We shouldn’t be in Afghanistan. It is the longest war in America’s history, and no one can fully articulate why we are still sending young men to die in a country known as the Graveyard of Empires. Harrowing images like the one at the top of this story of Sergeant First Class Alvaro Barrientos are a reminder of the true costs of this aimless war. Our initial invasion made sense: we were attacked, and so we were launching a counter-attack against a regime harboring our enemies. Now, our presence there is a symbol of the United States’ commitment to the constant and rudderless ideology that is the War on Terror. Perpetual warfare has no end goal, as the entire point is to play a game of whack a mole—targeting bad guys and supposed bad guys in an effort that doesn’t really benefit anyone other than the War Machine.
But we are in Afghanistan, and we are ratcheting up this forever war under the Trump administration. If we are going to fight there, we may as well do everything we can to make the effort worthwhile, and Trump just made our fight even more difficult.
The Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence is our ally—but not our friend—and they have been courting Jihadists to battle our empire in their backyard, while simultaneously providing logistical support to our military. To call this relationship complicated would be an understatement of epic proportions. Our alliance with a country that harbors some of the most anti-American sentiment on the planet creates friction at nearly every turn. However, despite this entire mess, we still desperately need Pakistan. Here's why.
The routes to get troops and supplies in to Afghanistan are all unfavorable. To the west lies Iran, the south Pakistan, and former Soviet republics to the north. For the first seven years of the war, nearly all equipment was shipped to the port in Karachi, Pakistan. The military lost as much as 15% of its supplies here due to ambushes and theft. When President Obama ordered a surge of troops in to Afghanistan, the military created a different supply route called the Northern Distribution Network.
It is constituted mainly by rail lines which begin in the major Baltic ports in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and they travel through Russia and down in to Afghanistan. However, only nonlethal equipment was initially allowed on this supply line, which made Pakistan the only game in town as far as getting our soldiers the weapons they need to fight a war that has proven to be unwinnable. In 2009, Russia allowed U.S. troops and weapons to use the country's airspace to reach Afghanistan, but the rail lines remained limited to nonlethal equipment. On top of all this madness, the northern supply route costs two or three times as much as shipping them by sea to Pakistan. We're paying a premium to use a non-ally's assistance in order to avoid using our ally.
Again—we shouldn't be in Afghanistan—as the unadulterated mess that I touched on in the previous paragraphs demonstrate. But we are, so we should commit to providing our troops with the best support possible. Slashing funding to a military who has been providing us safe passage in to Afghanistan does not help our effort, and it squeezes our limited supply routes even further. There are no reports that Pakistan is going to retaliate yet, but cutting hundreds of millions of dollars out of an agreement will never affect only one side. There will be some sort of pushback. Pakistan does a lot to fund terrorist groups in the region, so any agreement with them effectively helps fund our enemies too—but it's better than the alternative—where Pakistan stops dealing to both sides and only fuels the Jihadist fire raging against our troops in harms way.
Pakistan's foreign ministry criticized this move, saying that “arbitrary deadlines, unilateral pronouncements and shifting goalposts are counterproductive in addressing common threats.” Despite the ISI's support of Jihadist militants as a bulwark against countries like the United States and India, terrorism has largely affected the Pakistani people the most. There is a sincere effort on the part of Pakistan to curb this violence, but given the corrupt nature of this nuclear-armed regime (another complicating factor to this gigantic mess), their priorities run in to each other quite often.
It's understandable to want to try to do something to push the ISI towards their better angels, but we're making threats from a position of weakness. Sure, Pakistan needs our military support, but money and weapons can come from anywhere. Supply routes are fixed. They have a kind of leverage that we simply don't.
Again, if you’re skeptical of my argument that we need Pakistan to succeed in Afghanistan (whatever that means), that’s simply an argument to get the hell out of Afghanistan (I’d also love to hear how we will get weapons in to Afghanistan without using Pakistan—given that our agreement with Russia ensures no weapons can travel on that rail line, and Iran, well, that’s a pipe dream). We’re providing military aid to a regime who provides military aid to Jihadists, and in return, they ensure us safe passage to fight some of those Jihadists. Alternative routes cost two or three times as much as shipping to the port in Karachi, and at the very least, this move by Trump will likely increase the monetary cost of our aimless war. This is all such an illogical quagmire that you almost wonder if this is all by design, as our set-up in Afghanistan practically guarantees perpetual warfare, enriching the military industrial complex while ensuring misery across the region.
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.