“The very presence of Americans in Afghanistan trod on what it meant to be Afghan. Any Afghan government, however good, however democratic, was going to be imperiled as long as it was aligned with the United States.”
By Carter Malkasian
Final Chapter “Looking Back” – From his book “The American War in Afghanistan : A History”
Donald Trump lost the White House to Joseph Biden in the November 2020 presidential elections. The new year opened to a new policy debate in Washington over what to do in Afghanistan. Trump had left Biden with the unenviable choice of following through with the May 1 deadline amid a stalled peace process or staying in Afghanistan in an unending and escalating war.
At the height of the pandemic, more Americans were dying per day than had died on September 11.
Another event had impacted the war as well. Days after the signing of the US-Taliban agreement on February 29, 2020, the coronavirus pandemic had struck the United States, Afghanistan, and the entire world. The ensuing crisis locked down the United States in quarantine and absorbed the attentions of Trump and most other US leaders. The coronavirus altered America’s outlook on the war. Between February and the end of 2020, 350,000 Americans died from the virus. The possible losses from a terrorist attack paled in comparison. At the height of the pandemic, more Americans were dying per day than had died on September 11. The US economy entered its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s, worse than the 2008–2009 recession that Obama had managed. To save the economy, Trump and Congress passed an unprecedented $2 trillion relief package. The importance of Afghanistan as a US interest decreased. The pandemic further tempted Trump to get out of Afghanistan in order to save money and to prevent troops from dying of coronavirus. Officials reported to the press in late April, “Trump complains almost daily that US troops are still in Afghanistan and are now vulnerable to the pandemic.” Upon assuming office, Biden faced the same challenges. He had to energize the government campaign to counter the pandemic, distribute vaccinations, and push forward another $1.9 trillion in spending to help the economy.
Biden had long been opposed to the war, somewhat viscerally after years of seeing American fallen and wounded. As much as his instincts told him to withdraw, senior officials described him as torn. He was said to be concerned about terrorist threats and to have described the possible collapse of Afghanistan as “haunting.” During his presidential campaign, he had spoken of leaving a small number of forces for counterterrorism. Others in his administration worried about what would happen to women. Biden wisely waited and gave time for deliberations. The passing weeks clarified the damage Trump had inflicted on the peace process and difficulties of waging a war with only 2,500 troops on the ground. After a series of discussion with his principal cabinet members and advisors, Biden followed his instincts and decided to go out the door that Trump’s agreement with the Taliban for a May 1 withdrawal had opened.
On April 14, 2021, President Biden announced that US military forces would begin their final withdrawal before May 1 and complete it by September 11 of that year. He said terrorism was no longer a major threat from Afghanistan, “Our presence in Afghanistan should be focused on the reason we went in the first place, to ensure Afghanistan would not be used as a base from which to attack our homeland again. We did that. We accomplished that objective.” The changing strategic environment underpinned the decision: “Rather than return to war with the Taliban, we have to focus on the challenges that are in front of us . . . We have . . . to meet the stiff competition . . . from an increasingly assertive China . . . We have to defeat this pandemic and strengthen global health systems to prepare for the next one because there will be another pandemic.” America’s war in Afghanistan was at a close.
Scott Miller, the most skilled general of the Afghan War, oversaw the withdrawal and was the last commander of US forces in Afghanistan. General Joseph Dunford had retired in October 2020. General Mark Milley, a three-time Afghanistan veteran, succeeded him. Dunford’s strategy of staying in Afghanistan with as few forces as possible—“term life insurance”—had won out in practice over six years, up until February 2020, even when official strategy envisioned withdrawal, military victory, or peace talks. His strength as a strategist was in never getting carried away. Obstacles to victory and to withdrawal stood out to him. Wisdom entertained dreams of neither. He focused on the central US interest— protecting the United States from terrorist attacks—with the minimum of forces. He kept the main thing the main thing. The rest of the list of America’s Afghanistan generals also faded away—Stanley McChrystal as a business consultant, John Allen as the US envoy to fighting the Islamic State, David Petraeus as a fallen hero. Karl Eikenberry had perhaps the most satisfying retirement as a scholar at Stanford, eased by the fact that time had borne out many of his predictions.
On the Afghan side, Ghani started his second term, now with greater authority over the powers of the presidency but confronting peril without America. He was outshone by Karzai. Surveys showed that his popularity far exceeded Ghani’s. Karzai had brought Afghans together under his “big tent,” minded the perils of foreign intervention, protected the innocent, and dedicated himself to peace. In the eyes of the Afghan people, he was a kingly figure. “People trust in Karzai. Regardless if weak or poor. He has great influence.” said Maryam Durrani.2 As much as he grated on Americans with his harsh criticism, Karzai was actually good for US interests. After 2019, Karzai continued to campaign for peace, with one eye on again playing a leading role in the fate of Afghanistan.
