Afghanistan in Hindsight: Lessons From Two Decades of War

Friday, October 22, 2021
U.S NAVY/Sgt. Isaiah Campbell/REUTERS

Nonresident Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; Former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan (2011–2012); CFR Member

Author, The American War in Afghanistan: A History; Former Special Assistant for Strategy to General Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (2015–2019)

Director, Foreign and Defense Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute; Former Deputy Director of Policy Planning, U.S. Department of State (2007–2008); Former Director for Defense Strategy and Requirements, National Security Council (2002–2005); CFR Member


Robert E. Osgood Professor, Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies; Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, Center for Strategic and International Studies; Former Counselor, U.S. Department of State (2007–2009); CFR Member

Our panelists discuss the history of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, critical policy decisions made during four U.S. administrations, and what lessons can be learned from the two-decade war.

COHEN: Thank you very much. Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations virtual meeting, “Afghanistan in Hindsight: Lessons From Two Decades of War.” I’m Eliot Cohen, the Robert E. Osgood Professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, and the Arleigh Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It’s a terrific honor to be here with three former colleagues who are in some—at least one case current colleague—who are really bringing extraordinary expertise and good judgment to this topic. They are, in the order in which they’ll be speaking:

Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who is a nonresident fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and who was the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan in 2011 to 2012. Ambassador Crocker has served as an ambassador for the United States of America six times. He has been awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. And I think it’s fair to say he’s one of the most, perhaps the most distinguished diplomat of his generation.

We have Dr. Carter Malkasian, an Oxford-trained historian, the author of what to my mind is the best work so far on America’s Afghan war, The American War in Afghanistan: A History. In addition to his experience on the ground in Afghanistan, which has already produced at least one very good book—War Comes to Garmser—he is the former special assistant for strategy to General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. That was from 2015 to 2019.

And finally, Dr. Kori Schake, who is currently the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, former deputy director of the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department, former director for defense strategy and requirements at the NSC, the author of five—no fewer than five books.

Wonderful to have you all here. I want us to move as quickly as possible into the heart of the discussion. So I think I’m going to ask you each to open it up with a very direct question, and that is: Was all this inevitable? When I say “all this,” of course, it could mean two things. It could mean the particular outcome that we saw over the summer with the United States pulling out in haste from a(n) Afghanistan where the government had collapsed and the Taliban take charge of the entire country immediately. I think that’s actually less urgent and pressing for us to discuss right now. It’s an important topic, but I would rather that you focus your remarks on the question: Was it basically pretty much inevitable that this war was going to end with the Taliban essentially taking over the country, and an American project that lasted almost precisely two decades and cost thousands of lives was bound to be futile? I’m going to put it that way.

So, Ryan, if I may, if you would start, then Carter, and then Kori. Then we’ll have another round, and around 3:00 we’ll move to a broader question-and-answer part of the discussion. Ambassador Crocker, over to you.

CROCKER: Thanks very much, Eliot. It’s a privilege to be here.

I had the honor of opening the embassy in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban just after New Year’s Day in 2002, so I have that perspective as well as the one, of course, when I was back a decade later as an ambassador.

No, it was not inevitable in any Afghan-specific manner. The Taliban, of course, had been making gains over the last couple of years, but that was kind of after we had signaled very clearly we were going home, first of course by President Trump and his decision to negotiate with the Taliban without the Afghan government in the room, and then of course carried to its full fruition by President Biden. Militarily, we didn’t lose this one. We just decided we didn’t want to do it anymore, and time to bring the troops home, and whatever happens happens.

In that sense there was a certain inevitability to it, but not, I think, in the way we normally think of it—in the sense that we ran out of patience; that we just decided it’s gone on too long, we are not achieving victory, the Taliban are not defeated, let’s do something else. And that concerns me greatly. It has, I think, created a situation in Afghanistan that threatens regional and international security, but it also signals again to both allies and adversaries that we do not have strategic patience.

There was a phrase attributed to the Taliban some years ago: You Americans have the watches; we have the time. And that, of course, was also a narrative in Pakistan that I heard for three years there in the mid-2000s as ambassador. We’re hedging our bets, said the Pakistanis. You bet we are. We’re not going to turn the Taliban into a moral enemy of Pakistan just so we can then watch you go home and be left with a truly dangerous enemy, because we saw you do that after the Soviet defeat. You’ll do it again.

So I’m deeply concerned that there is this inevitability if our adversaries can stretch it out we’ll get tired and we’ll quit. And I think that has ramifications, obviously, far beyond Afghanistan.

COHEN: Great. Well, a lot of things to unpack there, including I think I want us to talk a little bit about what was the moment where we basically signaled to everybody that we would at some point just throw up our hands and come home, and whether—was it the Trump administration, was it possibly the Obama administration. But that’s a follow-on topic.

Carter, if I’m not mistaken you have a somewhat more kind of pessimistic read, if I can put it that way.

MALKASIAN: Thank you, Eliot.

