© 2021 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
News Partners

Is The Afghan War Going To Be Another Vietnam For The U.S.?


U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis made an unannounced visit to Afghanistan today. This trip comes just days after a Taliban assault on an Afghan army base killed more than a hundred people. It was the single deadliest attack on the Afghan army since the war began. The Taliban now controls about a third of the country. and the group's influence is spreading. Joining us from our studios in London is Chris Kolenda. He's a former senior adviser to the Defense Department. He worked with top levels of the U.S. military in Afghanistan.

Chris, thanks for being here.

CHRIS KOLENDA: Thanks for having me, Rachel.

MARTIN: So as you know, over the past 15 years, the U.S. has spent, you know, upwards of $70 billion training local security forces in Afghanistan. It clearly hasn't been enough to keep the Taliban at bay. What did that money buy? And was it worth it?

KOLENDA: Well, the problem in Afghanistan is you've got what I call a teetering stalemate. So if you imagine a teeter-totter and you're looking at the teeter-totter and you've got the Afghan government on one side; you've got the Taliban on the other. The - it's a teeter-totter that only has so much play in it. Right? So the Afghan government right now, according to a DOD report, controls about 52 percent of the country. And the Taliban control, as you mentioned, about about a third or so. And the remainder is contested. So maybe the Taliban controlled 20 percent; 20 percent's contested, and then the Afghan government controls about 50, 55 percent or so.

And the challenge that we've got is that neither side is going to win an outright victory. So the teeter-totter is only going to move so much. So you've got a stalemate. And right now, the contest is, who can go into a peace process - that is going to have to happen at some point - with better leverage?

MARTIN: But...

KOLENDA: So we've spent a lot of money in Afghanistan. We've spent...


KOLENDA: ...Over 800 billion, sort of writ large in, you know, all of our taxpayer dollars. And it's been - you've got a government that's kleptocratic. You've got...

MARTIN: Yeah, there's all kinds of corruption problems.

KOLENDA: ...Security forces that have some challenges, sure.

MARTIN: I want to follow up on the metaphor, if I could. A teeter-totter, at best, is an equilibrium - right? So that means - are you suggesting that the Taliban must be a part of a solution?

KOLENDA: Well, I think it's - when you look at just the the realities of things and, as much as I despise the Taliban and what they stand for - I've spent a lot of time fighting the Taliban myself along with my soldiers. The bottom line is that the Afghan government has proved itself unable to take control of area - of territories that have been under Taliban control.


KOLENDA: And they've been unable to seize contested areas. And so you've got to, at some point, face reality.

MARTIN: I want to close just in seconds. Is this a place the U.S. is going to have to keep financially supporting in perpetuity?

KOLENDA: Well, if we - we should do that but only if we have a credible strategy. My advice for the Trump administration - get serious, or get out. With a credible strategy, we ought to continue funding and supporting Afghanistan and bringing the war to a successful conclusion. But if we're not going to have a credible and serious strategy, then it's time to stop bankrolling the place.

MARTIN: And you don't see that yet, that clear strategy.

KOLENDA: No. But fortunately, there is a review going on right now. And I am hopeful that people like Jim Mattis, H.R. McMaster and General Nicholson and others will be able to come up with a whole of government strategy...


KOLENDA: ...That makes sense and brings the war to a successful conclusion.

MARTIN: Chris Kolenda, military adviser, formerly to the Pentagon. Thanks so much for being with us.

KOLENDA: Thanks, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.