Two decades of reform for women had brought progress yet oppression continued.
Life for women between 2001 and 2021 had begun with great hope and ended with trepidation. Shukria Barakzai convalesced in Norway for years. Fawzia Koofi and Maulali Ishaqzai campaigned on for their peoples, Koofi undeterred by a minor injury in an ambush outside Kabul while serving as a member of Afghanistan’s negotiating team. Two decades of reform for women had brought progress yet oppression continued. Diminishing American influence and the possible return of the Taliban threatened everything that had been gained.
On the other side of the hill, Taliban rule was steady. Having consolidated power, Haybatullah reigned as emir. Rivalries within the Taliban were minor. Sirajuddin, leader of the Haqqani network, also remained. Government losses of senior leaders—Omar Jan, Gul Mullah, Mullah Naqib, Abdul Razziq, and many, many more— were less than the Taliban’s toll—Osmani, Dadullah Lang, Abdul Salam, Abdur Rahim Manan, and Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, not to mention the natural deaths of Mullah Obaidullah and Mullah Omar. One of the few original leaders to survive it all, the charismatic Mullah Baradar, resided in Doha, talking to diplomats and Khalilzad who were trying to energize peace talks.
Al-Qa‘eda, the group that had incited all this misery, barely survived, its grayed leader Ayman al-Zawahiri in permanent hiding. The organization had been shredded in the maelstrom it had unleashed and ultimately surpassed by the Islamic State, the more extreme version of itself. Violence begat violence. Extremism begat extremism.
- 2,488 US troops died;
- 20,722 were wounded.
- Afghan casualties are unknown.
- Half a million dead and wounded is probably conservative.
- Over 65,000 police and soldiers were killed;
- at least another 135,000 were injured.
- Taliban casualties were probably greater: roughly 100,000 killed and 150,000 injured.
- The civilian toll was more than 120,000 killed and wounded.
- Hundreds of thousands more became refugees or internally displaced within Afghanistan.
- At the height of the war in 2015, more than 1,170,000 people had fled their homes.
The Afghan War is the longest in American history, at nearly 20 years, almost six years longer than Vietnam. In total, 2,488 US troops died; 20,722 were wounded. Afghan casualties are unknown. Half a million dead and wounded is probably conservative. Over 65,000 police and soldiers were killed; at least another 135,000 were injured. Taliban casualties were probably greater: roughly 100,000 killed and 150,000 injured. The civilian toll was more than 120,000 killed and wounded. Hundreds of thousands more became refugees or internally displaced within Afghanistan. At the height of the war in 2015, more than 1,170,000 people had fled their homes.
America’s war was part of a larger period of revolutionary change engulfing Afghanistan. Since 1978, civil war had afflicted Afghanistan. No stable rule had been accepted. Other than short breaks in the fighting, Afghans had not known peace. Over America’s involvement, the civil war extended to 40 years in length, a great gash across Afghanistan’s history. Never before had the country been unable to rule itself or faced violence for so long.
Without the consensus-minded Karzai, competing factions lacked an avenue to share power in an effective manner. The product was a weak declining democracy.
Islamic rule retrenched alongside democracy. Outside the cities, Taliban values, organization, and unity proved enduring. Their justice appealed to those oppressed, their order to those tired of violence, their piety to all Afghans. Girded by their notions of unity and Afghan identity, the Taliban surmounted two leadership transitions and the rise of the Islamic State.
In the course of America’s war, Afghanistan witnessed wide-ranging social and political change. The country enjoyed a bout of reconstruction. Renewed violence tarnished the results but improvements were real. Foreign assistance paved roads, opened schools and clinics, ushered in a vibrant free press, and granted women greater rights and representation than ever before. The average child in 2013 was likely to receive ten years of schooling, compared to six in 2001. Life expectancy rose from 56 to 65 years of age between 2001 and 2018. Perhaps the biggest social change was the acceleration of urbanization. Millions migrated to Jalalabad, Kandahar, Mazar-e-Sharif, and Herat. Kabul swelled to 5 million people. With urban growth came a new class of educated young people. And the country experienced its first democracy. Four presidential and three parliamentary elections established something of a precedent of voting and peaceful transition of power. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad liked to say “Afghanistan’s encounter with the United States has been extremely beneficial.” The flaw was Afghan democracy’s centralization of power into the hands of the president. Without the consensus-minded Karzai, competing factions lacked an avenue to share power in an effective manner. The product was a weak declining democracy.