And I think that it was always going to be difficult, but that doesn’t mean that I think that staying wouldn’t have been a viable strategy. I do think staying would have been a viable strategy, but I think succeeding in Afghanistan was always going to be something that was hard. There were perhaps some opportunities to change things and perhaps having gotten—perhaps even reached success, but those were narrow opportunities. And the reason I say that is kind of (the layering ?) reasons for which we had difficulty, and especially for which the Afghans proved, well, kind of repeatedly unable to defend things on their own.

And so some of those reasons are, without going into great detail, first of all, grievances and how the government too often mistreated its people. And that could drive locals to fight or to support and shelter the Taliban.

Now, that’s not the whole reason for things. Ambassador Crocker already mentioned Pakistan, and that’s important. If it wasn’t for the shelter and the haven that the Taliban had in Pakistan to train, organize, recruit, lead, they wouldn’t have been able to fight so hard in Afghanistan. It’s not like there was some mass revolt in Afghanistan against the government. No, this was fundamentally connected to the safe havens that existed in Pakistan.

I’d also like to point to some of the deeper kind of cultural and societal issues. The government and the tribal forces and its own military and police tended to be fractured, tended to compete with each other, partly because of old tribes and feuds, partly because of the way they were structured. The Taliban didn’t have those same kind of divisions. And I can remember well Taliban leaders telling me that we are—we are obedient, we follow the leadership of the emir. And I can remember well Afghan government leaders, including folks like Abdul Raziq from Kandahar, telling me: The Taliban are different. They are one.

We can also look at the corruption problems that have been widely in the press, and that corruption problem relates partly to the fact that ammunition was hoarded, pay wasn’t given, ghost soldiers were present that kept down the numbers of the Afghan forces. But we can also talk about it in a kind of a moral human way, that it can be more difficult for a soldier to fight if he or she believes that they won’t get support from their commanders or if they feel that their commanders are corrupt.

But then there’s one other point I want to underline on this, too, that I think is—it needs to be remembered. And I’m not saying it is the only explanation, but it is a very important explanation, and that’s the Taliban could better identify themselves as fighting against occupation and better identify themselves as close to Islam. And that’s—and those things are very close to what it means to be Afghan. The government had difficulty inspiring because it couldn’t say those same things. They were aligned with us, and it’s more difficult for a young man or woman to go and fight for a country if they’re wondering it’s correct to be fighting with the occupier and if that occupier is from a different religion.

And that can be seen in polls. It can be seen if you look at battles and the testimonies that Afghan soldiers and police will say versus what Taliban will say. You can hear that from the Taliban themselves. You can hear it from the government. So there’s a good amount of evidence behind it. You can also hear it in Taliban poetry, which there’s a great deal of.

None of these things are easy to solve. None of these are easy solutions that can be found. And that’s why I say that succeeding in Afghanistan was going to be difficult.

I think there’s some more to be said about, you know, just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean the war was foolhardy and it doesn’t mean the war was unavoidable. But maybe we’ll leave those things to talk about a bit later, so I’ll stop here.

COHEN: Well, again, a lot to work with there. I remember on my visits to Afghanistan, particularly when you would talk to the British, they would talk about are we going with the grain of Afghan society or against the grain of Afghan society.

Let me just before I move on to Kori, though, ask you one question. I mean, you laid out very well, I think, what the difficulties were, but am I understanding you correctly to say that there were plausible solutions that an enlightened American government working with our Afghan partners could have found? Because otherwise, then it is kind of doomed.

MALKASIAN: There are some that one can look at, especially earlier on in the conflict. But what I’d underline most of all is that the war through its various phases probably could have been managed better. The strategy could have been applied better such that we could have sustained it with fewer costs in both terms of money and people’s lives and casualties.

COHEN: I see. Thank you. OK. Well, we’re going to—I’m going to circle back on those.

Kori, your view?

SCHAKE: So I don’t think the outcome was inevitable, but I think it was pretty close to inevitable because of the degree of difficulty both of circumstance and of choice.

Of circumstance, Afghanistan was 185th on the U.N. Human Development Index in the year 2000. Creating a tax base that could support the military we wanted, creating an economy strong enough to sustain governance, breaking the back of drug trafficking and the criminality and corrosion that comes with that, those things were always going to be really difficult and really long-term undertakings.

The second circumstance that I think nearly resigned us is that I feel about Afghanistan what John Paul Vann said about the war in Vietnam, which is that we didn’t fight a twenty-year war; we fought twenty one-year wars. And the—what Jonathan Schroden has pointed out as the—as the sawtooth of a new American unit coming in and saying, wow, this is all terrible, but by the end of the year we were there it’s perfect, look at all the progress we made. And then that starts over again and again.

And I think the third circumstance that made it close to impossible to be successful is that we never really settled on a policy that we adequately resourced. We seesawed back and forth on what we thought the policy was going to be, and in none of those instances did we actually match resources to the—to the strategy at hand. The only time we potentially came close to doing it was President Obama’s 2009 strategy, but he collapsed that—to answer your second question, Eliot, he collapsed that in the enunciation of it by saying that this was only a short-term surge in our effort, so thereby telling the Taliban don’t worry about the watch, worry about the time, and also failing to produce civilian components to the strategy which were in any way commensurate either with the tasks or the military effort at hand.

