Our Biggest Errors in Afghanistan and What We Should Learn from Them
from Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy and Women and Foreign Policy Program

Our Biggest Errors in Afghanistan and What We Should Learn from Them

An Afghan working in a U.S military base walks near half mast flags of United States, Afghanistan and Task Force Cacti after a U.S. Army officer was killed by an IED (improvised explosive device) during a patrol in Pesh Valley, at Forward Operating Base J
An Afghan working in a U.S military base walks near half mast flags of United States, Afghanistan and Task Force Cacti after a U.S. Army officer was killed by an IED (improvised explosive device) during a patrol in Pesh Valley, at Forward Operating Base J REUTERS/Erik De Castro

As a journalist, book author, and sometime adviser with frequent visits to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2015, I offer this distillation of lessons that we might learn from the United States’ longest war.

June 22, 2023 1:44 pm (EST)

An Afghan working in a U.S military base walks near half mast flags of United States, Afghanistan and Task Force Cacti after a U.S. Army officer was killed by an IED (improvised explosive device) during a patrol in Pesh Valley, at Forward Operating Base J
An Afghan working in a U.S military base walks near half mast flags of United States, Afghanistan and Task Force Cacti after a U.S. Army officer was killed by an IED (improvised explosive device) during a patrol in Pesh Valley, at Forward Operating Base J REUTERS/Erik De Castro
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

The Afghanistan War Commission, created by Congress, will shortly commence its investigation of U.S. policies in the twenty-year War in Afghanistan. So far this year, most headlines have been generated by a separate House Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. This searing denouement resembled the chaotic end of the Vietnam War, complete with images of desperate Afghans clinging to planes lifting off from Kabul Airport as bearded Taliban soldiers seized government offices, tanks, and guns. The tragedy continued as the dark curtain of Taliban rule fell over the South Asian nation, bringing back the draconian Deobandi Islamic [PDF] practices of the 1990s. Overnight, Afghan women lost the right to work and to appear in public, and those who resisted received harsh punishments. The turbaned Taliban leaders ejected women from the government and banned girls from school after sixth grade. Poverty, hunger, and maternal and infant mortality have spiked, as countries have withheld recognition of the Taliban regime, frozen funds, and suspended all but humanitarian aid. The Taliban’s latest punishment bans Afghan women from UN work, where they are vital to delivery of aid in this conservative, largely rural country.

As frightful as these recent events are, they should not overshadow the full mandate of the commission, which is charged with conducting a “comprehensive review of key decisions related to U.S. military, intelligence, foreign assistance, and diplomatic involvement in Afghanistan from June 2001 to August 2021.” The initial intervention, precipitated by the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, aimed to hunt down the al-Qaeda perpetrators. Over time it morphed into an effort to quell a persistent insurgency by building a stable democracy and improving living conditions in one of the poorest countries in the world—one that the British had unsuccessfully sought to pacify in two nineteenth-century wars. Americans deserve a full and thoughtful accounting of the $2.3 trillion investment of military and development aid and the deployment of hundreds of thousands of U.S. and coalition troops. Why did the Afghan government and military collapse so quickly? Was the effort misguided from the start, based on flawed assumptions and policy design? What missteps were made along the way? What are the applicable lessons for other efforts to support democracy around the world? As a journalist, book author, and sometime adviser with frequent visits to Afghanistan between 2002 and 2015, I offer this distillation of lessons that we might learn from the United States’ longest war.

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However dramatic it appeared, the collapse of the Afghan government and military was not surprising. The seeds of defeat were planted long before President Joe Biden ordered the withdrawal. His predecessor, Donald Trump, signed an accord with the Taliban [PDF] in February 2020 that set a 2021 withdrawal date and decoupled the U.S. departure from any agreement to end the fighting among Afghans—thereby ceding the primary source of leverage. Afghan morale plummeted. Negotiations to reach a political settlement were never the central priority at any point in the war, as ephemeral military targets or “conditions” substituted for hardheaded recognition that there were in essence two Afghanistans, and that the Taliban always controlled most of the rural one (where I spent most of my time). Compounding this error, the U.S. government sought to implement centralized models of governance and military institutions that were inappropriate, imperfectly realized, and expensive to sustain. Finally, the United States and its allies set aspirational goals for societal transformation that could not be achieved on a relatively slim support base of urbanized, educated Afghans.