The Taliban were the most powerful political force in Afghanistan, the most successful Islamic movement in the country’s history. Never before had an Islamic movement had such a long-standing and dominant political role.
Islamic rule retrenched alongside democracy. Outside the cities, Taliban values, organization, and unity proved enduring. Their justice appealed to those oppressed, their order to those tired of violence, their piety to all Afghans. Girded by their notions of unity and Afghan identity, the Taliban surmounted two leadership transitions and the rise of the Islamic State. The Taliban were the most powerful political force in Afghanistan, the most successful Islamic movement in the country’s history. Never before had an Islamic movement had such a long-standing and dominant political role.
“Islam migrates better than honor or nationality. As a transportable system of belief and practice whose locus is personal faith and worship, it can be adapted to a variety of contexts and situations.”
Afghanistan cleaved into an urban democracy and a rural Islamic order. Democracy appears to have had the harder go of it. By 2016, violence had risen to a level that portended the return of the dark times of the early 1990s. For many, the Taliban again seemed the only salvation, bringing to mind an insight from David Edwards’s Heroes of the Age: “Islam migrates better than honor or nationality. As a transportable system of belief and practice whose locus is personal faith and worship, it can be adapted to a variety of contexts and situations.”
The Taliban’s order had a dark side: a deepening of extremism. In 2001, Afghanistan was a haven for external terrorist groups. Afghans themselves were more conservative than extremist. As war heated up, Afghans changed. The Taliban summoned forth thousands of Afghan suicide bombers. The tactic victimized Afghanistan’s youth, devalued life, and became an engine of violence. In this atmosphere, Afghanistan opened itself to the Islamic State, which glorified more brutal forms of extremism and spread into urban youth formerly interested in democracy.
The war affected the United States as well. Its military changed dramatically. The green if well-trained peacetime force of 2001 transformed into battle-tested echelons on indefinite combat duty. By 2014, army and marine infantry officers and senior enlisted as a rule had multiple tours in Afghanistan under their belts. A whole new set of capabilities—counterterrorism tactics, surveillance and intelligence techniques, drone strikes, and advising—became ingrained. Special operations forces— whether Ranger, Delta Force, SEAL, or Green Beret—were lionized as the best an American warrior could be. Along with experience came the pain of post-traumatic stress and tens of thousands of wounded veterans.
In terms of foreign policy, Afghanistan, along with Iraq, convinced the American people and their leaders to shun large-scale interventions. The disappointment and expense of the Afghan surge did it more than anything else. After 2011, presidents and generals refused to send large numbers of troops into conflicts. American foreign policy ambitions receded. The idea of building democracies and changing regimes fell dead. President Obama and then President Trump shifted to a more isolationist foreign policy.
The cost of the war from 2001 to 2019 was nearly $1 trillion, funds that might otherwise have been spent to modernize the US military or invest in research and development.
By 2016, the US military was trying to focus on larger-scale wars and innovation. Russia and China were rising threats. Secretary James Mattis’s 2017 National Defense Strategy recognized that the US military’s edge was dulling. Mattis reprioritized maintaining an advantage in “great power competition” over fighting terrorists. The never-ending Afghan War had diverted military assets from preparing for great power competition. The cost of the war from 2001 to 2019 was nearly $1 trillion, funds that might otherwise have been spent to modernize the US military or invest in research and development.
From 2011 onward, the popular verdict was that the United States had failed. In 2019, the New York Times dubbed the war a “lost cause.”
It is too early to say how Americans will remember the war. The idea of it as the “good war” wore off shortly after President Obama’s 2008 election campaign. From 2011 onward, the popular verdict was that the United States had failed. In 2019, the New York Times dubbed the war a “lost cause.” Senator Elizabeth Warren bluntly stated in a Democratic primary debate that year, “What we’re doing right now in Afghanistan is not helping the safety and security of the United States. It is not helping the safety and security of the world. It is not helping the safety and security of Afghanistan.” In polls from 2014 to 2018, between 49 and 56 percent of Americans said that the war was a failure. Where the good war remained was the memory of the initial response to September 11. A sense existed that war had been the only choice, regardless of the mistakes that followed.
The bigger story is probably how little the war featured in national life. Failure or success, Afghanistan was unimportant. Less than 0.3 percent of the population, including diplomats and contractors, served there. As combat writer Bing West regularly pointed out, Afghanistan had very low salience among the American people. Although comparisons were often made between the two, Afghanistan was not the searing national trauma of Vietnam. Afghanistan warranted few protests, no counterculture, and no meaningful political opposition. Congress approved executive budget requests and rarely pressed for withdrawal. State of the Union and inaugural addresses came and went with nary a word of Afghanistan. The omission should not be surprising. In Vietnam, the draft was in place; 2.7 million troops served, half a million at its height; and 58,000 were killed. Afghanistan was not a war of that magnitude. The sad truth is that few Americans paid much attention to the war or later remembered much of it.
