TAMPA — U.S. Central Command directs military operations in Afghanistan out of MacDill Air Force Base, guiding the troops — including men and women from the Tampa Bay area — who have fought the nation’s longest war.
Now, peace negotiations are resuming with the Taliban militants whom the United States first set out to depose and a new account of insider interviews in the Washington Post drives home the futility of a campaign that seems to have lacked a consistent strategy.
Eighteen years after the invasion of Afghanistan, the same question faces people touched by the war in Tampa and nationwide: What now?
To many, the answer seems no clearer than it has ever been.
“We want to make it simple, but it’s not simple,” said former CentCom commander William Fallon.
To Fallon, the Trump administration’s move to prioritize a peace settlement with the Taliban amounts to the latest example in a long history of bureaucrats chasing the wrong solution to a problem that grows more complicated as it drags on.
During his yearlong tenure at CentCom, ending in March 2008, the retired Navy admiral said he faced pushback from both the U.S. and Afghan governments over approaches he sought to pursue. Strategies and policies from on high were inconsistent, Fallon told the Tampa Bay Times, and even attention to Afghanistan came and went.
Among those who have been in the trenches of the war, there is conflict over what to do next.
The nonprofit Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America polled its members earlier this year and found that among 1,600 respondents, 57 percent agreed the conflict should end immediately. Yet 51 percent disagreed with the idea that the United States should pursue a peace deal with the Taliban.
For the United States to end its intervention in Afghanistan, consistency is key — now as it has always been, said Laurel Miller, director of the Asia Program at the International Crisis Group headquartered in Belgium.
A peace settlement has come and gone as a goal in U.S. policy for some time, Miller said. What’s new with the approach of the Trump administration is prioritizing a settlement above all other options.
But for such a measure to work, the United States must demonstrate a consistent commitment to negotiations, Miller said. When talks about a partial removal of U.S. troops on the ground were close to fruition earlier this year, President Donald Trump pulled the plug because of a deadly car bombing carried out by the Taliban.
The history of the Afghanistan conflict is full of pivots in strategy — a pattern revealed in new detail by the Post’s publication of hindsight interviews with U.S. diplomats and military leaders conducted by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Miller pointed to a pattern of failure to match policy and strategy with realistic analysis and expectations.
One example: Eliminating corruption in Afghanistan emerged as a priority in the U.S. counterinsurgency plan even though such a goal was never realistic, Miller added.
There were small and significant successes along the way, said Lindsay Rodman, executive vice president of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America who served as a Marine in Afghanistan. Rodman, based in New York, cited the opening of a women’s clinic as an example.
But they never added up to a cohesive strategy, she said: “The mission has been confusing over time."
Today the Department of Defense points to Trump’s South Asia Strategy which includes a political settlement in lieu of a battlefield victory.
“We remain in Afghanistan to protect our national interests and ensure that Afghanistan is never again used as a safe haven for terrorists who threaten the United States,” Lt. Col. Thomas Campbell, a Department of Defense spokesman, said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times.
A peace settlement with the Taliban isn’t the only option but may be the only realistic one, said James Dobbins, a former U.S. diplomat and current senior fellow at the California based RAND Corp. think tank.
Dobbins, quoted in the report by the Post, identified the two alternatives in an interview with the Times: Push for victory in war or withdraw all remaining troops and create a humanitarian crisis in the region.
Former President George W. Bush had no interest in negotiating with the Taliban while his successor President Barack Obama agreed to open talks but only with the involvement of the Afghan government.
Trump has shown a willingness to reach an interim agreement with the Taliban separately, setting the stage for possible integration later between the Taliban and the government, Dobbins said.
But the latest push for a final settlement faces its own risks from new complications.
Afghanistan is still awaiting the results of an election two months ago and the question of whether Trump stays the course with negotiations remains up for debate — especially after a Taliban attack Wednesday on a medical center attached to the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan.