There is a cliché about Afghanistan that custom dictates must be included in every TV appearance, column, and book about that land: It is the “graveyard of empires.” From Alexander the Great’s Greeks, to the Persians, to the British, to the Soviets, to the Americans, nation after nation has tried (and largely failed) to invade and pacify the mountainous country and its people. This history shapes America’s inheritance today: both the reality on the ground for American forces in Afghanistan and the perceptions of our allies (particularly those with experience there, like the British) of possible outcomes.
Nonetheless, this broad brushstroke version of history ignores a number of important cases where foreign powers have found success—albeit often fleeting—in Afghanistan. There is a pattern to these successes: They are typically modest efforts that do not attempt to remake Afghanistan but rather achieve certain discrete, well-defined ends. And significantly, there is some overlap between this pattern and the policy articulated (albeit in an opaque manner) by President Trump on Monday night, that the U.S. might have a glimmer of hope as it approaches its 17th year of fighting in Afghanistan.
Four examples of limited success in the modern era are worth revisiting, in part because of their lessons for America today, and in part because each carried complications that only became apparent over the long term.
The first is America’s legendary sponsorship of the Afghan mujahedeen who beat back the Soviet invasion between 1979 and 1988. This covert effort began with small amounts of support funneled through various middlemen (including Pakistan’s shadowy security apparatus) and grew into billions of dollars of money, sophisticated weapons (like Stinger missiles capable of shooting down Russian helicopters), and technical assistance. What made this effort so successful was its narrow goal—inflicting Soviet casualties in the context of the Cold War—and the simple truth that it’s easier to support an insurgency than a counterinsurgency, especially when that insurgency is playing on its home turf. However, after this insurgency pushed out the Soviets, the U.S. washed its hands of this support. Over time, parts of this rebel movement would evolve into al-Qaida and the Taliban, with major long-term repercussions for the U.S.
A second, slightly older example of success in Afghanistan is the massive development efforts undertaken there during the mid-20th century by the U.S. and Soviet Union as the two superpowers competed for Afghan affection and allegiance. Just as it had for centuries before, Afghanistan’s strategic location on the Soviet Union’s periphery, between Iran and Pakistan atop historic trading routes, made it matter to each country. During the Cold War, the U.S. poured hundreds of millions of dollars into agricultural and infrastructure projects in Afghanistan, only to see those projects crumble over nearly four decades of continuous war. It was this crumbling infrastructure that U.S. forces would inherit and attempt to patch up over the past 16 years of war. Some of these projects were eerily similar to those pursued more recently. An effort to dam the Helmand River in Southern Afghanistan, partially completed in the 1950s, would be repeated again and again by the U.S. Agency for International Development after 2001. Some of these projects actually worked, improving Afghan lives and economic activity for decades. In those days, Afghanistan was a poor but stable, developing, and optimistic country. However, those successes occurred only when violence was absent and where these projects aligned with local political, economic, and geographic conditions.
The third and fourth examples of success come from America’s more recent long war in Afghanistan. The third mirrors the CIA’s support for Afghan rebels during the 1970s and 1980s: It is our tactical support to Afghan security forces. Where U.S. military units—including both special operations forces and conventional troops—have partnered directly with Afghan units, and provided them with U.S. support like logistics and airpower, the Afghan units have performed very well. Indeed, there is some evidence from the past few years that American-advised Afghan military units perform better than purely American units at counterinsurgency because they combine fighting skill with local knowledge.
This reflects a broader theory of counterinsurgency that it’s best done by indigenous security forces. To the extent that much of the current U.S.–Afghanistan strategy relies on supporting Afghan forces as they fight the Taliban and al-Qaida, this holds some promise. However, foreign forces cannot fight our wars; eventually interests diverge, or conflict emerges between client and patron. This may soon happen in Afghanistan, particularly if the Afghan government decides to reach a political settlement with the Taliban, and possibly with al-Qaida elements, even as the U.S. wants to continue fighting.
The fourth and final case of success in Afghanistan concerns counterterrorism operations: those shadowy raids and drone strikes that have successfully stacked terrorist bodies like cordwood across Afghanistan and rural Pakistan. In the 16 years since 9/11, the U.S. has built a remarkable intelligence and special operations machine and put that machine to work in Iraq, Afghanistan, and across the Middle East. This machine is now capable of striking with just hours’ notice, collecting more intelligence, and moving onto a successive raid within the same night based on that intelligence. Some observers think this machine—more than the surge of conventional troops—played the most vital role in ripping the heart out of the Iraqi insurgency during 2007–08, and this machine has clearly played a major role in preventing al-Qaida from attacking the U.S. since 9/11.
Today, the Joint Special Operations Command machine continues its work across Afghanistan and Pakistan—doing the hard, bloody, dangerous work of counterterrorism with elite special operations troops or drones. This counterterrorism effort most closely aligns with our primary interest (as articulated by President George W. Bush, and President Barack Obama, as well as President Trump) of preventing another attack on the U.S. emanating from Afghanistan. Although this machine is small, it is costly; elite troops cost more, and are in shorter supply, than their conventional counterparts in the U.S. military. However, it is conceivable that the U.S. could continue to operate this counterterrorism machine indefinitely in Afghanistan, whether led by the military’s special operations command or an analogous agency within the U.S. intelligence community. This plan is not without risk though: Counterterrorism raids often risk alienating civilians, or inflicting civilian casualties, in ways that can create enemies or undermine local government partners, as has happened in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Yemen during the past 16 years. Counterterrorism operations must be carefully calibrated and overseen in order to be effective—something that runs counter to Trump’s promise to take the gloves off and end White House micromanagement of warfighting.
These four cases of success in Afghanistan carry common elements: limited aims, tight alignment with their foreign sponsors’ interests, and expert execution. There is much left unaccomplished by these types of operations: They do not support a liberal democratic Afghan government, nor do they do much to promote economic opportunity or human rights for the Afghan people, let alone the kind of long-term development that might make Afghanistan less fertile for extremist groups in the decades to come. However, the lesson of the past 16 years may be that such lofty goals are beyond the reach of the U.S. Even in the case of American foreign assistance to Afghanistan during the Cold War, our modest efforts were unable to plan a permanent, stable democracy, nor a thriving middle class and civil society that could support one.
In his speech Monday night, President Trump appeared to take these lessons on board, focusing the U.S. on “killing terrorists” to the exclusion of “nation building,” even saying that he (like Americans) had grown weary of the war. He appears to have overruled his generals who sought a more expansive mission for U.S. forces in Afghanistan, one that would have continued to embrace a broader counterinsurgency and economic development effort. Trump was wise to overrule his generals in this instance and focus on a narrower vision of American interests in Afghanistan. Such a narrow vision offers the only path to success there—albeit one still fraught.