Memory of Afghanistan is by far deepest within the small self-selected body of America’s volunteer military. Approximately 800,000 served in Afghanistan.12 In surveys of veterans in 2018 and 2019, the majority believed the 2001 invasion the right thing to have done but 40 to 58 percent responded that the longer war had not been worth fighting. I personally have encountered a mix of memories. I know generals who believe we had to win: “I’m not going to be remembered as defeated like all those guys from Vietnam!” I know captains or gunnys who are proud of what they accomplished. I know others who see the sacrifice as a waste: “How we could be in Afghanistan for so long, and I could be there for seven months. . . . What came of my time there and our experience and the casualties? What benefit came from that? It’s hard to think of any real benefit. There’s just some kind of level of absurdity about it.” I know SEALs and Green Berets who think we should have left and pummeled any terrorists from afar. I know other SEALs and Green Berets who almost reveled in the war as a spartan fixture of their lives. I know soldiers and marines who hate the Afghans, love the Afghans, or don’t even know the Afghans. And I know a lot of retired corporals and sergeants who are unsure what to make of the experience and value their brotherhood with each other above all else. “Even as we want it all to stop, we know on some level that it won’t,” writes Thomas Gibbons-Neff, the decorated marine sniper who went on to report for the New York Times. “After any peace deal—now, later, in another decade—we’ll still be fighting the war in one place: Our heads.”
The popular verdict that America failed contains a fair bit of truth. The United States accomplished its major goals of eliminating Osama bin Laden and preventing terrorist attacks on the homeland but was unable to prevail over the Taliban. It was trapped in a protracted and costly war with no end in sight. Worse, the never-ending war incubated extremism and neverending counterterrorism operations. The cost of the war in lives and treasure hardly seems worth the gains.
Why then did the United States and the Afghan government “fail”? The question underlies almost any discussion of the Afghan War. It drives the story, carrying us to a final conclusion, shaping what we see as important and unimportant, judging who was wise and who was foolish.
the government and its warlord allies treated Afghans poorly, instinctively stealing in order to help themselves and their communities in the unending competition for survival, fomenting insurgency in the process.
Foremost is the well-worn argument that the government and its warlord allies treated Afghans poorly, instinctively stealing in order to help themselves and their communities in the unending competition for survival, fomenting insurgency in the process. Evidence appears starkest in the early years of the war when mistreatment pushed certain tribes into the arms of the Taliban, giving the movement numbers and territory from which to attack. Without such support, the Taliban would have been much weaker.
Also weighty is the common argument that Pakistan prevented the United States from defeating the Taliban. Freedom to operate in Pakistan, protected from US strikes, enabled the Taliban to attack Afghanistan repeatedly, even after crushing defeats. After 2001, the Taliban leadership reorganized the movement there. Recruits for the 2006 offensive came from Afghan communities there. Suicide bombers trained there. During the worst of the surge, the movement sheltered there. In short, the engine of war cannot be reconstructed without Pakistan. A long succession of US leaders tried to change Pakistani policy, all to no avail because that policy was a function of Pakistan’s immutable rivalry with India. Pakistani leaders—from Musharraf to Kayani to Bajwa—would never risk their influence in Afghanistan, their backyard and strategic depth.
Taliban may have been unable to reemerge with the power that they did. Military effectiveness requires unity—and the government and its tribal allies did not have it.
Whatever their own set of rivalries, compared to the tribes and the government, the Taliban were cohesive. They were able to suppress internal competition to such a degree that it did not impede military effectiveness.
We should look at why the Afghan government put up such a poor showing as well. If the army and police had regularly defeated the Taliban on the battlefield, the Taliban may have been unable to reemerge with the power that they did. Military effectiveness requires unity—and the government and its tribal allies did not have it. The army and police and tribal militias and their commanders fought as separate actors, with separate interests—and sometimes did not fight at all. In the worst cases, the army refused to help the police. This discord can be attributed to competition inherent in the tribes allied with the government. There was no overarching hierarchy within a tribe, let alone between them, that might have enforced cooperation. The discord can also, however, be attributed to the structure of the government itself, which was designed to prevent any leader from actually being in charge in any region. The arrangement was catastrophic in 2014 and 2015 when the army repeatedly refused to come to the aid of the police. Whatever their own set of rivalries, compared to the tribes and the government, the Taliban were cohesive. They were able to suppress internal competition to such a degree that it did not impede military effectiveness.
