We Never Did What Was Necessary in Afghanistan
We lost. It’s painful and infuriating, but a few more troops and a little more time would change nothing.
All of the American angst and blame-gaming associated with the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Taliban’s lightning march to Kabul is the agonized flailing of a people not accustomed to losing wars.
Or rather, those among us who are not accustomed to admitting we lose wars.
It is painful and infuriating to see Afghanistan fall to the very people we went in there to oust. And did oust. It is a country where the United States has spent 20 years, $2.26 trillion and, most importantly, lost more than 2,300 of its bravest and most admirable sons and daughters—with tens of thousands more suffering life-changing physical and psychological injuries.
But it’s important to recognize that we suffer that pain now because we were not willing to do what was necessary to secure a different outcome. Four presidents, 10 congresses, two political parties—all of us.
Two facts put the failure in perspective.
Americans severely underestimated the power of Afghan culture. The notion that the Afghan people would surely embrace democracy and American-style liberties was attractive. This was the 21st century, after all, a time for even Afghanistan, one of the least developed countries on Earth, to join the modern world. That was hubris. To be sure, there are some Afghans we would consider enlightened in this regard. But their numbers are small and did not grow as American planners had hoped.
When I sat as a reporter for Voice of America, a dozen years ago, with a four-star American commander in a far-flung cinder block and stucco desert building with a collection of Afghan tribal sheikhs, we were assured that this was an important moment. The sheikhs were embracing the American presence and would bring their people along. This is what passed as cultural sensitivity. The sheikhs may have genuinely welcomed American money. Who doesn’t want a new well or a satellite phone? They may also have objected to some Taliban excesses and sought to give the mullahs a black eye—a battlefield setback or a loss of face, or both. The sheikhs may even have been willing to stick with us, if that’s the way the wind had continued to blow. But it didn’t.
And that brings us to the second undeniable fact. The United States was never willing to put the resources into Afghanistan that might possibly have held the line long enough for real change to take hold. Even at their highest level, U.S. troop numbers never came close to what our own counterinsurgency doctrine said would have been necessary to secure all corners of the country and deny the Taliban the space to reconstitute and grow.
At the same time, political leadership continually expanded the mission, from defeating the Taliban and eliminating the al-Qaeda threat to the seemingly noble goals of building Afghan security forces, streets, and schools, introducing centralized democracy, and elevating and protecting the rights of Afghan women and children. Much of that was reviled by some American politicians as unnecessary “nation building.” But like on the military side, the numbers spent on those goals also never reached what experts said were required for the mission.
Under those conditions, any successes the United States and its allies achieved in Afghanistan could only be fleeting. The distraction and resource drain of the wars in Iraq from 2003 to 2011, and in Syria, from 2013 through today, did not help, but were not the only factors, probably not even the main ones.
A parade of dedicated and well-meaning U.S. commanders and the patriotic troops who served under them were left to do the best they could. That amounted to a decades-long game of Whack-A-Mole amid a constantly shifting threat profile, changing politics and priorities in Washington, official reports that severely stretched the meaning of “overly optimistic,” and sharply-waning interest and support among the American people and their elected officials in Congress and the White House.
The speed of the Taliban’s advance this month puts the U.S. failure in stark relief. But a few more troops and a little more time, which some continued to call for, would have changed nothing. The best we can do now is being done: an emergency operation to get our diplomats out, and scrambling to save our closest Afghan allies and their families. We may never know what happened to those once cooperative sheikhs.
Could we have succeeded if only we’d done things differently? If only we had sent hundreds of thousands of troops over 10 years or more, along with the casualties and costs that would have entailed? If only we’d had more ambitious goals? Or more modest ones? Repeatedly, our elected leaders answered “no” to those questions. And that was before the Pentagon’s current narrative of “shifting strategic priorities.”
Which brings us back to fact No. 1. Even if we had fully committed to the conflict, could we have convinced a majority of the Afghan people to pivot their culture in any reasonable timeframe to be self-sustaining as an American-style democracy, or anything close to it, with security forces strong enough to protect it? To say yes is more hubris. To say no is to admit the effort was doomed from the start and the withdrawal is long overdue.
There are no grand lessons here, only ones we should have known: be very wary of foreign wars, don’t expect them to be easy, match the resources to the goals, account for the local culture, get out as soon as you can. As obvious as those lessons are, they are equally difficult for the United States to follow.
This is what losing a modern American war looks and feels like. Washington is not burning. Most Americans’ daily lives are not altered. Those are the advantages, and perils, of engaging in war half a world away.
Losing is hard. Heartbreaking. But that’s what happened. We need to admit it, own it, and maybe learn from it. Sadly, that last part is doubtful.
Al Pessin covered the Pentagon from 2005 to 2011 and is the author of the military spy thriller Sandblast, set in Afghanistan, the first of a series from Kensington Publishing.