So I think I slightly differ from Ambassador Ryan’s conclusion. I think we lost this war. We lost it strategically. We lost it militarily. We lost it politically because none of the last three presidents were willing to make the case to the American public that this merits doing, we have a way to succeed at it, and we’re resourcing it sufficiently. And so, as a result, you know, we lost the war of the storytelling, which is endless wars that make no progress, because the political leadership wasn’t willing to do the thing that only the political leadership can do. And they—instead, the suits hid behind the uniforms to justify the war, and leaving open the moral question of should we have young American men and women in harm’s way if the political leadership is not actually committed to succeed at the war we’re trying to fight.

COHEN: Very interesting. You know, those are three sets of views which are not entirely compatible but not entirely different, I think.

What I’d like to do is ask a number of questions which are really in the nature of exploring counterfactuals, I suppose, but what would have made a big difference. And let me throw the first one to you, Ryan, although the others should feel free to comment if they want. I mean, one line of thought is, look, you couldn’t really have any hope of success in Afghanistan unless you dealt with Pakistan. The Pakistanis were playing a double game with us all along and were basically at war with us. We refused to recognize that. You know, you might point to the fact that the head of ISI, their intelligence services, shows up in Kabul almost immediately after we leave. We know their sponsorship of the Haqqani Network and so on and so forth.

Was that the—is that a plausible argument, that that’s really what did us in? Because with Pakistani support the Taliban have a sanctuary, which, you know, according to classical insurgency theory you need. They had strategic guidance in some cases, supplies, and so forth. Ambassador Crocker, what do you make of that?

CROCKER: Clearly, the safe havens the Taliban enjoyed in Pakistan made a huge negative difference for our efforts in Afghanistan, but I don’t think in any way they spelled a certainty of U.S. defeat. And with that, I would just take a short excursion into words and what they mean.

I never used words like “victory” and “defeat,” “success,” “failure” in the theaters I have been in. I didn’t do it in Iraq. I didn’t do it in Afghanistan. We are not going to achieve total victory in a place like Iraq or Afghanistan. That is not the way wars work anymore. What we were able to do was manage a problem. If you look at the—simply the numbers of U.S. troops, when I was there in 2011—2011-12 we were at the height of the surge, over a hundred thousand troopers on the ground. We drew down precipitously. Yet, at the—when we were down to, what was it, maybe fourteen (thousand), fifteen thousand—a little over 10 percent of what was there when I was there—we had the Taliban on their back—their back foot. They were losing ground; they weren’t gaining it. And it was a combination, I think, of critical and focused U.S. intervention, but also capabilities on the part of the Afghan National Security Forces.

Again, though, with respect to Pakistan, the narrative was pretty much as I retailed it, that they did not trust us to stay the course, did not believe that we would be driven by conditions and not calendars. There is an underlying reality, too: To take on the safe havens in Pakistan could have had some very dire results for the Pakistanis.

I remember when General Kayani, later chief of Army staff, who—he was ISI commander when I was there—we finally badgered him into taking action against a number of kind of mid-level—mid- to senior-level Taliban leaders in Quetta. They never got—the ISI never got to the objective. They got ambushed and lost six officers. There was—again, Pakistani control, whether it be in Balochistan or in the northwest frontier in the tribal areas, was tenuous at best, and I think it was an open question if they had tried to move decisively against Haqqani—the Haqqani Network—what might have happened.

So I think one of the issues we have with Pakistan, of course, is that our senior military leaders, who had experience, say, in Iraq and Afghanistan, because we don’t have deployed forces, they don’t understand Pakistan all that well. And that is a problem in this, too.

COHEN: Anybody else? Just real briefly, because I do want to move us on. Kori or Carter, do you want to say anything about—OK. So let me move onto something else.

What do you all make of—there are a number of different kinds of critiques which are of this “if only we had” variety. One of them would be that which has been advanced by Bing West, former assistant secretary of defense during the Reagan administration, who spent a lot of time on the ground, particularly with the Marines, in Afghanistan. And his argument is, you know, the folly here was trying to do development. You know, basically this is—the form of counterinsurgency that works is when you isolate the population from the insurgents, and you go after the insurgents, and just attack them relentlessly.

And I think you might add, you know, you need to build up your own security forces, which we never really—which we did, and we did not in variety of ways. We should get more deeply into that. But that the whole effort to try to create a—anything that smacked of liberal democracy, or a more modernized version of Afghan society and government was folly, and a distraction, and contributed to our failure. What do you make of that critique? Kori, I think you’re probably the one who’ll push back hardest on that, so let me start with you, maybe.

SCHAKE: Yeah. I think it’s a military operation without a strategic victory. I mean, what’s the government in Afghanistan? You can’t separate the success from our campaign from the Afghanistan that’s going to come as the result of that campaign. It’s a narrow, militaristic approach to argue that none of these other things matter. That if we could have just gotten after the threat, glitter, unicorns, and then you have an Afghanistan that doesn’t produce threats. What’s the conveyor belt in that strategy, is the challenge I would put forward for its advocates. Because battlefield success isn’t the entirety of winning the war.

