There is no prospect for any kind of American victory in the war against the Afghan Taliban that would correspond to what U.S. officials have been promising throughout the 17-year struggle. As if any rational observer needed further evidence of this fundamental reality, the Taliban a week ago attacked the strategic city of Ghazni, located barely 100 miles from the Afghan capital of Kabul, and laid waste to major parts of it. The insurgents killed dozens of Afghan soldiers and police officials, seized strategic points in the city, and cut the central artery between Kabul and important southern regions.

In reporting on this turn of events, reporter Mujib Mashal of The New York Times wrote, “The Ghazni assault has demonstrated a stunning display of Taliban tenacity that belies the official Afghan and U.S. narrative of progress in the war….” The Wall Street Journal dispatch, by three reporters filing from Kabul, put it similarly, saying the the drawn-out confrontation, “requiring at least 1,500 government forces backed with U.S. firepower to put down a far smaller and more lightly armed number of insurgents,” has “cast doubt over the progress of the U.S. military in building security forces in Afghanistan.”  

According to reports, some 1,000 Taliban and assorted insurgent allies stormed the city and killed some 100 Afghan combatants as well as about 20 civilians. The Times quoted an Afghan military spokesman as saying the insurgents had been cleared from the main part of Ghazni, but added that fighting had continued for a fifth straight day and that hundreds of bodies were strewn about the streets and in the Ghazni River. As one local man told The Wall Street Journal, “The city stinks of human remains. People are traumatized.”

Another verdict on prospects for U.S. victory was issued over the weekend when the Times Magazine published an excerpt from a new book by C.J. Chivers, The Fighters: Americans in Combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. Those failed campaigns, suggested the author, have “left a generation of soldiers with little to fight for but one another.” He ticks off the many benefits and goals envisioned by the architects of these wars. America’s armed forces were supposed to, he says,

satisfy justice, displace tyrants, keep violence away from Western soil, spread democracy, foster development, prevent sectarian war, protect populations, reduce corruption, bolster women’s rights, decrease the international heroin trade, check the influence of extreme religious ideology, create Iraqi and Afghan security forces that would be law-abiding and competent and finally build nations that might peacefully stand on their own in a global world, all while discouraging other would-be despots and terrorists.

Aside from displacing a few tyrants and killing Osama bin Laden, writes Chivers, “none of this turned out as pitched.”

And yet the United States still seems as committed to this folly as ever, perhaps more so as dodging defeat becomes more and more imperative for the officials who perpetrated the war in the first place. But there can be no dodging the inescapable reality that, after 17 years, we have very little to show for our efforts. The United States has 14,000 troops in the country today, mostly advisors and airstrike personnel. At one point, under President Obama, there were 100,000 troops there. The number never seems to affect the trajectory of events.

When Obama, early in December 2009, sent 30,000 new troops to Afghanistan to get to that 100,000 soldier deployment, he said the mission would be to “target the insurgency and secure key population centers.” He told cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point that “I owe you a mission that is clearly defined, and worthy of your service.” Yet here we are, eight years later, with the key population center of Ghazni hardly secure and a mission that remains ill-defined and unworthy of the sacrifice of America’s military.

Obama added back then that U.S. troops “will increase our ability to train competent Afghan Security Forces, and to partner with them so that more Afghans can get into the fight. And they will help create the conditions for the United States to transfer responsibility to the Afghans.” How is that working out?

The New York Times filed a report the other day by Najim Rahim and Rod Nordland from Masar-e-Sharif, Afghanistan, about the obliteration of Company A, 6th Battalion, 1st Brigade, part of the Afghan National Army’s 209th Corps. It operated in Ghormach district, described by the reporters as a longtime Taliban stronghold in northern Faryab province. After an intense three-day attack on the unit’s outpost, it had lost nearly half of its 106 soldiers, including 21 dead and 33 wounded. Some 15 border policemen based there were also killed. Within a day, the rest evaporated—casting down their weapons, deserting their positions, and surrendering to the insurgents.

“Desertion is rife from the Afghan military,” reported the Times, adding that the most recent figures pegged the desertion rate at 30 percent a year. The paper said that, in the case of Company A, delays in getting U.S. air cover to the beleaguered troops contributed to the unit’s rapid evaporation.

What will it take to wake up U.S. leaders to the reality that this is a fool’s errand? America, it seems, has become inured to endless war fought in distant corners of the globe without any discernible prospect for anything that could be defined as success. Chivers points out that more than three million uniformed Americans have served in Afghanistan and Iraq. More than 7,000 have been killed. Tens of thousands have been wounded, many grievously. Experts peg the total cost of the Afghan and Iraq wars as reaching well into the trillions of dollars.

And yet the American war machine keeps rolling along, year after year. As Chivers writes, “The policies that sent these men and women abroad, with their emphasis on military action and their visions of reordering nations and cultures, have not succeeded. It is beyond honest dispute that the wars did not achieve what their organizers promised, no matter the party in power or the generals in command.”

Just so. Afghanistan will go its own way, as it has for centuries past. Not a single further American life should be expended in behalf of this flimsy cause.

Robert W. Merry, longtime Washington, D.C. journalist and publishing executive, is a writer-at-large for The American Conservative. His latest book is President McKinley: Architect of the American Century.