The 2017 Netflix film “War Machine” opens and closes in tragically comedic fashion, with a new commander taking the helm of the American effort in Afghanistan, intent on turning the tides of the longstanding conflict in a way his predecessors proved unable. The beats are the same, the score is the same, and, as the film seems to be suggesting in dramatic fashion, Afghanistan is as well. The movie’s mixed reception among veterans of the conflict notwithstanding, this seeming lack of progress (and more importantly, self-awareness) depicts the frustrations many have had regarding the longstanding conflict. Commanders come in, tout the positive direction the war is moving, and eventually depart, mirroring the statements of previous commanders about how the tides are finally turning.
Now, as another change of command ceremony passes the NATO Resolute Support Mission Commander mantle from Gen. John W. Nicholson to Army Lt. Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, a man that has spent the majority of his career commanding Special Operations troops, some can’t help but point out how life appears to be imitating art, with Nicholson echoing the same sentiments relayed in the months prior to him taking command, and the Pentagon following suit with the same slew of press releases and talking points about progress finally forthcoming in America’s longest conflict. In fact, all of the optimism surrounding this shift to the effort’s ninth commander seems to run counter to events in recent months, with both the Taliban and the Islamic State launching new high profile offensives and claiming hundreds of lives in the effort. In fact, according to the latest Special Investigator General for Afghanistan Reconstruction report, the Afghan government currently controls only a little more than half of the nation, with the rest falling under Taliban rule or considered “contested” space.
Nicholson, however, has been making the media rounds as though he’s taking a victory lap, emphasizing the differences in today’s Afghanistan versus the state of the war-torn nation when he assumed command in 2016. Most notably, a recent three-day cease-fire negotiated by the Afghan and Taliban leadership. According to Nicholson, that small gesture had a reverberating effect through the nation’s population.
“This first ceasefire really unleashed the Afghan people’s desire for peace … on really a national and unprecedented scale,” Nicholson said. “I believe the strategy is working. Within six months, we have two peace offers on the table — an open letter from the Taliban to the American people and [Afghan] President Ghani’s peace offer. There will be ups and downs, there will be leap-a-heads, there will be frustrations, there will be two steps forward one step back from time to time, but the process has started and it wouldn’t have happened without the South Asia strategy.”
That strategy Nicholson mentioned came from the Trump administration, and Nicholson’s eagerness to credit the president with the progress he’s touted has been apparent throughout his press tour. However, as Matthew Cox at Military.com has pointed out before, claiming success in Afghanistan is right around the corner is nothing new for departing commanders or for the Defense Department. In fact, like the satirical film “War Machine,” it seems the cycle simply repeats itself every few years.
Nicholson’s claims of a renewed optimism among the Afghan people were actually echoed precisely by Marine Corps General and now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Joseph Dunford a year ago, before the recent rash of new Taliban offensives.
“I haven’t seen the degree of optimism in Afghanistan prior to this, [and] that includes my entire time there,” he said. In 2011 and 2014, lawmakers and Defense Department officials alike praised the rapid progress being made in Afghanistan, with Gen. David Petraeus even credited for “turning the tide” of the war in the earlier of those command cycles.
There is, however, some signs of legitimate progress out of the embattled nation in recent months. Although a second cease-fire with the Taliban was proposed by the Afghan government and ultimately declined, discussions of a negotiated peace are, for the first time, a common topic of conversation, though that may be credited, in some small part, to a subtle shift in American strategy away from treating the Taliban as a terror organization that needs to be rooted out, and toward acknowledging them as a regional power worthy of negotiating with. Instead of victory in Afghanistan, it would seem the goal has shifted simply to peace.
“We have an unprecedented opportunity for peace now,” Nicholson claimed as he prepared to depart his command. The problem for the American people, however, is that they’ve heard it all before, and for the 15,000 U.S. troops currently deployed there, lofty rhetoric usually means little, and not everyone’s convinced that a three-day cease-fire amounts to the progress that’s being touted.
Former advisor to the commanding general of U.S. Special Operations Forces Afghanistan and current analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Seth Jones, characterizes the situation in Afghanistan rather differently than recent Defense Department press releases.
“At this point, I don’t see the Taliban viewing itself as losing, or even potentially, views the situation as a stalemate right now… I think they believe they are winning. This means they are a lot less desperate for a settlement now than the Afghan government is, or the U.S. is.” He said last week.
It stands to reason that, with such regular claims that victory is approaching, one of these days those claims could ring true. Gen. Scott Miller may indeed finally be the American commander that resides over peace coming to Afghanistan, but amid a flurry of repetitive Pentagon talking points, it’s hard to say how likely that may be.