COHEN: Carter, do you have a comment on that one?

MALKASIAN: So the think that I find that Bing West says that I find the most interesting and compelling is that we should have kept a low number of troops for a long period of time. And that makes us think about the surge again. And I, at the time, was not arguing against the surge by any means. I was in Garmser then, doing various other things. So I don’t want to claim as though I was some kind of critic of the surge when it was happening. I wasn’t.

But in retrospect, much of what the surge gained, at high cost—everything that the surge gained, at high cost, was lost. Much of it got lost by 2015, or so. Which then raises the question, well, it shows we probably shouldn’t have surged at all. And we probably would have been—we probably would have attained the same amount if we had stayed there with a low number of forces. Why didn’t we do that? I think, for one, we were too worried at that point about the terrorist threat, about that the Taliban might be able to take over the whole country. But the situation in 2009 was no worse than in 2015, ’16, ’17, ’18, ’19. As Ambassador Crocker has rightly pointed out, we were able to hold back the Taliban tide with few numbers with U.S. use of airstrikes.

So that means why didn’t we do it earlier? And the thing I point to is that, yes, we overstated the threat, and we didn’t look at enough options. We focused too much on the option of counterinsurgency and sending a lot more troops and not enough on other options—not sending reinforcements, decreasing reinforcements, looking at a variety of things.

COHEN: I have to just say at this point—and, Ryan, you should object if you think I’m being unjust—but I had the feeling at the time that, you know, we had had this tremendous success in Iraq with the surge, with an ambassador named Crocker and a general named Petraeus. And, you know, it was—one almost did have a feeling that there was an attempt to reach for a duplication of the Iraq success that we had had with the surge, an ambassador named Crocker, and a commanding general named Petraeus. Is that too pat, do you think, Ryan?

CROCKER: Well, of course, that particular band didn’t get put back together in Afghanistan. Dave got there a year before I did and had already moved on by the time I got there. I do think, though, that, again, we’re, I don’t know, maybe oversimplifying here. Some of the strategies we undertook I think were quite successful. Like education, particularly female education. I mean, when I opened the embassy in the beginning of ’02, you know, there were no girls in school. One of the very first initiatives USAID embarked on, of course, was to get girls’ schools stood up. And I took Joe Biden to visit one in January of ’02, a first-grade class that had girls from age six to age twelve. He saw the value in that, both in terms of American values, but also in terms of national security.

I would also say on—because there’s a lot of this out there—on, well, we didn’t have a compass on this, we didn’t have a goal. We kept changing strategies. You know, from first to last, certainly the decade that I was there at the beginning of and then later as ambassador, ten years, there was no question about what we were there for: America’s national security. To ensure that never again could Afghanistan be used as a base to attack the homeland. Everything else fed into that. Some parts of it worked—education, health care—some parts obviously didn’t. But I just think it’s a false narrative to say that we lost track of why we were there.

COHEN: So I’m going to—we’re going to open it up in just a moment to our members who have been listening in, but I want to ask the three of you one last question. And it’s a big question, but, unfortunately, I’m going to ask you to be brief. And that is: Was there a point at which we missed the opportunity for a political settlement as a result of some sort of negotiation, which would have if not terminated the war ended it the way many insurgencies do end, with a—you know, an unsatisfactory, negotiated deal that gives the insurgents some power, but doesn’t really let them take over the country? Or is that also kind of a bit of a will-of-the-wisp?

I think, Carter, you’ve—you know, you’ve written a bit on this subject. Maybe if you could start. And then Kori, and we’ll end with you, Ryan.

MALKASIAN: So in 2001, as Karzai was advancing towards Kandahar, a delegation of Taliban, including Mullah Baradar, came to see him. And they gave him a note. And we don’t know what was in that note. Some say that these leaders just asked for amnesty themselves. Others say that that note was from Mullah Omar saying that he was going to surrender on—go away, and that he was going to recognize Karzai as the leader of the country. Rumsfeld turned down that offer. As far as I know, there wasn’t much discussion—or, it wasn’t known at the higher levels of the U.S. government that that offer may have been on hand, or whether it was taken seriously.

After that, in 2002 and in 2004, there is other reports of various attempts by the Taliban to outreach, including an attempt to be involved in the Bonn process and in the emergency loya jirga of 2002. Now, we don’t know how serious the Taliban really were. We don’t know if this was a serious chance for something to happen. And we don’t know even if a few Taliban were serious if that would have led to something bigger. However, it was a—it was an opportunity that was there. And if there was a time negotiations had the strongest chance to succeed, it was then.

COHEN: OK. So pretty early on in the conflict. Kori and Ryan, I’ll ask you to be concise, if you would, so we can open it up to members.

SCHAKE: No, I don’t think there was ever a negotiated solution in Afghanistan because I think the—I think it is a civilizational war between the Taliban, who have one vision of the Afghanistan they want, and other Afghan factions having a very different view that’s incompatible with the Afghanistan that the Taliban would impose by force or would be defeated.

