Nominally, the Senate Armed Services Committee, along with its counterpart in the House of Representatives, provides oversight of U.S. military activities. Yet recently, the committee’s unacknowledged purpose seems to be avoiding the meaningful exercise of this role, especially when it comes to scrutinizing the nation’s commitment to armed conflicts like the ongoing Afghanistan War.
Oversight implies ownership. The Congress of the United States has no desire to own a war that is the longest in U.S. history, grows longer by the day, and shows no sign of ending anytime soon.
This congressional irresponsibility was on display earlier this month, when Gen. John W. Nicholson, U.S. Army, traveled from his headquarters in Kabul to provide senators with a progress report on the Afghanistan War. Such briefings have become a fixture on Washington’s official calendar. By my count, Nicholson is the 12th American officer to be charged with running that war since it began in 2001. He will not be the last.
In his appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Nicholson came across as brisk and no-nonsense, if also stiff and humorless. Yet the proceedings in which he played a central role had the feel of a ritual that continues to be performed long after participants had lost sight of its original purpose or rationale. Like Labor Day honoring laborers. Or Christmas commemorating the birth of Christ.
General Nicholson’s role was to serve as congressional enabler, allowing members of the committee to sustain the pretense that they were doing their duty. He did this by rendering a report that permitted senators to avert their eyes from anything that might require them to critically assess the war’s conduct and prospects.
Words were exchanged, some few actually conveying information. But all participants agreed to steer clear of anything approximating a conclusion.
As if adhering to a script that had circulated in advance, senators did go through the motions of posing questions. Each in turn thanked Nicholson for his many years of service—to include four tours in Afghanistan—and asked him to pass along their warm regards to the troops. Yet each devoted his or her allotted time to sidestepping core issues.
No one pressed Nicholson as the responsible commander to say when the Afghanistan War might actually end and on what terms. No one dared to suggest that there might be something fundamentally amiss with an armed conflict that drags on inconclusively from one decade to the next. All took care to tiptoe around anything that might imply dissatisfaction with the performance of the U.S. military. On both sides of the witness table, politeness prevailed.
Nicholson’s prepared testimony avoided any reference to “victory” as an expected or even plausible outcome. Characterizing the current situation as stalemated, he assured senators that it was “a stalemate where the equilibrium favors the [Afghan] government.” Yet the balance of Nicholson’s presentation offered little to sustain that vaguely hopeful judgment. Take his own assessment at face value and the equilibrium favors a continuation of the existing stalemate.
The fighting ability of Afghan forces is improving, Nicholson insisted, echoing the judgment of predecessors going back a decade or more. Yet all of the old problems were still there: weak Afghan military leadership, tactical ineptitude, and widespread corruption, to include a persistent problem with “ghost soldiers” who are nominally on the roles but don’t actually exist.
Overall, Nicholson offered a glass half-full/half-empty assessment. Good news: large numbers of Taliban, al-Qaeda, and ISIS fighters are being killed, whether in direct combat with Afghan forces or as a result of a U.S.-led counterterrorism campaign. Not so good: Afghan soldiers are also dying in increased numbers and are being replaced only with difficulty. Good news: Afghan troops, supported by U.S. airstrikes, have repeatedly beaten back enemy efforts to seize control of major Afghan cities. Not so good: the percentage of territory controlled by the Taliban is on the rise even as insurgents continue to use neighboring Pakistan as a sanctuary and base of operations.
Ever since Gen. David Petraeus arrived in Baghdad touting the potential of “Clear, Hold, and Build,” it’s become standard practice for commanders to reduce their strategic vision to a sound-bite. Nicholson’s is “hold-fight-disrupt.” Disrupt in no way implies defeat, however. Nicholson’s strategy makes no claim of bringing the war to a successful conclusion. At most, it aims to make the enemy’s life difficult. Committing a “few thousand” additional U.S. troops, which Nicholson is requesting, should do just that.
Yet even if the war’s future course may seem a bit fuzzy, Nicholson left no doubt about its ultimate rationale. Why are U.S. forces still present in this far-off and forlorn nation? “To protect the homeland,” the commanding general stated. Nary a senator ventured a dissenting opinion.
Based on that logic, progress reports on the Afghanistan War will continue for many decades to come.
Andrew J. Bacevich is The American Conservative’s writer-at-large.