by Daniel L. Davis
Army Sgt. Maj. James Sartor was killed in action in Afghanistan’s Faryab Province on Saturday. He was “only” the twelfth soldier to die there this year. That makes his death no less inexcusable, no less an unacceptable sacrifice for Washington’s failed foreign policy.
What do we tell Sartor’s family? That he heroically “gave the last full measure” for the defense of our nation? In some conflicts in American history, that might have been true. But in Afghanistan, it is a trite and insulting bromide.
This man, like the eleven that preceded him this year, sacrificed his life in an operation that provided no benefit to our country. America is not safer because of this supreme, excruciatingly painful sacrifice. The truth is that hardly any Americans pay any attention to our war in Afghanistan and fewer still genuinely care that another trooper has tragically been killed.
Instead, the entire burden of the grief—the unquenchable, searing pain of loss—falls to a tiny number of family members and close friends of those who died. My blood boils in anger when I hear—as I have many times—some callously claim, “Hey man, nobody forced them to sign up. They volunteered and knew what they were getting themselves into.” This implies that we service members forfeit the value of our life once we raise our right hand.
I often wonder whether those who make such comments would feel different if it were their cherished son, daughter, husband, or wife whose death was so casually brushed aside. The answer is obvious. And that answer highlights the growing imperative that we should no longer stand for the pointless sacrifice of one more American life in Afghanistan.
U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is feverishly trying to negotiate an end to American military involvement in the war. That means Sartor lost his life while waiting for the order to withdraw. He died without even the pretense that we are there serving a valid military mission, fighting what has been an exercise in arrogant futility since at least the summer of 2002 (outside of the original operation, our objectives have never been militarily achievable).
That should be unconscionable. The lives of the men and women who serve our country in uniform should be treasured to such a degree that they are only asked to risk their lives when our country is in peril—not because Washington has failed to do the hard work of preserving their lives while the end of the mission is being negotiated.
This becomes ever more obvious as the end of the war draws nigh. Khalilzad’s team and the Taliban both report they are shooting for resolution by September 1. There are no more military objectives to reach. Only two questions remain: When the withdrawal will begin and how fast it will occur? Any loss of life is tragic, but in these circumstances especially it would be beyond pointless and heartbreaking should one single more American die during the wrap-up of this disastrous war.
Beginning immediately, President Donald Trump should end routine combat operations in Afghanistan. Unless a direct threat to U.S. security is identified, our troops should not engage any enemy forces, should stop conducting “presence patrols,” and should not participate in any missions outside the wire. Our troops should protect diplomatic personnel and other U.S. personnel, conduct robust force protection operations, and in all cases defend themselves from any attack so long as they are in Afghanistan—but that’s it.
Second, the period of withdrawal set by the U.S.-Taliban talks must be swift. While the foreign-policy establishment insists that pulling out “prematurely” would be a strategic mistake, the claim that any withdrawal pace after eighteen years of perpetual failure could be considered “premature” is laughable.
If an agreement is reached in September, then there is nothing strategic to gain by dragging out our exit schedule over multiple years, as is rumored to be under consideration. An orderly withdrawal could and should be initiated as fast as is practical after the signing of the agreement, and completed in months, not years.
Third, the United States should stand ready to continue diplomatic engagement with all relevant parties and, where it makes sense for American interests, provide economic assistance to Afghanistan for a fixed period. We should not, however, give any more money without stringent conditions, requiring the recipients to meet reasonable performance goals.
If those goals are not met, then we owe it to American service members to hold recipients accountable and cut off further funding. Rewarding broken promises, waste, and incompetence is offensive to the sacrifices of our troops.
Finally, we must openly acknowledge that it is possible that Afghanistan’s civil war, which our attack in October of 2001 interrupted, could resume once our troops withdraw. What must also be acknowledged, however, is that our perpetual military intervention for nearly two decades has not ended the fighting; if we don’t withdraw, then high levels of civilian suffering will likely continue, without relief, into perpetuity.
Too many U.S. military members have sacrificed their lives for no gain to our country, dying in a war that can’t be won by military means. It is time to end this pointless sacrifice of American lives. The time is now./National Interest
Daniel L. Davis is a senior fellow for Defense Priorities and a former lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who retired in 2015 after twenty-one years, including four combat deployments.