COHEN: Ryan.

CROCKER: I think there were several moments. One that I would highlight would be when President Obama ordered the drone strike on Mullah Omar’s successor, Mohammad Akhtar Mansour, in Pakistani Balochistan. And he chose his platform very carefully. That was a U.S. military strike, which meant we could talk about it and acknowledge it. That was a perfect moment to hand off to the leader of the new administration a message to both the Taliban and to the Pakistanis that you, in Pakistan, have worried about our staying power. Well, we’re staying. This is about conditions and not calendars. And indeed, in August ’17, that’s exactly what President Trump said. He just didn’t stick with it. So you can stop worrying about that.

Here’s the thing you may need to worry about. We’re going to go after Taliban leaders wherever we find them. If you’re in Balochistan, we’ll do it there. If it’s in Rawalpindi, we’ll do it there. So this is time for you, Pakistanis, to go sit under a tree and recalculate your strategic logic. We got half that message right, although Trump, again, later abandoned it. We got the second part on a way forward with Pakistan, we got that wrong.

COHEN: Thank you. Well, listen, we could go on easily for hours and hours just among ourselves. But at this time, I would like to invite members to join our conversations with their questions. Let me remind you that this meeting is on the record. And the operator will remind you how to join the question queue.


OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.)

We’ll take the first question from Jordan Reimer.

Q: Hi. Thank you. Jordan Reimer, RAND Corporation.

Dr. Schake, you made two very interesting points. You said that you fought a series of twenty one-year wars. You also mentioned that we did not sufficiently resource our civilian component. What would have been the solution to both of those? How could you fight more than one-year deployments? Could you extend the deployments? Could you have some sort of British system, where Americans move with their entire families? Is that at all realistic?

Secondly, whose fault do you think it was that we didn’t sufficiently resource the civilian side? Is that Congress should have allocated more funds, or the State Department should have gone on a hiring blitz to hire ten thousand new diplomats? What would have been the answer? Thank you.

SCHAKE: Those are both great questions. Thank you for them.

I think the second one—to answer the second one, I do think it’s a collective failure. But we have allowed the making of war to become more and more a solely military function. And the administration understood that. They understood it in Iraq, which was supposed to have a civilian surge matching the military surge in 2006, and largely did not. But did a lot better than we did in Afghanistan, where there was virtually no in-countries and the civilian lines of effort. So it’s principally an administration failure, more than it a congressional or an intellectual failure.

On the second—on the first question, which is how do you get around the one-year, well, we actually know the answer to that, right? We knew the answer to it in previous wars we fought. Which is, in particular, it matters for the leadership to have constancy over time. That’s how you avoid the see-sawing—or, the saw-toothing of, gosh, it’s terrible when I arrived here and I made it perfect, which is a conclusion that the next gal or guy doesn’t have to support.

You know, General McChrystal said that the question he asked every commander was: What would you have done differently if you couldn’t go home until we won this war? But that’s also a fair question to ask of General McChrystal and everyone else in that rotation, because it is less the individual soldier or Marine’s cultural knowledge, understanding of the political landscape, than it is the leadership’s understanding of those things. So you don’t necessarily need to have soldiers or even units wholly there for the duration of the war. But I do think there would have been enormous advantages to having had a stable leadership—civilian and military—that had a consistent view over time.

COHEN: So I’m going to take advantage of my position as chair to pile on that. I think one of the things that was completely unnecessary was to rotate, say, divisional headquarters every year. And what you easily could have done is, you know, what the military calls planting flag, and rotate individuals out. So at least you have a—you don’t have this sudden disruption as you go through a cycle where you have an entirely new team coming in, which frequently, I think, felt that they needed to do something different. And that would be another approach.

Laura, could you tee-up another questioner?

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Anne Richard.

Q: Hello, all. Hi, Kori. I am now with Freedom House. And I want to ask a question.

Knowing what we know now about how devastating attacks on civilians were, and how this really alienated a lot of the citizenry, especially in the rural areas, from what was being attempted in Kabul, could that have been handled differently by the U.S. military?

COHEN: Now, I would ask, actually, any of the three of you to speak to that, although, in fact, I’d like to maybe ask Carter to start. Because you actually spent a lot of time on the ground in the villages seeing that. And I’m just curious, you know, what your personal angle of vision was on that.

MALKASIAN: So part of it is a very difficult trade off, in that—and the Afghan forces had great difficulty fighting on their own. And it appears that they could only fight with U.S. support. And providing that support required airstrikes. And airstrikes inherently had the chance to wound or kill civilians. And you are correct. I’ve met many Afghans and spoken to many Afghans who lost loved ones, who really feel that they should support the Taliban because of the use of those airstrikes.

But just because they’re necessary in some circumstances, doesn’t mean that they couldn’t have been used better or more wisely. There was a long period of time in the beginning of the war where we were more indiscriminate, particularly regarding targeting of insurgent leaders, and not so sure of what was a wedding party versus a Taliban—a group of Taliban together. And it took some time for us to put on—put restrictions onto that. And it was General McChrystal who did put restrictions onto those. And he took a great deal of flak for doing so. I don’t think that any general other than him could have actually enforced or created those restrictions.

