In lower Manhattan, near where twin skyscrapers once towered, stands a bronze statue depicting a modern American serviceman astride a rearing stallion. It is a monument to the so-called Horse Soldiers, elite commandos who were among the first troops into battle during the long, grim war on terrorism. Through them, the statue honors all the Special Operations forces whose service — both overt and covert — has been the tip of the U.S. spear.
The film “12 Strong” depicts the story of the Horse Soldiers as only Hollywood can, and it is a story that needs no exaggeration. Seeking a rapid response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Pentagon and the CIA inserted 12-man teams into northern Afghanistan that October to link up with anti-Taliban warlords. Leveraging U.S. technology and air power (not to mention duffle bags stuffed with cash), the intrepid warriors galvanized a quick victory over the ruling Taliban, which had given safe harbor to al-Qaida terrorists as they plotted and trained.
A quick victory, but not a lasting one, alas.
Audiences made “12 Strong” the No. 2 film at the box office last weekend, and the real-life heroes at the heart of the tale deserve the thanks of a grateful nation. But if those moviegoers were also watching the news, they would have seen images of desperate people on the balconies of Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel, trying to escape from the Taliban gunmen waging a massacre inside.
These clashing realities — America’s ability to drive the Taliban from power alongside our inability to pacify Afghanistan — perfectly sum up the unappealing choices facing President Donald Trump as violence escalates in the nation’s longest war. The U.S. Army is finalizing a proposal to add 1,000 troops to the 14,000 already in the country, and to put those troops closer to the front lines.
When Trump took office, the United States was down to about 8,500 troops and the Taliban controlled about one-third of the country from havens in neighboring Pakistan. The new president was understandably unhappy to find such a robust enemy after more than 15 years of war — years that included the exploits of the Horse Soldiers, the killing of Osama bin Laden and a 33,000-troop “surge” ordered by President Barack Obama in 2009.
Trump showed his frustration this month in a string of tweets complaining about Pakistan’s duplicity in sheltering the Taliban. But he’s unlikely to find any more traction with this slippery frenemy than either Obama or President George W. Bush did. Indeed, he may have even less traction, because while the United States has been playing whack-a-mole in Afghanistan, China has been expanding its sphere of influence. Beijing now stands ready to supply a blanket should Trump try to freeze out Pakistan.
The Army believes an expanded, empowered U.S. force will boost confidence among Afghan government fighters and extend official control from around 66 percent to 80 percent of the countryside. That sounds like progress, I suppose. But it doesn’t sound like an endgame.
Arguably, nothing ever will. Twenty-five centuries of history suggest that Afghanistan is as close to ungovernable, untameable, as any land on Earth. The list of conquerors and imperialists who have come and gone is daunting: from Cyrus the Great, the father of the Persian Empire, to Alexander the Great, to Genghis Khan, and later Queen Victoria. Even Napoleon thought about having a crack at Afghanistan, and maybe it says something about the degree of difficulty that he attempted a winter march on Moscow instead.
It is the fate of that rugged, tough country to lie at the fault line where geopolitical plates collide. Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu and Orthodox Christian cultures press toward its borders; Shiite and Sunni nations wrap it like parentheses. It is somehow too remote to foster development yet too central to ignore. Like the nation’s booming opium crop, Afghanistan is a habit the world can’t shake.
But they say the first step is admitting we have a problem. Trump bills himself as the ultimate straight shooter: Now he has a duty to talk plainly about U.S. goals and expectations for Afghanistan. We’re going to be there indefinitely because the price of leaving is too high. We can’t allow another radical Islamist government to take root and provide sanctuary to violent extremists. So as long as Pakistan and others in that complicated region are fostering the Taliban, we have no choice but to bolster the anti-Taliban forces in the country.
That’s a far cry from winning. But absence of victory is not always a defeat. There is value in making our world a bit safer from day to day and year to year — while Hollywood gives us the occasional happy ending.
David Von Drehle is a Washington Post columnist, where he writes about national affairs and politics from a home base in the Midwest.
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