Taliban stood for what it meant to be Afghan. The Taliban embraced rule by Islam and resistance to occupation, values that ran thick in Afghan history and defined an Afghan’s worth.
For all this, my overarching argument has been that something else, something fundamental, was equally at play in American failure. The answer that surfaces in the war’s long history is that the Taliban stood for what it meant to be Afghan. The Taliban embraced rule by Islam and resistance to occupation, values that ran thick in Afghan history and defined an Afghan’s worth. As a senior Taliban leader told Western researchers in 2015, “There is a considerable number of military chiefs and the longfighting foot soldiers who fight for resurrection of an Islamic Emirate.” Resistance to occupation motivated sacrifice. Tainted by its alignment with the United States, the government had a much weaker claim to these values and thus a much harder time motivating supporters to go to the same lengths. The average soldier and policeman simply wanted to fight less than his Taliban counterpart. Many could not reconcile fighting for Afghanistan alongside an infidel occupier and against a movement that represented Islam.
The Taliban’s battlefield successes can be tied to evidence of purposeful Taliban who believed in something versus rudderless soldiers and police
The explanation courses through the second half of the war. In battle after battle, numerically superior and well-supplied police and soldiers in intact defensive positions made a collective decision to throw in the towel rather than go another round. At decisive moments—Sangin, Kunduz, Nad Ali– Gereshk, Marjah, Lashkar Gah—the army and police had numerical superiority and at least equal amounts of ammunition and supply—even after the effects of corruption—yet retreated without putting up much of a fight. When under duress, police and soldiers too often just gave up. The Taliban’s battlefield successes can be tied to evidence of purposeful Taliban who believed in something versus rudderless soldiers and police. So can the frightening resolve of suicide bombers, who killed leader after Afghan leader. Without the willingness to fight against superior numbers and kill themselves in devastating suicide bombings, the Taliban movement could have been contained. Islam and resistance to occupation is a necessary, albeit not sufficient, condition for the outcome of the war.
more Afghans were willing to kill and be killed on behalf of the Taliban. The Taliban had an edge in inspiration. That edge made a difference.
None of this is to say that government was unsupported, or that its troops were miserable and depressed, or that no one would fight. Little could be farther from the truth. The people supported the government in many, many places, as shown by polls and hundreds of thousands of volunteers for the army and police. More Afghans liked the government than the Taliban. And more Afghans were willing to serve on behalf of the government than the Taliban. But more Afghans were willing to kill and be killed on behalf of the Taliban. The Taliban had an edge in inspiration. That edge made a difference.
The power of identity and religion can be miscast as evidence that Islam is inherently violent.
The thrust of the explanation is that foreign occupation ran against national identity and Islam and inspired people to fight. It was not Islam that incited violence.
The risk of this explanation is substantial. The power of identity and religion can be miscast as evidence that Islam is inherently violent. The explanation comes uncomfortably close to Trump’s hints that Islam is terrorism. A demagogue can deform appreciation of the perils of intervention into justification for hatred. The thrust of the explanation is not that Islam is violent. True enough, various Taliban—Mullah Dadullah Lang and Maulawi Haybatullah, for example—interpreted Islam in a way that intensified violence. But others had reservations, Mullah Baradar and Mullah Omar among them. The thrust of the explanation is that foreign occupation ran against national identity and Islam and inspired people to fight. It was not Islam that incited violence.
These powerful conditions inhibited the United States and the Afghan government from prevailing. But was failure inevitable? Conditions carried outcomes like a current but may not have determined the destination. There were chances for history to have taken a different course. At certain points, the United States could have made different decisions that might have averted failure or at least led to a far less costly stalemate.
Opportunity was widest early on, from 2001 to 2005. Popular support for the new Afghan government was high, as was patience with foreign presence, and the Taliban were in disarray. Unfortunately, American decisions foreclosed paths that might have avoided the years of war that followed.
The first was the Bush administration decision to exclude the Taliban from the post-invasion settlement, disregarding Churchill’s advice of magnanimity in victory. The Taliban had demonstrated willingness to take part in the new settlement—the 2001 letter and later outreach to Karzai. Each time, Karzai was open to the idea. Each time, Rumsfeld or Cheney, maybe channeling Bush himself, angry over September 11 and overconfident after the initial quick victory, would have none of it. The new government was set up and a constitution was written without the Taliban at the table. We do not know if Mullah Omar and the entire movement truly would have settled. But enough major Taliban leaders were interested— Baradar, Obaidullah, Mansour—that future violence could have been delayed or diluted.