So there’s things that could have been done to reduce the number of airstrikes, focusing on where there were really necessary to happen, when they are preventing the Taliban from having gains, versus actions that may not be doing the Taliban much damage yet are—have a high risk of killing civilians. I don’t think—that’s probably not a very satisfactory answer to the question, because no matter what we were doing we were probably going to have airstrikes that was going to cause a degree of blowback. And I’m not trying to say that’s morally acceptable, just presenting what is.

COHEN: Kori.

SCHAKE: Well, I largely agree with Carter. It seems to me that tradeoff was as we started ramping down forces our intelligence got less precise and our—we wanted to be able to use military means that required fewer troops and fewer engagement. And that set of U.S.-centric choices drove us towards stand-off means of force. And I think that’s inherently less successful in a counter-insurgency context than a larger force on the ground that is working in conjunction with the societies that you’re trying to effect change in.

COHEN: Ryan, could you speak to this? And, in particular, what I’d like to ask you to do is draw on your experience in Iraq, where these issues, of course, also arose, but in a very—in a different context. I mean, it seems to me that’s a unique perspective that you bring to bear.

CROCKER: Well, it was a very different context. Most of our operations, particularly our special forces operations, were directed against Sunni targets, which was just fine with the Shia ascendency in Iraq. We were very careful about any strikes on Shia targets. We had one pretty bad episode when we did do a night raid on the outskirts of Karbala that wound up killing civilians, including a relative of Nouri al-Maliki. But that was, again, the exception. It helped a lot, again, that we had a common enemy with the government in Baghdad, which was al-Qaida in Iraq principally, as well as likeminded groups.

That was not the dynamic in Afghanistan. Yet I would point out, for Karzai who was president when I was there, the big issue was not the airstrikes, per se. It was the night ops of special forces raids on individual targets. And it was a huge issue for him. John Allen stepped right up to that and said: We can Afghanize this. And pretty much did. Afghan special forces were rather good, as they were in Iraq. He worked to give them the lead in prosecuting targets. And the issue just started to fade away for Karzai, and I think for those around him. So it’s never going to be perfect, God knows, in these environments. But I think, again, that with John Allen’s foresight and willingness to take a risk, that was significantly mitigated, at least at the time when we were there.

COHEN: I’m going to, again, push this question just a little bit further. You know, one of the things that I’ve seen said is that the war felt very different for Afghans in the countryside than Afghans in the cities. And that to some extent we fooled ourselves because from the point of view Afghans in the cities, life was getting—clearly getting a lot better in multiple dimensions. But that if you were in the countryside, it didn’t feel that way. Is that correct, do you think? Any of you.

MALKASIAN: So in the countryside—a nice way to—a nice comparison to make on this is the situation women experienced in the cities versus in the countryside. On the education, work opportunities, standard of living for the women in the cities, without a doubt, increased. And they tended to support our presence and the Afghan government. It was much more varied in the countryside. It didn’t mean that all women supported the Taliban, or something like that, but for many women the concern was what violence are we experiencing? What damage to my family is occurring? Who is being—are my children going to be killed? And even in—that doesn’t mean they all support the Taliban. Some also didn’t want to be constrained.

I remember—in fact, I remember very well one woman who was very prominent in the countryside saying that: I can’t live under the Taliban. It is my right to be able to live in full color—meaning, wear what she wants, go what she wants, do what she wants to do. But for others, the feeling could be different. The countryside is a—is a mix, too. There’s places in the countryside where there’s incredible violence happening. There’s places in the countryside where it was more peaceful. And sometimes peaceful for a decade, where our force and the Afghan forces made a difference. And then there’s places in the countryside where it’s peaceful because the Taliban made it peaceful. So there’s a lot of variation.


Laura, could you bring up the next member who’d like to speak?

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from James Dobbins.

Q: It seems to me that if there’s a single decision that condemned the campaign in Afghanistan, it was the decision to invade Iraq. And this had an effect from December of 2001, not 2003.

COHEN: OK. I’m going to turn that into a—first, thank you for that. But let me turn that into a question. That is, again, I think a common line of argument. Things would—in Afghanistan would have been OK if a misguided decision had not been made to invade Iraq. Let’s go, Ryan, Carter, and Kori.

CROCKER: I certainly share the evaluation of a misguided decision to invade Iraq. I’m not sure we can lay all the woes of the world at its doorstep, though. And in the case of Afghanistan, of course, we’ve heard this argument from a number of sources, no one has ever really been able to tell me what exactly it was concretely that was diverted, that we would have been able to do successfully had we not gone into Iraq. Was it troop numbers? Was it White House focus? You know, what specifically went wrong because we were engaged in Iraq? So perhaps my colleagues will have that answer. I’ve never been able to unearth it.

COHEN: Carter?

MALKASIAN: I’ll pass on this one.

