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Commentary: Why are we still in Afghanistan?

In this July 24, 2016 file photo, a U.S. military personal stands guard during a graduation ceremony for Afghan troops, in Lashkargah, capital of southern Helmand province, Afghanistan.

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To a generation of younger Americans, waging the War in Afghanistan must seem like one of the things our government does as a matter of course, like collecting taxes or distributing Social Security payments. The vast majority of students graduating from high school this spring have no memory of a time when we weren't fighting in that far away country. And soon enough, some number of them will likely arrive there to continue the campaign.

Donald Trump, in one of his occasional peacenik fits on the campaign trail, expressed enthusiasm for ending the war. Now that he's in office, however, he's mulling another surge of troops to support the beleaguered and hopelessly corrupt government we helped install in Kabul.

The reasons why we should risk more American lives and spend more taxpayer money on such an adventure are, at best, unclear. The arguments for why we shouldn't, on the other hand, are quite obvious.

The first argument is that nobody knows what victory in Afghanistan would even look like. We originally invaded the country in order to remove the Taliban government, which at the time controlled most of the country and provided a safe haven to Osama bin Laden and Al-Qaeda.

Bin Laden is thankfully dead, but Al-Qaeda has moved on to establish safe havens elsewhere, and the Taliban now controls more territory in Afghanistan than at any point before the invasion. ISIS is getting in on the action, too, having claimed a stretch of land along the porous Pakistani border.

Progress is being made, in other words, but not by us. Trump's generals hope he will send an additional 3,000 to 5,000 troops to the country to help remedy the situation. To put that number in perspective, we currently have about 8,400 troops there, down from 100,000 in President Obama's first term.

How such a modest surge would do much to defeat the Taliban, or bring them to the negotiating table, is anyone's guess. Far and away the most likely scenario is that it just prolongs the current stalemate, which at this point seems to be America's only real goal in the country. Defeat may be inevitable, but can be prolonged indefinitely.

Perhaps defeat is too strong a word, because America doesn't lose wars anymore, so much as we just don't win them. Since the end of World War II, we've waged a number of them, but had only one or two clear-cut victories: the 1983 toppling of a Cuban-sponsored junta in Grenada, and perhaps the emancipation of Kosovo from Serbian rule via a brief bombing campaign.

Why is that? Well, it's not for lack of cash. Despite the frequent Republican lament that our military is somehow hobbled by budget cuts, we still spend more on our armed forces than Russia, China, France, India, Great Britain, Israel, Australia, South Korea, Brazil, Iran, Spain, Canada, and Turkey combined.

Proponents of such expenditures often note that this allows the U.S. to garrison its forces worldwide, from Europe to Africa to Asia. That's nice, but you'd think, for all that money spent, we could decisively vanquish enemies like we did when we were a poorer, weaker country. Defense spending gobbles up roughly half of our discretionary budget, so if we're not in the business of winning wars outright anymore, perhaps we should wage fewer of them and spend more of that money on other things.

The rejoinder here is that modern wars can't always be fought to decisive conclusions, but are still worthwhile. The world wars were big conflicts, which we now avoid in part by constantly fighting small ones. If no entity is in a position to pose any kind of real, existential threat to the United States, then the little wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and the rest are a small price to pay.

In reality, the price is quite large. Thousands of Americans have died in our post-9/11 wars, along with hundreds of thousands of the foreign civilians we set out to liberate. In a pure dollar amount, we've sunk more into Afghan reconstruction that we did to rebuild Western Europe after World War II.

For all that, Afghanistan remains a backwards, largely illiterate, and essentially feudal society of competing tribes and Islamist militants with no real central government. Setting up some kind of stable democratic government in Afghanistan was always a transparently fantastical notion, but for all the money spent, it stands to reason that we should expect a little more by way of results.

Yet Afghanistan remains a sideshow, one only rarely talked about on the campaign trail in 2016. The public's focus has long since moved on to other calamities. We've reduced the longest running war in our history to background noise.

This makes sense, to a certain extent, because why would we bother ourselves with a problem with no solution? Leaving now would be traumatic for the national psyche. This is the war we waged to avenge the greatest attack ever launched against us; how can we admit to ourselves that that fight is ending in what could be charitably called a draw?

The other option – a seemingly endless war in a place of limited strategic interest -- is not much better, and in many ways far worse. In a 2015 interview, then-candidate Trump once famously called the war a "mistake." Tellingly, it's one of the few statements he felt compelled to retract under political pressure. Say what you will about women and POWs, Mr. Trump, but never call the Afghan War a mistake.  

In that same interview, Mr. Trump asked how long Washington expected American forces to remain in Afghanistan: "Are they going to be there for the next 200 years? You know, at some point, what's going on?" 

This is still a pressing question. And now that he's president, he has the opportunity to provide us with an answer. 

  • Will Rahn

    Will Rahn is a political correspondent and managing director, politics, for CBS News Digital.