Bush and his team then built an army and police to defend Afghanistan far too slowly. Dismissive of the Taliban threat, by 2006 (ample time to recruit an army in other countries) only 26,000 Afghan army soldiers had been trained. When the Taliban attacked in 2006, there was little to stop them. A full army could have opened new opportunities. The Taliban were at best a fifth of their 2015 strength and popular support for the government and US presence was high. Even an uneven showing by a better army could have slowed Taliban momentum. And a Taliban movement with less territory and their own uneven record of success would have rallied fewer recruits. The government would have been more credible, and the burden on the United States would have been lighter. Between rejecting peace feelers and neglecting to build a strong army and police, like the Treaty of Versailles the post-2001 peace arrangement both punished the defeated too harshly and failed to safeguard the victors against future violence.
During this early period, other US mistakes assisted the return to war. Overly aggressive and poorly informed US counterterrorism operations upset Afghans and drove former Taliban back to violence. The same effect was had by the refusal of the Bush administration to curb the abusive practices of Karzai’s government and its warlord allies. And Bush turned his attention to Iraq, which distracted from the growing problems in Afghanistan and denied the operational flexibility to better counter the future Taliban offensives.
These mistakes were avoidable. Bush could have reached out to the Taliban and could have built a better military quicker. There are plenty of historical examples of both. Nor did such decisions require in-depth knowledge of Afghanistan that was lacking at the time—these were principles of history and good foreign policy.
Later in the war opportunities to reach a better outcome narrowed. The war acquired a momentum of its own. The 2006 Taliban offensive dramatically escalated the conflict and overruled simple solutions. Further defeats damaged morale and induced further defeat. Extremist violence justified more extremism. The Americans who had been welcomed turned into an unwanted burden. Years of war bred disillusionment. It is hard to see any decision that could have resulted in a government victory. Nevertheless, a few points stand out where the United States might have cleared a path to a less violent future.
The surge was one of them. Given that its successes washed away and its costs were substantial, the United States would have been better served never to have surged at all. If Obama’s campaign promises to right the “good war” obligated some number of reinforcements, Obama still might have deployed fewer, such as the initial tranche of 21,000. Petraeus and McChrystal did not present Obama with such an option. During the surge debate, their case that defeat was on the horizon and their overconfidence in counterinsurgency crowded out the practical alternative of foregoing further reinforcements. If Obama had, America’s casualties and expenses would have been lower while the situation probably would have looked about the same as it did by 2016 anyway.
A separate opportunity came with the US drawdown and the government’s 2014-onward showdown with the Taliban. The United States and its allies had done their utmost to ready the army and police. Having repulsed earlier attacks, the army and police were not yet broken. At this moment things went south. Close-run defeat in 2014 was quickly followed by one-sided defeat in Kunduz, Helmand, and elsewhere in 2015, a downward spiral of morale that led to more defeat. Obama was sucked back into the war. The whole cycle might have been defused early on if Obama had been much freer with the use of air strikes. He likely would have arrested the Taliban tide in 2014 or 2015. The defeats of Kunduz and Helmand that reverberated throughout the country, frightening thousands, setting a habit of military defeat instead of victory, probably would not have happened. An effective defense may have dampened Taliban morale and weakened future offensives. Victory would have been unlikely but the Afghan government should have been able to survive at lower cost to the United States. As it was, the decision to use air strikes sparingly in extremis virtually ensured defeat.
A final opportunity to reach a better outcome was the peace negotiation of 2019. Earlier efforts had failed because the conditions had not been ripe —Mullah Omar was recently deceased, President Obama was occupied with other issues, negotiators were not political heavyweights. By 2019, those obstacles had passed, plus Trump was uniquely angry enough to leave. The result was the closest the United States had yet come to a political settlement. The talks between Khalilzad and Baradar had the potential to lead to an acceptable compromise, as long as the United States was patient enough to apply its leverage. If far from a government victory, the goal of an inclusive new Afghan government that constrained terrorist activity and extricated the United States from Afghanistan represented a worthy end to the war. Unfortunately, Trump narrowed the opportunity by heedlessly pressing for withdrawal instead of giving Khalilzad the time to wring more out of the Taliban. The patience and care to exploit the opportunity was lacking, resulting in an agreement that was difficult to enforce and immediately derailed after the February 2020 signing.
Missing opportunities was human but consequential. US leaders did so for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the one common lesson is the value of forethought. US presidents and generals repeatedly saw their plans fall short when what they expected to happen did not: for Bush, when the Taliban turned out not to be defeated; for Petraeus and McChrystal, when the surge proved unsustainable; for Obama, when the terrorist threat returned; for Trump, when the political costs of withdrawing appeared steeper than assumed.