COHEN: OK. (Laughs.) Prudent. Kori.

SCHAKE: In my experience—my experience, being on the NSC in the Bush White House from 2002 to 2005, was that Iraq was a major diversion of leadership effort and focus from Afghanistan to Iraq. Iraq felt much more important than Afghanistan. Afghanistan became a holding action in order that the focus could shift to Iraq. So it did feel like there was a significant shift in the leadership’s attention, interest, willingness to make sacrifices in order to focus on the priority, which was the Iraq—runup to the Iraq War, and then the fighting of the Iraq War.

Q: Could I ask—could I—

COHEN: And you believe that made a big difference, Kori?

SCHAKE: Well, I would defer to Ryan and Carter about that, since they watched Afghanistan much more closely than I did. But my guess would be that it probably did make a consequential difference, because you can—you can tell when focus diverts. But, again, I would defer to Ryan or Carter on that.

CROCKER: Well, and to point it right back to Carter, again, I understand the general perspective that Kori articulates here. But show me a specific. What should have happened and didn’t because of Iraq?

SCHAKE: Well, I can think of one specific thing that did happen, which is that Guard and Reserve forces started being put into the rotation as regular parts of the force, rather than as strategic reserves. And that suggests to me—that starts, what, late 2004, early 2005. And that suggests to me that there was a constraint on military forces because of the two wars being fought, because we hadn’t before used Guard and Reserve forces as routine rotational units.

COHEN: So I’m just going—we are going to make Carter talk. (Laughter.) You’re not going to get away so easily, Carter. I am just going to say—you know, add my two cents, which are that, I mean, you can think that Iraq was completely misguided. That’s not really the point. But I do think, A, Afghanistan was always bound to be a long-term affair anyway, right? And it’s kind of hard to imagine that we would have been able to tie it up in bow in a couple of years if it hadn’t been for Iraq. And secondly, you know, the United States did manage the fight in two theaters at once during World War II against two rather more formidable enemies than the Ba’athists and the Taliban. And the idea that we couldn’t have been able to pull that off if there had been serious recognition of that by leadership, you know, puzzles me. But I’m exceeding my authority as chair here.

Carter, over to you.

MALKASIAN: So in general I don’t see Iraq as a necessary condition for what we’ve wound up in Afghanistan. However, I can point to, as Kori pointed to, that it did cause us to—I think it—the war could have been managed better if we weren’t in Iraq. So in 2006, is a critical year in Afghanistan. It’s the year the Taliban really come back, and launch a lot of offenses, and take a whole lot more ground. What’s happening in Iraq in 2006? It’s one of the toughest years of the war. What we’ve called the civil war in Baghdad is breaking out. It’s the prelude to the surge. So that attracts all kinds of attention, at a time at which that attention applied in Afghanistan may have had better results, a time in which a few more forces in Afghanistan may have had—may have changed things a little bit. But you’ll notice I put this in the category of we would have been able to manage the war better. I don’t put it in the category of it would have enabled us to have victory of win the war.

COHEN: You know, I’m going to move us onto the next question. I’ll just say that I think there are a number of these, if you will, propositions that are out there about the Afghan War that really cry out to be examined with care, and in depth, and dispassionately. You know, we’ve just—we’re kind of beginning to do that here, but it will—I really do believe there’s a case for doing this a lot more deeply.

Laura, if you’d put up the next questioner, please.

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Barbara Slavin.

Q: Hi. Thank you so much for doing this. And I’ll always remember seeing Ryan in the embassy with one working bathroom, and he looked happy as a clam—(laughs)—early 2002.

I wanted to push this forward a little. I know we’re doing the postmortem. But given where we are now, I’d just like the esteemed panelists to talk about what can we do now to mitigate the damage, and whether there are any prospects for regional cooperation of the sort that we had with the Taliban were last in control? And of course, I’m thinking in particular of Iran, which is happy to see us gone but not happy to see the Taliban in power.

COHEN: Who would like to take that?

CROCKER: Well, that’s a great point, Barbara. I would jump in to say that the consequences of our final withdrawal are so grave that I think there are, ironically, some opportunities here. The Pakistanis had about, like, fifteen minutes of high fiving in the corridors of power in Rawalpindi and Islamabad, and then they had to face the reality that the perception of a Taliban effort, clad only in the raiment of the one truth faith, defeated the infidels. That is resonating in Pakistan in a manner they find very dangerous. It has empowered the Pakistani Taliban. It has empowered the Kashmiri groups that Pakistan created at the time of partition and has now lost control of.

So I think there is a necessity for us to consult with regional actors and figure out a way to support them against what I fear is going to be the danger of regional insurgency. I think we need to make good on our pledges. I’m board member of—advisory board member of No One Left Behind. Well, we left thousands behind that were involved in the SIV process. We need to do the right thing for those people. We need to get Congress to drop some of those insane requirements that require three years to chop your way through the paperwork. And I know Carter—you know that better than I do.

