War Stories

Was America’s Longest War Doomed From the Start?

As American troops prepare to leave Afghanistan, it’s clear the conflict was never winnable.

U.S. soldiers in silhouette on a hilltop in Afghanistan.
Soldiers from the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne near the town of Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, in 2003. Pool/Getty Images

Now that our 20-year war in Afghanistan is grinding to an unsatisfying end, it’s time to ask the question: Was it ever winnable? The answer: Probably not, in part because, over the years, “victory” was defined either not at all or in terms implausibly grandiose.

At the very beginning, there was a chance of a decent way out for the U.S. Initially, as President Joe Biden noted earlier this week, the war was launched to overthrow the Taliban government, which had harbored al-Qaida, and to crush al-Qaida as well, killing or capturing its leader, Osama bin Laden.

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The first part—the ouster of the Taliban from Kabul—went more quickly than expected, thanks to an audacious CIA-led war plan combining U.S. special forces, high-tech drones, and Afghan rebels on horseback. The second part went badly. Incompetent U.S. commanders let bin Laden escape to Pakistan. President George W. Bush, thinking the war was over, abandoned the terrain and moved on to Iraq. The Taliban came back fighting. And the new central government, which Bush and others had installed in Kabul, was unsuited to govern the warlord rulers in the countryside, much less stave off the Islamists’ insurgency.

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The U.S. commander left holding the bag, an enterprising three-star general named David Barno, fashioned what might have been a successful plan: using the few American troops remaining to train an Afghan army and recruiting American corporate executives to train the new Afghan ministers and bureaucrats in how to run a government.

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This was an appropriately small-scale version of a “counterinsurgency” strategy—designed as much to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people as to defeat the enemy on the battlefield—and it started to work a little bit. But Washington was obsessed with the new war in Iraq; nobody cared about Afghanistan; Barno was sent home to a petty office job, and his successor reverted to strictly military actions against the Taliban. (Barno’s experiment, along with much else in this column, is reported with more detail in my 2013 book, The Insurgents.)

After a while, Afghanistan started to attract a bit of renewed attention (official Washington was stunned that the Taliban were back, when in fact they’d never left), but the response was simply to send more troops, drop more bombs, and raid more homes.

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This didn’t work. The new president, Barack Obama, was looking for a solution. (He had campaigned on the idea that Iraq was the bad war, Afghanistan the good war.) By this time, Gen. David Petraeus had become a household name by bringing the warring militias in Iraq under control, in part through a counterinsurgency strategy that was much larger and more ambitious than the one Barno had briefly tried in Afghanistan. And so, after much deliberation, Obama decided to apply the strategy in Afghanistan—and to send 30,000 more troops to help make it work. Eventually, Petraeus himself was sent to command the troops. He’d worked miracles in Iraq; the hope was he could do so in Afghanistan as well.

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There were three fallacies to this hope. First, as Petraeus himself said at the time, his victory in Iraq was tactical, buying enough time for the country’s political factions to get their act together—which never happened. Second (a fact kept secret until several years later), the victory of sorts was enabled by hackers, analysts, and linguists from the National Security Agency, who captured militia leaders’ computers, swiped their passwords, and sent phony messages to their fighters, telling them to meet at a certain place—where, at the arranged hour, U.S. drone-fired missiles killed them. In the pivotal year of 2007, more than 7,000 insurgents were killed in this manner.

Afghanistan was a very different country. Among many other differences, its insurgents didn’t have computers. Another big difference: When the Afghan insurgents faced a tough battle, they could retreat to safe haven just across the border in Pakistan, which provided them with military assistance and which—to complicate matters further—received much military assistance from Washington. “Hall of mirrors” doesn’t begin to describe the craziness.

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There was a bigger problem still: The government in Kabul, led by Hamid Karzai, was corrupt. In part, Karzai had to be corrupt to keep in line—by bribing—the warlords running the country’s disparate provinces. The basic premise of counterinsurgency, or COIN—to win the allegiance of the local people, so they would support the government and help defeat the insurgents—required a government worthy of support. Karzai and his successors never crossed that threshold.

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Back in September 2009, just before Obama adopted the COIN strategy, Adm. Mike Mullen, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked at a Senate hearing why the Taliban were doing so well, despite the U.S. military’s vastly larger force. The problem, Mullen said, is “clearly the lack of legitimacy of the [Afghan] government.” Sen. Lindsey Graham asked, “We could send a million troops, and that wouldn’t restore legitimacy in the government?” Mullen replied, “That is correct.”

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Around the same time, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who preceded Petraeus as U.S. commander in Afghanistan, wrote in a secret 66-page memo that a “responsible and accountable government,” found “acceptable” by the Afghan people, was just as important as a secure environment. However, McChrystal noted, “widespread corruption by various officials … has given little reason to support the government,” a condition that was sowing “fertile ground for the insurgency.”

Maj. Gen. Michael Flynn, then the senior U.S. military intelligence officer in Afghanistan (who later became President Donald Trump’s indicted national security adviser), made the same point in a New York Times interview: “If we are going to conduct a [COIN] strategy in Afghanistan, and we are perceived as backing thugs, then we are just undermining ourselves.”