Habits that might have fostered forethought were missing. Information and intelligence that contradicted expectations were often neglected. Generals offered too few options to their civilian leaders and then placed too much faith in their own preferred course of action. For too long they searched for ways to win the war or, later, avoid losing it instead of supporting exploration of a broad range of options, especially negotiations. Civilians themselves oddly did not consider what might be necessary if their expected future failed to come to pass and how they might insure against that possibility. Presidents and their staffs preferred to insist on pursuing a policy, come what may. Relatively cheap precautions such as using the drawdown for leverage in negotiations or retaining authorities to strike Taliban were thus rejected. If America’s civilian and military leaders had thought more about the different ways things could play out, then opportunities might not have been missed, options might not have been discarded, and America and Afghanistan may have experienced a less costly, less violent war, or even found peace.
The difficulty of changing the course of the Afghan War begs why the United States didn’t just leave, curtail the expense, and end the tragedy for the Afghan people some time before 2020. Indeed, Rumsfeld worried about all this in 2001. His instinct was to hit and run. As much as Rumsfeld was later despised, by 2012 plenty of Americans thought that is exactly what should have been done. Yet three US presidents—two of whom were sorely tempted to get out—decided to stay. Rumsfeld himself ended up walking back from his own instincts.
Terrorism and domestic politics explain why they all stayed, assisted by the concern for human freedoms such as women’s rights and the reluctance of generals to give up. The attacks of September 11 changed the international environment by igniting a fear that presidents could not ignore. Previously a minor irritation, terrorism transformed into a real threat to the United States, with the potential to involve chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. In the early years the threat was palpable, the fear of subsequent attacks widespread. Bush never considered withdrawal at all.
The threat receded during Obama’s presidency but he too could not ignore it. The political blowback to another attack, however decreasingly likely, was viewed as fatal. Obama shelved withdrawal during the surge debate and it was only after that experience that a zero option became a serious course of action. But he could never carry it out. Just as the wreck of al-Qa‘eda was finally drifting into the distance and withdrawal appeared plausible, the rise of the Islamic State resurrected the threat and reinvigorated the political repercussions of an attack on the United States.
The same fate befell Trump, by far the US president most disgusted with Afghanistan. He too declared that all US forces would leave, only to reverse course. He succeeded in reducing forces to the lowest number yet but even the diminishing threat of terrorism dissuaded him from fulfilling his desire to get out. Even Biden deliberated before deciding to leave.
In another place and time, domestic pressure might have compelled a president to withdraw earlier in the war. As we have seen, Afghanistan never curried that kind of opposition. Presidents confronted little popular opposition to staying, however confused Americans were by Afghanistan. Not so with leaving. A president had to worry about political blowback to a terrorist attack on the homeland. Bush and Obama, if not Trump, also knew they would face disapproval from key political figures and groups when Afghan freedoms were quashed and women were severely oppressed. And any president would be walking out on their own without cover from the generals, who were reluctant to lose. The generals could be counted on to obey the decision but not to agree with it. If things went bad, the president could be accused of acting against the advice of the military. Leaving was more politically dangerous than staying. The possibility that a terrorist threat to the United States could revive, especially if the Kabul government fell, always turned out to be too much of a risk. It was one thing to look years out and coldly promise the United States would leave. It was another to peer over the brink as time drew nigh, see the uncertainties, and weigh the political fallout of a terrorist attack, and jump.
Unlike their British and Soviet predecessors who lived before the era of international terrorism, American leaders had no easy way out.
Such was the tragedy of America’s Afghan War. The United States had few chances to succeed and few chances to get out. The idea that the war should have been abandoned is misleading. It presumes that a US president was free to pull the plug as he or she pleased when in reality getting out was nearly or equally as difficult as prevailing. A more realistic view might be that the Afghan War was always likely to veer toward something to be endured, an unwanted diversion in American history with few opportunities to change course. Unlike their British and Soviet predecessors who lived before the era of international terrorism, American leaders had no easy way out.
“We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain.”
The constraints of terrorism and public backlash were a feature of American society from 2001 to 2020. They defined an epoch. That epoch was fading long before 2020 but probably passed that year. The shadow of September 11 was receding and terrorism was losing its influence over US policy. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of the Islamic State, was killed in a US special operations raid in October 2019. Great power competition against China and Russia was the rising concern in Washington. The coronavirus pandemic was a vast new threat and ushered in a new depression of unknown depths. It was no longer reasonable to assume terrorism demanded that the United States worry about Afghanistan. The constraints on leaving the war had weakened. In Biden’s words, “We went to Afghanistan because of a horrific attack that happened 20 years ago. That cannot explain why we should remain.”