In sum, the American project was not based in a clear understanding of the realities of Afghanistan. Well-meaning Americans believed that they could persuade, cajole, or force a project that much of the population did not actively embrace or participate in. A chain of discrete policy errors flowed from this basic failure to adequately understand the country. Several fundamental lessons emerge from scrutinizing these errors in the design and execution of political, diplomatic, military, and economic policies.

Lesson 1. Political conflicts usually require negotiated settlements rather than purely military solutions. Attrition strategies and pressure campaigns unlinked to political strategies were bound to fail in an insurgency such as the War in Afghanistan, which was essentially a civil war between the Taliban and their supporters and the rest of the population. The Taliban were unlikely to be defeated militarily given their proficiency at low-cost insurgency. They have a base and a constituency: nationalistic, religious, and conservative Pashtuns who embraced the extreme Deobandi school of Islam that had spread among Pashtuns since the 1970s. Deobandi madrassas continued to indoctrinate young Afghan men to fight the infidel Americans. The continued U.S. emphasis on attrition warfare and civilian casualties from airstrikes caused enormous friction with the Afghan government and population. No clear military advantage was obtained from this approach, and policymakers failed to appreciate that these political costs outweighed any temporary military gain. Indeed, the U.S. government doubled down on the attrition warfare approach in the final years of the conflict. Civilian casualties from airstrikes increased by 330 percent after 2016.

Lesson 2. Settlements to conflicts should be negotiated from a position of maximum leverage. Two squandered opportunities to reach an agreement stand out. The U.S. government might have offered talks after ousting the Taliban in October 2001. Indeed, the Taliban offered to negotiate in those early days, but the United States did not invite them to Bonn, where the Bonn Agreement was reached and the new government was formed. In the heat of the post-9/11 furor, few U.S. officials were prepared to make a distinction between the al-Qaeda attackers and the Afghan Taliban who swore loyalty to bin Ladin but had no designs to attack America. The United States and the international coalition stayed, and then grew after the Taliban went on the offensive. The second opportunity occurred with the surge of coalition troops in 2011–13, which achieved what Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford termed a  “strategic stalemate” [PDF]. That high point of leverage was not seized to achieve a settlement, however, and the leverage began to erode as troops drew down. The Afghan government’s position steadily weakened, and it became apparent that the army the United States built had not become a self-sufficient force capable of securing the country despite billions of dollars in investment. President Trump arrived in office determined to get out and set a minimal condition in 2020 in exchange for a U.S. exit pledge: that the Taliban agree to commence talks with its Afghan opponents. With the U.S. departure in writing, the Taliban had no incentive to negotiate seriously. Without intensive U.S. and international support, the fractured Afghan government, riven by ethnic divisions between the Tajik-Uzbek minority and the Pashtun majority, could not reach a settlement on its own.

Lesson 3. Be wary of imposing political systems that are inappropriate to a country’s history and political culture; incremental approaches will be needed where democratic traditions are weak. In Afghanistan, informal but real power rested with regionally based powerbrokers or warlords, such as Mohammed Qasim Fahim, Gul Agha Sherzai, Atta Mohammed Noor, Abdul Rashid Dostum, Ismail Khan, and the Karzai brothers, who held sway over the principal ethnic and tribal factions. Given their influence, a centralized form of government was unlikely to provide stability: every presidential election was a crisis that gave rise to protracted battles that required brokered outcomes. The trappings and mechanics of democracy were in place, but the culture of democracy remained lightly implanted. While women did make nominal gains in representation through seats reserved in parliament, ministerial positions in the cabinet, and mayoral appointments, these concessions were easily reversed without wider and deeper forms of equality taking hold in the society and culture. Civil society blossomed in urban Afghanistan, but rural Afghanistan remained much the same, as I was frequently reminded by villagers. More robust use of local councils and traditional shuras was needed to build consensus from the ground up and encourage fuller representation over time.

