The war isn’t over, but we’re leaving. Two full decades after the terrorist attacks on 9/11, the United States is withdrawing from Afghanistan. How did we get here, what can we learn and as the issue progresses, what should we be reading on the conflict?
Lessons from Imperial Hubris
In confidence typical of the early post-Cold War era, we strode into Afghanistan with little to no context, thinking we could make the world anew. But Afghanistan was not a blank slate. American soldiers marched into cities that were ancient when Alexander the Great invaded and rode into battle where Genghis Khan conquered.
20 years later, 2400 American deaths and over 20,000 American wounded, what did we get for our naive optimism?
Not very much as it turned out. The 2020 Afghanistan Study report listed our objectives as the killing of Osama bin Laden, the dismantling of Al Qaeda, the defeat of the Taliban and the establishment of a stable, democratic Afghanistan.
While batting .250 may be respectable in the MLB, it doesn’t do much for a national security strategy. While bin Laden has shuffled off his mortal coil with assistance from the US Navy SEALs, al Qaeda remains an incredibly effective terrorist organization, to say nothing of the persistence of jihadist violence across the world. The Taliban is not defeated but is barnstorming across the country and is poised to retake all of its lost territory. Lastly, the Afghan government is teetering on the edge of collapse, largely due to its total inability to deliver basic governance. As the United States leaves, what lessons can be garnered from our Afghan misadventure?
The first problem was that America lacked any historical context. Jeffery Roberts in his Origins of the War in Afghanistan explained how the American government had no personnel in the State or Defense Department with any knowledge about Afghanistan whatsoever. With the exception of employees at the CIA left over from 1980s, the United States was totally unprepared to deal with Afghanistan as it actually is. To give you an idea of how clownish this became, two months into our war in Afghanistan, Donald Rumsfeld had to ask what languages were even spoken there. I really can’t stress how incredibly wild that is. A politics graduate of one of America’s elite institutions, a former military officer, Secretary of Defense in the late 1970s and US Envoy to the Middle East in the 1980s couldn’t be relied upon to guess that Persian is the lingua franca of Central Asia.
As a result of our own ignorance, we careened from one mistake to another. For instance, the Afghan War Papers reveal that information on the ground was manipulated to meet officials’ expectations. As a result decision makers mislead the American people for years while the war was being derailed. Had the government read its history before we invaded, someone may have learned the story of Sir Alexander Burnes. Sir Alexander was Britain’s eyes and ears inside Afghanistan and had tried convince them that then ruler of of Afghanistan, Dost Muhammad Khan, was not a threat to British India at all. Instead, Sir Alexander’s reports were filtered through authorities who were supporters of the exiled Shah Shuja. As a result Britain became embroiled in not one but three Anglo-Afghan wars, resulting in their ultimate defeat.
Knowing Afghan history would’ve helped policymakers avoid similar mistakes of becoming too attached to various factions, all too willing to sell us a particular narrative. In 2002, the US walked into yet another unforced error as it purposefully blocked the imminent return of Zahir Shah to power (the second great-grandnephew of Dost Muhammad Khan), a massively popular man who had the support of most assembled Afghan leaders. Zahir Shah’s reign was remembered as a time of relative security before his removal eventually brought in the Soviet Union, rise of Islamist warlords, and then the Taliban. Instead the US became enamored with another leader, Hamid Karzai, forcing the king to step aside. The Karzai administration became a blatantly corrupt sore on Afghan politics, eventually leading to the situation we face today.
Secondly, the United States couldn’t focus on a single issue and commit to that objective. Again the Afghan War Papers provided invaluable insight into how completely incompetent the war effort was from the start.
Some U.S. officials wanted to use the war to turn Afghanistan into a democracy. Others wanted to transform Afghan culture and elevate women’s rights. Still, others wanted to reshape the regional balance of power among Pakistan, India, Iran and Russia.
Thirdly, the United States had known more about the region, we would’ve known there was always a limited amount of success we could look forward to. Pakistan was always going to be a serious problem given their interest in keeping Afghanistan weak, ensuring India wouldn’t get involved and maintaining predominance over the region. Even former defense secretary Robert Gates admitted that after our initial disruption of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, we should’ve left. The eternal temptation of American foreign policy is to pretend there is always a military solution, which results in the military to be used for problems it was never designed for. If we realized that there were possibilities for modest gains instead of trying to transform the region, Afghanistan would likely be a far better place.
Lastly, if the United States is going to commit to a strategy, we need to be honest with ourselves with its cost and our willingness to seriously dedicate ourselves to said strategy. From the earliest days in Afghanistan, the United States wanted it both ways. It wanted a “light footprint” but expected this leaner force to execute an expansive list of responsibilities. By 2005 the Bush administration realized it would have to adopt a more holistic, counter-insurgency approach in Afghanistan if it was going to permanently ensure the Taliban would not return. However by then they had already started the war in Iraq, reducing the Afghan war effort to second fiddle. We repeated this mistake of imprecision during the Obama administration. Rather than simply leave or actually commit to COIN strategy to build on what gains we had, Obama opted for the worst of both worlds. We would “surge” but without enough troops while simultaneously signaling to the Taliban we were looking for the exits. Combined with a corrupt client state and an untouchable haven for the enemy, our non-strategy turned out as well as could be predicted.
