US soldiers hook up a M777A2 howitzer to a CH-47 Chinook helicopter to be airlifted to Kandahar Airfield in Afghanistan. Credit: U.S. Army photo by Mark Doran.

After the 9/11 attacks, I spoke to a European friend on the phone, we were still trying to gather our senses after what had just happened.

At that time, he said something prophetic.

He said, “America will likely go mad for 20 years after this.”

Well, well … it’s now 20 years later, and, as my friend predicted, the US is now looking at pulling out of Afghanistan.

After trillions of dollars have been spent, countries invaded, hundreds of thousands of innocent people killed, plus numerous military casualties.

So what has been achieved? I mean, really achieved?

According to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army General Mark Milley, a stalemate between the Taliban and Kabul government forces, and a “modicum of success” after nearly 20 years of working to establish a stable democracy in Afghanistan.

Speaking to reporters in a virtual discussion with the Brookings Institution, Milley also said US forces in Afghanistan have begun a planned drawdown of troops from 4,500 to 2,500 by Jan. 15 under orders from President Donald Trump, Military.com reported.

But final decisions on the continuing presence there, Milley added, were up to the incoming Biden administration.

Army Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, and Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, have also submitted plans to Acting Defense Secretary Christopher C. Miller for closing bases and repositioning the troops who will remain, Military.com reported.

“We’re in the process of executing [the drawdown] right now. That’s happening as we speak,” Milley said.

Even as Milley spoke, however, there were renewed signs of hope amid the carnage: reports emerged Wednesday that the two sides had agreed on rules for negotiation, marking the end of a months-long impasse, Military.com reported.

Another goal of the US has been “to ensure that Afghanistan never again became a platform for a terroristic strike against the United States,” Milley said. “To a large measure, at least to date, we have been successful in preventing that from happening again.”

That much is largely true, but as the Soviets found out after their Afghanistan debacle, toward the end, they literally only had control of a few blocks of downtown Kabul, the rest was a veritable no man’s land, and that has pretty much not changed.

Attacks have killed more than 50 people in the capital Kabul in recent weeks, including two assaults on educational centres and a rocket attack.

The three Kabul attacks were claimed by the armed group ISIL (ISIS), but Afghan officials blamed the Taliban — which has denied any involvement.

What Milley didn’t say, is that the shifting policy in the White House has played havoc among US commanders in Afghanistan, who continued to tell Washington that an end to the conflict was in sight …if only.

In fact, the war in Afghanistan, as the Quincy’s Institute’s Adam Weinstein describes it, was always “the Rubik’s cube” of conflicts, National Interest reported.

The military, Weinstein argues, believed that given just a bit more time and a few more resources “they could make all the squares line up perfectly, and it never quite happened.”

That remains true, even now, as the military consistently argues against getting out of a conflict that, given just a bit more time and a few more resources, might somehow be ended.

The trouble is that it’s not clear that the military itself actually believes that.

“It’s like the prisoner’s dilemma,” Weinstein says. “No one wants to be the first one to say, ‘you know, this isn’t working. Let’s get out.’ They’re military officers. It’s not good for your career to say that something can’t be done.”

Milley did not give specifics on how many troops have already left Afghanistan or whether they would be home for Christmas, Military.com reported.

He said planning for the reduction of the US troop presence in Iraq from about 3,000 to 2.500 by Jan. 15 is also now underway.

Remaining troops in Iraq, he said, would likely be there indefinitely under agreements with the Baghdad government to continue the train, advise and assist mission to prevent a resurgence of the Islamic State, Military.com reported.

In addition, Milley appeared to confirm recent reports that Trump wanted the estimated 800 US troops in Somalia to be withdrawn before he leaves office.

The US troop presence in Somalia was the subject “of an ongoing debate right this minute,” Milley said. “We’re taking a hard look at repositioning the force,” he said, to allow for continuing counter-terror operations against al-Shabaab insurgents, Military.com reported.

Milley had previously voiced concerns that spilled over into an unusual public spat with White House National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien in October over the pace of the drawdown.

However, he said the acting defense secretary had given initial approval to the department’s plans to close a number of bases to align with the reduced US military presence.

He said that the priorities for federal spending would — and should — be focused on recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, jump-starting the economy and shoring up education, Military.com reported.

“We do cost an enormous amount of money for the American taxpayer,” Milley said of defense budgets now in the range of about US$740 billion.

If the budget increased in real teams at the rate of 3-5% in the coming years, as the military would prefer, it would soon be at US$1 trillion, he said.

“We’ve got to do a quick reality check,” Milley said.