The United States exposed Afghans to prolonged harm in order to defend Americans from another terrorist attack. We resuscitated a state of civil war so that we could sleep a little sounder at home. Villages were destroyed. Families disappeared. It was inadvertent. US leaders never thought in terms of the terrible trade-off between the well-being of American citizens and the well-being of Afghans. They assumed life was better under a democracy.
None of that changes the preceding 19 years. Tragedy was greatest for the Afghan people. Historian John Lewis Gaddis writes in The Landscape of History that the purpose of the study of history is “to achieve the optimal balance, first within ourselves but then within society, between the polarities of oppression and liberation.” The moral question for Afghanistan boils down to whether intervention is just, how our presence harms a people, how innocents pay for our security: oppression juxtaposed against liberation. The United States exposed Afghans to prolonged harm in order to defend Americans from another terrorist attack. We resuscitated a state of civil war so that we could sleep a little sounder at home. Villages were destroyed. Families disappeared. It was inadvertent. US leaders never thought in terms of the terrible trade-off between the well-being of American citizens and the well-being of Afghans. They assumed life was better under a democracy. The intervention did noble work for women, education, and free speech. But that good has to be weighed against the tens of thousands of men, women, and children who died, as well as the fact that the good may wash away with time.
After the Soviet withdrawal, the Taliban regime managed to create stability after five years of brutal civil war. If their regime had survived, peace probably would have persisted in most of the country.
“Cold War ideologies and superpower interventions . . . helped put a number of Third World countries in a state of semipermanent civil war” and caused untold harm to their peoples in pursuit of marginal interests
Foreign intervention was a blight on the peace and well-being of the people of Afghanistan. Forty years of civil war can be traced to it, starting with the Soviets. Their invasion upended a swift and relatively bloodless end to what would have been a minor civil war. The ensuing modern war wrought havoc on Afghans and their society. After the Soviet withdrawal, the Taliban regime managed to create stability after five years of brutal civil war. If their regime had survived, peace probably would have persisted in most of the country. The 2001 US intervention upset that balance. Nevertheless, by 2009, the Taliban were again reclaiming power. Only US escalation, in the form of the surge, pushed them back. And when the Taliban were succeeding again in 2015 and 2016, the United States recommitted, putting wood back on the fire. The painful reality is that peace could have come a lot sooner without foreign intervention. Professor Odd Arne Westad wrote at the end of his magisterial work, The Global Cold War, that “Cold War ideologies and superpower interventions . . . helped put a number of Third World countries in a state of semipermanent civil war” and caused untold harm to their peoples in pursuit of marginal interests. His words echo around us today.
About the Author :
Carter Malkasian was the Special Assistant for Strategy to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, from 2015 to 2019. He has extensive experience working in Afghanistan through multiple deployments throughout the country. The highlight of his work is nearly two years in Garmser district, Helmand province, Afghanistan, as a State Department political officer and the district stabilization team leader. He is the author of War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier (Oxford University Press) and Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State (Oxford). He has a doctorate in history from Oxford and is fluent in Pashto.
About the book :
The first authoritative history of American’s longest war by one of the world’s leading scholar-practitioners.
The American war in Afghanistan, which began in 2001, is now the longest armed conflict in the nation’s history. It is currently winding down, and American troops are likely to leave soon ― but only after a stay of nearly two decades.
In The American War in Afghanistan, Carter Malkasian provides the first comprehensive history of the entire conflict. Malkasian is both a leading academic authority on the subject and an experienced practitioner, having spent nearly two years working in the Afghan countryside and going on to serve as the senior advisor to General Joseph Dunford, the US military commander in Afghanistan and later the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. Drawing from a deep well of local knowledge, understanding of Pashto, and review of primary source documents, Malkasian moves through the war’s multiple phases: the 2001 invasion and after; the light American footprint during the 2003 Iraq invasion; the resurgence of the Taliban in 2006, the Obama-era surge, and the various resets in strategy and force allocations that occurred from 2011 onward, culminating in the 2018-2020 peace talks. Malkasian lived through much of it, and draws from his own experiences to provide a unique vantage point on the war. Today, the Taliban is the most powerful faction, and sees victory as probable. The ultimate outcome after America leaves is inherently unpredictable given the multitude of actors there, but one thing is sure: the war did not go as America had hoped. Although the al-Qa’eda leader Osama bin Laden was killed and no major attack on the American homeland was carried out after 2001, the United States was unable to end the violence or hand off the war to the Afghan authorities, which could not survive without US military backing. The American War in Afghanistan explains why the war had such a disappointing outcome.
Wise and all-encompassing, The American War in Afghanistan provides a truly vivid portrait of the conflict in all of its phases that will remain the authoritative account for years to come.