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McChrystal and Petraeus were supposed to fix all that. They couldn’t; they didn’t. Their prognosis had validity: A strictly military campaign against the Taliban wouldn’t work if the Afghan people didn’t support their government. But the government remained corrupt, and the support never came.

In some ways, the hugely expanded COIN program—McChrystal, then Petraeus, brought in not just a handful of corporate executives, but vast bureaucracies from the Pentagon and USAID—made things worse. With so much American cash sloshing about, the networks of bribery intensified, the scale of payoffs exploded, the corruption burrowed itself ever deeper into the central government and the warlord-led provinces. The Taliban had a field day.

The whole enterprise of bringing COIN to Afghanistan was a pipe dream all along, and the dreamers should have known it. Petraeus and the others had drawn much of their thinking from a 1964 book called Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, by a retired French colonial officer named David Galula. In one chapter, Galula itemized “the prerequisites for a successful insurgency.” They included a weak government, a neighboring country that offered safe haven, and a predominantly rural, illiterate population—all of them applied to Afghanistan. Galula went further:

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The ideal situation for the insurgent would be a large land-locked country, shaped like a blunt-tipped star, with jungle-covered mountains along the borders and scattered swamps in the plains, in a temperate zone with a large and dispersed rural population, and a primitive economy.

Except for the jungles (but very much including the mountains), that’s Afghanistan in a nutshell.

There is no evidence that Joe Biden ever read Galula, but he reached the same conclusions early on as Obama’s vice president. In a series of 10 National Security Council meetings in 2009, when Obama and his top aides discussed Afghan strategy, Biden was the only one at the table who said that COIN wouldn’t work—that it had nothing to do with why we went into Afghanistan—and who proposed sending just 10,000 more troops and scaling down their ambitions to simply training the Afghan army and fighting terrorists on the Afghan-Pakistan border.

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Obama approved his officers’ COIN strategy, but with conditions.  At a meeting in the Oval Office in December, where he made his decision, he asked his top officials—Gates, Petraeus, and others—whether, with the help of the extra troops and the new strategy, the Afghan army would gain control of at least half of the country’s provinces within 18 months. Tell me the truth, Obama went on. Don’t think that, if 18 months go by and the Afghans haven’t reached this goal, I’m going to give you more troops. This is all you’re going to get. So, if you don’t think this is possible, tell me, and we’ll go with Biden’s plan.

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All the advisers said the goal could be reached by the deadline, though at least some of them knew it couldn’t be. And indeed it wasn’t. So, 18 months later, almost to the day, Obama announced he was withdrawing the 30,000 “surge” troops and reverting to Biden’s strategy. (The officials were stunned; they hadn’t taken his warning seriously.) Shortly before leaving office, Obama decided to keep 5,800 troops in Afghanistan, but for just two purposes: to train the local army and to fight terrorists on the Pakistan border.

When Donald Trump entered the White House, he was determined to pull out all the troops. But Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and national security adviser H.R. McMaster persuaded him to send in a few more troops, laying out a “new” plan that would produce “victory”—even though it wasn’t at all new and never defined victory. Trump went along, to his subsequent regret.

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In his final year, Trump sent Zalmay Khalilzad, a veteran diplomat who was born in Afghanistan, to negotiate a treaty with the Taliban (though not with the Kabul government, which wanted no part of it). The Taliban pledged to stop fighting and to cut off all relations with al-Qaida; in return, the U.S. pledged to withdraw all its troops by May 1, 2021.

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Though Trump didn’t mean it to be, the treaty, as defense analyst Kori Schake has observed, was a “gift” to his successor. As vice president, Biden opposed prolonging the war; he’d warned Obama not to let the generals box him in. Now, as president, he went with his own instincts—the instincts that had proved to be correct the last time around—and Trump’s treaty gave him a way out. U.S. troops haven’t seen much fighting in Afghanistan for a long time; not a single service member has been killed there for more than a year. But the Taliban had warned that if U.S. troops were still there after May 1, combat would resume, the war would escalate, American casualties would start piling up again. That was the last thing Biden wanted, so he announced that the “forever war”—at least our piece of it—was over.

There was one complication: It would be logistically impossible to remove all 3,500 U.S. troops—much less the several thousand NATO troops, who will follow us to the exit—in so short a time. So Biden said he would start pulling them out on May 1 and have them all out by Sept. 11, the 20th anniversary of the event that brought on the war to begin with. Will the Taliban let him revise the deadline without a fight? We’ll see.

It is not a pretty ending to a long-fruitless war. With the Western troops gone, the Taliban will almost certainly take over Kabul, if not by sheer force, then by a power-sharing arrangement that they will very soon dominate. They will likely crush all the social freedoms that have been won, especially those for girls and women. And the U.S. will lose a secure  base for intelligence and counterterrorist operations. Yes, some of these operations could be done from a distance, but it will be a long distance (no country bordering Afghanistan will let us set up shop) of diminished effectiveness.

Some clichés are true, and the description of Afghanistan as a “graveyard of empires” is one of them—first for Britain, then for the Soviet Union, and now, one hopes much less profoundly, for the U.S. This was predictable, not quite from the first phase of our intervention, but certainly from the second phase. It was an arrogant hope that we could transform the nature of the country and the conflict. The best we can hope for, at this point, is to remember what happened and learn the lessons.

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