The defeat in Afghanistan has been a disaster. Thousands of lives were lost, the country remains largely in the same position it was in back in 1996 (if not worse) and the effect on America’s domestic politics has been toxic. However if we can take lessons from it, perhaps it will not totally be in vain. If America can learn the value of investing in real intelligence, the limits of military power, and keeping our missions tailored to actually achievable interests, then perhaps we can avoid the next Afghanistan.
While our most direct involvement, the war in Afghanistan will still dominate the headlines as it continues to rage without us. Naturally there are some
Thomas Barfield is a great academic who does an admirable job giving the reader a quick tour of Afghanistan in general. Dated to 2009, a lot of the book’s coverage of current events is way before a lot of major developments in the Obama administration and Trump administration, to say nothing of the Biden withdrawal. But if Afghanistan seems a bit like a hazy maze even after the last 20 years, it’s a great introduction to a very old, very interesting part of the world.
Like many Americans, Afghanistan seemed to be a place that manifested out of smoke on September 11th 2001. For those older than millennials or zoomers, there may have been vague recollection of the mujahideen fighting the Soviets (does anyone remember Rambo III being dedicated to the Afghan fighters?). Coll gives an extremely exciting account of American involvement in Afghanistan decades before 9/11, warts and all. One its most telling anecdotes is when the CIA was trying to buy back its unused Stinger missiles from former mujahideen during the Afghan civil war. They actually had to ask Ahmad Shah Massoud how many Stingers they actually gave to him as they themselves had no idea. The book ends powerfully when a rising Popalzai anti-Taliban leader, Hamid Karzai was told on September 10th that Massoud had been assassinated by al Qaeda the day before. Karzai was quoted the day before 9/11,
“What an unlucky country.”
3. Understanding War in Afghanistan
If you really don’t want to do any deep dive, this book is only 159 pages and is freely available online. Collins is an expert from the National Defense University and does a great job laying out the people and history of Afghanistan, how we got to the 2001 invasion, and how the war went sideways. Collins lists three main factors. First, Pakistan was never going to be a serious partner, making any counter-Taliban effort impossible. Secondly, the Bush administration took our eye off the ball with the invasion of Iraq, stripping resources. Thirdly, when faced when a choice to either leave or double down with a new, population-centric strategy to turn the war around, Obama chose the middle way, lengthening the war while signaling to the Taliban it was winning.
This book is great if you would like to spend more time in depth on Afghan history. You really do get a sense of how long Afghan history stretches. For all the horrors of the last 40 something odd years, one hopes that Afghanistan will outlast this new rise of the Taliban.
Written by a former Royal Afghan Army officer, anti-Soviet mujahid and now colonel in the Afghan National Army, it gives a unique insight into the dynamics at play in Afghanistan. Now that the United States has definitively lost in Afghanistan, there is the usual “blame-storming” going around. One of the self serving narratives was that the “war was always unwinnable,” that Afghanistan is the “graveyard of empires,” that the United States could never hope to bring peace in a “primitive, tribal Bronze Age Society.” Col. Jalali refutes all these self serving myths. In reality Afghanistan was a slowly modernizing Central Asian, Islamic society, ripped to pieces by the communist coup in the 1970s, then the Soviet invasion with the ensuing Islamist insurgency. If any Afghan adult remembers a time of peace, they were likely born in the 1960s at the latest.
Jalali recounts the war was not entirely a lost cause. The United States instead, at every important juncture, chose the worst possible strategy.
If anyone wants to read superb writing on South Asia, William Dalrymple is your man. It’s a fascinating read of the development of the first Anglo-Afghan War and the repeated British failures there. Interestingly enough, the British suffered a humiliating defeat not because they destined to or because they needed to but because there was a massive rift in the internal channels of communication. Had London listened to British intelligence on the ground (Sir Alexander Burnes a Victorian Renaissance man, brilliantly sketched by Dalrymple), they could’ve secured the frontier of British India against potential Russian influence for free. Instead they stoked their own worst fears, invaded to prop up the exiled Shah Shuja and the rest is history.
6. Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, & Fundamentalism in Central Asia
While I’ve been raving about each of these books, this was by far one of the most fast-paced and gripping ones I’ve read about Afghanistan. What’s astonishing and depressing about it (I somewhat unwisely read it on a plane, complete with a massive picture of a turbaned, bearded Taliban commander wielding an AK-47 on the cover) is the first edition is written before September 11th 2001. I kept racing to the end wondering what Rashid would say about 9/11, Osama bin Laden and the American invasion. As I got to the last pages, I had to check the publication date (an impulse buy on my part to be honest). All of this was before 9/11. It’s not as if America wasn’t aware Afghanistan existed or had no history. For some reason the US can’t seem to retain any institutional memory from administration to administration or rely on any people with any actual knowledge.
The main takeaway from Rashid’s book is quite simple: the Taliban will not moderate. Period. It is hard for modern people living in the developed world, but they really do believe in what they say. They genuinely do believe in the Deobandi Islamist program they preach. Their rise from a student militia in the 1990s to governing the entire country, to them, verifies their God-ordained mission. Even when the weight of the entire developed world asked them to budge one single bit, they refused. Any policy based around convincing the core of the Taliban to negotiate (with who? The Kabul government who is losing or NATO who is leaving?) was, is and will be a failure.