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Lesson 4. Do not seek to impose inappropriate security institutions, but rather build on traditional forms of defense. A similar error occurred in the security sector. The United States modelled the Afghan military [PDF] on its own, with a centralized structure, capital-intensive equipment, and aircraft that Congress required to be U.S.-made—even though Afghans were used to Russian-made helicopters and planes that were much easier to maintain. Centralized logistics systems were not adapted to the country’s rugged terrain. Vast resources were expended in creating a large standing force that required constant recruitment and replenishment due to casualties and desertion. Experiments in creating local defense forces offered an alternative that could have become the primary model for most of the country’s defenses. These forces were recruited with support from local elders and deployed locally, as militias traditionally had been. Despite successes by the local forces, the juggernaut of creating an expensive, centralized army continued and, in the end, failed. The lack of support to troops in the field was a principal cause of the rapid dissolution of the army in 2021.

Lesson 5. Do not overestimate the pace and depth of societal change that policies can produce within a generation; acceptable and financially sustainable targets are best set by the country. Younger and more urban Afghans embraced the vision of a modern, democratic country, even as social norms remained comparatively conservative, but 74 percent of Afghanistan’s population is rural—and deeply conservative. Remote areas remained untouched by many of the development projects funded by the United States, and many schools and clinics became goat sheds for lack of teachers and nurses. Important gains like reduced maternal and infant mortality and expanded access to education were achieved, but they were dependent on ongoing infusions of outside aid: 75 percent of the Afghan government budget came from foreign aid, and self-sufficiency was a distant prospect. Sustainable progress requires a growing economy to support these investments and durable, broad-based national support. Women are an untapped resource in Afghanistan, but the social and economic foundations for women’s equality remain tenuous despite the educational, professional, and business achievements in the past twenty years. The pace of change is generational, and in the case of Afghanistan a concerted effort to diminish Taliban influence in the next generation will be required to restore forward movement.

Lesson 6. Do not design policies that require indefinite or permanent multibillion dollar foreign assistance commitments, especially when no vital national interest is at stake. The U.S. public proved remarkably tolerant of the twenty-year expenditure of $2.3 trillion in Afghanistan, but it was unlikely to support such a cost indefinitely without more progress toward sustainability. The national security rationale for indefinitely supporting Afghanistan at those levels diminished as the al-Qaeda threat receded. The waning terrorist threat from al-Qaeda and the nonexistent threat from the Taliban should have been factored into planning for an exit at the time of the 2011 surge. Quite frankly, plans for a continued U.S. military deployment did not align with U.S. national interests, and the small footprint envisioned would have been insufficient to fend off the growing threat from the Taliban as they extended their hold in the countryside from 2013 on. The risks of keeping a small force in Afghanistan would have progressively grown.

Lesson 7. Halting mission creep is never easy, but the U.S. Congress should be readier to impose conditions and limits on foreign interventions. Congress, with its power of the purse, is best positioned to end interventions outright, or at a minimum require an overhaul of policy objectives so that they are realistic. The Afghanistan experience underscores the need for stabilization and governance policy design based on the local culture and capabilities, with objectives that are modest, clear, and finite. Successive administrations bought into the military mantra of “conditions-based” withdrawals without recognizing or acknowledging that the conditions sought were not achievable. Year after year, U.S. generals continued to testify with ill-founded optimism to justify requests for multibillion dollar annual infusions of assistance. Greater rigor must be introduced into the criteria for ending interventions and continuous counterterrorism operations, and Congress must assert its power to end policies that are not working.

A no-holds-barred account of the various shortcomings of U.S. policy in the longest war in American history is vital for the historical record and to inform future foreign policy to secure U.S. interests and determine how best to help countries in need. A frank and full report from the Afghanistan War Commission would include numerous “never again” resolutions that target these chronic lapses. If sufficiently bold, the report can galvanize more members of Congress to probe claims of national security necessity and imminent progress with greater skepticism, without fear of being labeled weak. A foreign policy that achieves demonstrable if incremental results, with a prospect of becoming self-sustaining, constitutes a desirable middle ground between overreach and isolationism.

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