We need to find, you know, some way to ensure we don’t get blamed for a humanitarian catastrophe come winter. The Taliban will seek to do that, as Saddam Hussein did to us, of course, with oil for food. So we need to not put this in the rearview mirror at all, and the administration, obviously, is trying to do just that. We need to organize for a longer-haul. We need to get people in key positions. I was heartened to see that Ambassador Beth Jones, a former Foreign Service colleague of mine, is now being—has been named, I think, to try to run that effort to get people out of Afghanistan who need to get out, get them to third countries, get them to the States. So organizing for success is always a good idea. Having tried everything else, I think the administration may be resorting to competence.

COHEN: You know, I’m going to ask Kori and Carter to speak to this, but I also—you know, I think you broadened that question out, Ryan, by saying this is a catastrophe for us. This is, you know, really a major, major setback. One of the other arguments that’s out there, in fact it’s an argument that I think all of us have heard made by officials in the Biden administration, is, well, this was ugly, this was too bad. But, you know, we kind of cauterized that bleeding wound, and this is really going to allow us to focus on the real geopolitical game, which is China, and to a lesser extent Russia. And I think you’re—you know, part of what your remarks indicate is that you don’t really agree with that, certainly with regard to the region. But of course, one can also make it broader.

So, Kori, if you would speak to that broadened version of the question, and then you, Carter.

SCHAKE: Yeah. I would reinforce the point you just made, Eliot. It seems to me that if we want, for example, India to turn its attention to cooperating with us, Australia, Japan, and others to constrain China’s belligerence internationally, what we just did in Afghanistan is going to make India’s security situation much more tenuous. And so one thing I would add to Ambassador Crocker’s great list is we need to be talking to the government of India and helping them with intelligence cooperation, with covert operations cooperation, with assistance, with border—with all of the things that are going to help India manage the consequences of our unilateral decision to abandon Afghanistan.

A second thing that I think is deeply problematic is the fiction of over-the-horizon counterterrorism operations, which I don’t see a horizon over which those are sustainable at anything like the cost of having remained in Afghanistan. So the Biden administration is at risk of not managing the actual terrorism threats to the country, or doing it in a way that actually detracts from our ability to flow resources, and military resources in particular, to manage the China challenge.

COHEN: And, just really quickly, Kori—although it’s unfair of me—do you think that the manner of our departure really does a serious damage to our credibility, let’s say, vis-à-vis China-Taiwan, or something like that?

SCHAKE: I would just quote The Global Times, a Chinese propaganda mouthpiece, saying: If the United States can’t do—can’t stomach 2,500 troops that have had no casualties in eighteen months in Afghanistan, Taiwan absolutely shouldn’t trust them to do the hard thing defending Taiwan against China. I think it is a severe damage to America’s credibility, because we are—you know, President Biden talked so blithely yesterday about our commitment to the defense of Taiwan. And a lot of people are nervous about American credibility, because they watch what President Biden did in Afghanistan.

COHEN: Carter, I’m going to give you the very last word. We only have one minute, or less.

MALKASIAN: All right. So I definitely agree with regional diplomacy. I’m not opposed to humanitarian aid, whatsoever. I’m not sure I’m even opposed to the opening of an embassy or dropping sanctions. However, I spent a good deal of 2019 negotiating with the Taliban. They were extremely difficult to negotiate with. They were incalcitrant on—they were good negotiators. And I think the odds of us getting much out of them, meeting the conditions we want, are very, very slim. So I think when we work with Afghanistan we just need to be very sober.

What we offer to the Taliban is unlikely to be returned to us. If we care about the humanitarian issue, absolutely. But in practical, realist terms, I think what we get out of it is going to be small. And I guess the last thing I can say here is that President Biden said that we don’t have many interests in Afghanistan. Over time, I’ve come kind of to agree with that. And I’ve come to think that the terrorist threat, at this point, is much less than the other threats that we face. And in that situation, we should think carefully about how much time we want to invest in Afghanistan, how much senior policymaker time we want to invest—and the Taliban will demand that kind of time—rather than focusing on the other threats that face the United States. But, again, I’m not trying to—I agree with what both of you said. Just kind of my perspective, that’s all.

COHEN: Well, I can’t thank you enough. This has been a—it’s been a fascinating panel. I congratulate you on the combination of sort of underlying passion but also dispassionate analysis. And that’s hard to do when we’re talking about a war that’s touched each of us personally. I also think the conversation really makes it clear that there really is a need to dig a lot deeper into what this experience has to teach us.

I want to thank all those who’ve joined today’s virtual meeting. And obviously in particular thanks to you, Ryan, Kori, and Carter. Everybody, please note a video of today’s meeting will be posted on the Council’s website. And with that, I wish you a good afternoon. And again, thanks to my colleagues on the panel.

CROCKER: Thanks, Eliot. Great job.


Top Stories on CFR


Outright seizure of the Russian Central Bank’s hundreds of billions in frozen assets is currently off the table, but it is still possible to obtain large sums for Ukraine from the interest income on these assets.


NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization)

The war in Ukraine marks a new era of instability in Europe. Countering Russia’s efforts will require a stronger, more coordinated NATO.