, to ask them to make those decisions as if it were their own sons and daughters in those battles.
More than 2,300 American soldiers have given their lives in this war. The people we see in the bank and at the grocery story are now the ones being asked to finish it. They are flesh and blood, not chess pieces, and their lives and deaths are our lives and deaths. We have skin in the game. Let's never let Washington forget that.