A child waits with her family to board a C-17 Globemaster lll, Aug. 22, 2021, at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, after being evacuated from Afghanistan.

A child waits with her family to board a C-17 Globemaster lll, Aug. 22, 2021, at Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, after being evacuated from Afghanistan. U.S. Air Force / Airman 1st Class Kylie Barrow

What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?

The next decade will produce many studies to answer that question, but here is a preliminary answer from a long-term Afghanistan watcher.

Just 20 years after its own regime collapsed, a reinvigorated Taliban defeated a U.S.-trained and supported Army and police force that once numbered over 330,000 personnel. With $88 billion in U.S. security assistance, the Afghan army and police led the fight for seven hard years and lost 66,000 uniformed personnel, considerably more than the United States lost in Vietnam. In the end, however, Afghan security forces and the Kabul government collapsed under significant Taliban pressure and perceived U.S. abandonment. What went wrong in Afghanistan? “Plenty” is the short answer, but it took 20 years of mistakes—two decades of mistakes—Afghan and coalition—to create the defeat and debacle that played out in Kabul in the past few weeks.

Each of the U.S. presidents made serious errors. For the first 16 years of its commitment, despite tremendous spending and effort, the United States and its coalition partners were “muddling through” in Afghanistan. President George W. Bush took his eye off the war in Afghanistan and focused on Iraq. He expanded the mission from counterterrorism to nation-building but failed to address adequately the growth of the Taliban power. President Barack Obama surged U.S. forces to over 100,000 but, against military advice, reduced it over five years from over 100,000 to 8,400 troops, even as the Taliban gained strength. 

The next two presidents favored full military withdrawal, but in pursuing that goal, they broke faith with our allies. President Donald J. Trump increased forces briefly, but then pushed aside our allies, negotiated directly with the enemy, and agreed, without a ceasefire or significant Taliban concessions, to withdraw all U.S. forces by May 2021. His successor, President Joseph R. Biden, against Defense and State Department advice, doubled down on the Trump policy, further alienating Kabul and our coalition partners. Miscalculations and missteps ultimately found U.S. and coalition forces conducting an evacuation from a Kabul airport whose outside gates were controlled by the Taliban. 

President Biden also decided to conduct the withdrawal during August at the height of the traditional fighting season. Washington’s declarations of unending support to Kabul faded as Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the last warfighting commander left the country, the embassy lowered its flag, and U.S. forces stealthily abandoned Bagram, once synonymous with U.S. strength and commitment. Lacking internal and international support, the hard-pressed Afghan forces and the Kabul government fell apart, allowing the rapid, often unopposed advance of the Taliban forces. 

In every administration, choices have consequences. Nearly 2,500 dead American service members, 66,000 dead Afghan soldiers and police officers, and a trillion dollars of U.S. expenditures were counted on the road to this defeat. Valiant actions by our men and women in uniform allowed for the evacuation of 6,000 Americans and 117,000 Afghan partners by Aug. 30, but in the process, thirteen service members and over 170 Afghans were killed by an ISIS-K suicide bomber. 

What were the major factors that brought about defeat and the demise of the government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan? First, the Afghan government was ineffective and corrupt. The more the allies pumped resources into the country, the more money flowed to corrupt entities. The coalition’s inability to control narcotics production yielded up to a billion dollars per year to the Taliban. Even the Army and police—fighting for their lives—were steeped in corruption and cronyism. Support from the center to fielded forces was never adequate. 

Second, the United States never achieved an effective strategy. Afghanistan was often an afterthought to other policies, like the war in Iraq. U.S. officials often sugarcoated the situation in Afghanistan for a public which never cared much for the commitment. In the end, Presidents Trump and Biden negotiated with the enemy and broke faith with our hard-pressed allies. We created the sense of abandonment that in the end contributed mightily to the disintegration of Afghan forces and government.

Third, the arch-villain of this tale is Pakistan. Our alleged “major non-NATO ally” created the Taliban, advised it, nurtured it, brought it back to life, and provided a secure sanctuary for the Taliban. This safe haven made effective counterinsurgency nearly impossible. Exploiting its role as a nuclear power essential to our supply lines to Afghanistan, the Pakistani generals successfully played a double game. With a goal of blocking Indian influence, Pakistan supported the Taliban while posing as our ally in the war on terror. It was highly symbolic that Osama bin Laden lived for years within the shadow of Pakistan’s version of West Point. 

The Taliban’s victory is a triumph of Pakistani treachery. Support for Islamist radicals, however, poses a great risk to Pakistan’s generals and their subordinate politicians. If Islamist militants can take down a state backed by a superpower, they may well believe that Pakistan is easy pickings. 

Fourth, we developed an Army and a police force in the American mold. It was not well suited to its mission and required a great deal of logistical support. It relied on allied air support. On the ground, battlefield performance was spotty, except for the Afghan commando units, trained and advised by coalition special operators. When the Afghans took over the fight in 2014, the coalition was well into reducing its support and advice to frontline Afghan units. 

Our attempts to build an Afghan Air Force were slow to start and never rose above inadequate. Despite many valorous Afghan airmen, when the U.S. pulled out its maintenance contractors, the 200 aircraft of the Afghan Air force were virtually grounded. More than 40 Afghan aircraft were flown to Uzbekistan. In the end, thousands of vehicles and tens of thousands of armaments fell into Taliban hands. 

Finally, the Taliban was a strong opponent to the Kabul government. Animated by Islamist fervor and Afghan xenophobia, the various Taliban groups fought well and were less corrupt than the local government entities. As in many insurgencies, government forces rarely matched the morale and esprit of the Taliban, which was well financed by criminal activities and backed by Pakistan. While we owned all the computers and modern means of communication, the Taliban’s message, closely tied to local conditions and backed by swift “justice” won the day.

In the end, we sought to prevent Afghanistan from once again becoming a terrorist safe haven that could threaten the United States. We left behind a country that has both an ISIS-K problem and as many as 500 al Qaeda members, still allied with the Taliban. One must be skeptical that so much evil will be confined to Afghanistan. Today, the Taliban is talking a progressive line, but the tentacles of the Haqqani network and the ignorance of the frontline commanders are much in evidence. Dizzy with success, the Taliban has not even produced an outline of the emirate’s governing structure. Thousands of Americans and sympathetic Afghans were left behind in the evacuation and could become hostages to the Taliban regime, which, of course, is promising freedom to travel and emigrate after the Americans leave. 

Constitutional government and coalition-sponsored advances in education, health care, and human rights are in jeopardy. At the same time, the Taliban will learn that the nation that they conquered in 2021 is not the same one that they left two decades ago. Half of the population is under 25 years of age. They don’t remember the first Taliban regime and may well become a resistant element to rule by sharia law. The long war for Afghanistan’s future that began in 1978 continues. Its character will be shaped by decisions made in Kabul, the region, and among the great powers. Without a doubt, Afghanistan and its people will pay a high price for this tragic defeat and the collapse of its republic.

Joseph J. Collins is a retired Army colonel and a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Stability Operations (2001-2004).