When major U.S. and coalition operations in Afghanistan began on Oct. 7, 2001, it was for a noble purpose. Less than four weeks earlier — on Sept. 11 — al-Qaida had commandeered four passenger aircraft and used them as guided missiles against civilian targets. When the morning was over, some of America's landmark buildings were destroyed or damaged and the lives nearly 3,000 people were cut short.
The American people wanted revenge — and they were absolutely justified in demanding it. More than 17 years later, approximately 14,000 U.S. troops remain in Afghanistan. What their mission set is remains unclear. Is it defending the homeland from another mass-casualty terrorist attack? Protecting Kabul from being overrun by the Taliban? Building an Afghan government that can sustain itself? U.S. soldiers, trainers and advisers are essentially maintaining a stalemate at a cost of $45 billion a year. The original mission — destroying al-Qaida's terrorist infrastructure, killing Osama bin Laden and punishing the Taliban who hosted him — has devolved into a permanent military mission with no end in sight.
The situation on the ground in Afghanistan has deteriorated into a bloody mess, with the United Nations registering more civilian deaths last year than at any time since records have been kept. Interest payments on the war could total $8 trillion by the 2050s, numbers that would have been laughed off as absurd during the initial planning.
If America's lengthy experience has taught us anything, it's that the U.S. military — as professional and proficient as it is — can only do so much for so long in a country many don't understand. Washington's military engagement in Afghanistan has gone on for such a long time that most Americans checked out years ago.
In my decades of service in the U.S. Air Force, including eight deployments to the CentCom area of operations, I've experienced the frustration with my own eyes. During my service as the vice commander of the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base, I was assigned with the task of helping to create a methodology and overall plan for the Afghan Army Air Corps. The objective was straightforward: establish an Afghan-operated air force that could diminish the Taliban's military power in the field and support its fellow brothers in arms when required. The air corps was to be self-sustaining over time so American airmen could pass the baton to their Afghan colleagues and redeploy. We saw this work as an important step toward Afghanistan's development as an independent country that could defend its people from insurgents and terrorists alike.
Unfortunately, while the objective was straightforward, achieving it was like shooting for the Moon. Thirteen years after my deployment, and $8.4 billion in U.S. taxpayer money later, the Afghan Air Force remains riddled with problems. The United States conducted 6,500 air strike missions on enemy positions last year, nearly five times as many as the Afghans could muster. So many Afghan pilot trainees in the United States have gone AWOL that the Pentagon has terminated the AC-208 and C-208 training program. Corruption infects the Afghan National Security Forces as it does every other institution in the country, including the judicial system and law enforcement. Even the Anti-Corruption Justice Center, responsible for cracking down on illegal influence peddling, has engaged in its fair share of corruption by avoiding prosecutions of high-ranking Afghan officials.
The U.S. military mission in Afghanistan has outlived its usefulness. The task before us now is salvaging a less-than-perfect outcome in Afghanistan for the American people and the Afghan government it supports. Our national security leaders must devote as much focus on how to end this war and remove the U.S. troops from it as they are in killing the Taliban. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad's negotiations with the Taliban ought to be fully supported by the entire inter-agency — even if talking to the enemy leaves a bad taste in our mouths.
We came into Afghanistan seeking to hammer al-Qaida. We stayed and let hubris get in the way of a realistic strategy. Now it's time for our troops to depart with their heads held high.
Maj. Gen. (ret.) Richard S. "Beef" Haddad was the former vice commander, Headquarters Air Force Reserve Command, Robins Air Force Base, Ga., and is now a fellow at the American College of National Security Leaders. He lives in Tampa.