War Stories

America’s Failure in Afghanistan Started 20 Years Ago

Years of political delusions and military miscalculations set the stage for this week’s collapse.

Afghans stand outside on the runway. In the foreground a family sits on the tarmac.
Afghan people wait to leave the Kabul airport on Monday. Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images

The Afghan army’s swift collapse and the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan itself are both the result of an arrogance that has plagued American strategy from nearly the beginning of this 20-year war.

It started in November 2001, soon after the Taliban were first ousted, when an international conference decided the new Afghanistan would be led by a centralized government in Kabul following the principles of democracy and a civil society—on the tacit premise that this sort of society and government reflected the natural states, or at least the universal aspirations, of humanity. The scheme was a mismatch from the outset, with a mountainous, rural, largely illiterate country ruled by provincial warlords.

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The presumptuousness deepened a few years later, when the U.S. plowed billions of dollars into the central government, which its new president, Hamid Karzai, used largely to bribe those warlords into following his directives, which they sometimes did, sometimes didn’t, but which in any case swelled their coffers—and their natural tendency toward corruption.

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It spread to the military realm a little later still, as Washington spent billions more dollars ($83 billion in all) to train and equip the Afghan National Security Forces—a bold attempt to create a national army—in the precise image of the U.S. military. Specifically, we created an army that was greatly enhanced by, but would be forever dependent on, a network of close air support, intelligence, logistics, repair and maintenance crews, and rapid mobility by helicopter from one isolated area of the country to another. These networks were by and large maintained by American troops and contractors.

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This decision accounts, more than any other single factor, for the speed of the Taliban’s sprint to the capital. Once the Americans withdrew—once these networks of combat support vanished—the Afghan army’s collapse was inevitable. Not even U.S. military units would have been able to fight well without this network behind them. Toward the end, the Afghan soldiers simply fled, seeing no point in fighting.

But even if the network had still been in place, even if the Afghans had been trained to run it themselves, or if they’d been trained to fight in some other manner, the Taliban would have taken over at some point because of the larger political failing. While many Afghans—very much including Afghan soldiers—fear and despise the Taliban, they never developed much love or fealty toward the government in Kabul. By contrast, the Taliban’s soldiers were fanatical and relentless in their long-game strategy for victory.

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The Taliban always had the advantage in this war—not least because neighboring Pakistan provided a sanctuary. Whenever the Taliban were on the losing end of a battle, they could not only “melt away,” as insurgents often do in these sorts of wars, but do so across the border to safe haven. Meanwhile, Pakistan played a double-edged game: supporting the Taliban (in part out of ideology, in part to keep its rival, India—which supported the Kabul government—from creating a stable ally to the west) while providing Washington with intelligence on the Taliban, al-Qaida, and other militants (in exchange for dollars).

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This is far from the first time that Americans have tried to export American-style institutions. Sometimes (Germany and Japan after World War II) it’s worked; sometimes (Vietnam and now Afghanistan) it hasn’t.

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The biggest hope coming out of the current disaster is that future presidents will think long and hard about what might realistically be accomplished in a foreign country before they intervene in a war.

Michèle Flournoy, as President Barack Obama’s undersecretary of defense for policy, was one of the architects of his troop surge in Afghanistan; before that, she had been a leading proponent of counterinsurgency strategies. The latest developments in that country, she told the Washington Post’s Greg Jaffe over the weekend, have left her “sick to my stomach,” noting, “In retrospect, the United States and its allies got it really wrong from the very beginning. The bar was set based on our democratic ideals, not on what was sustainable or workable in an Afghan context.”

In an email to me Sunday night, she elaborated: “It’s not that I think that [counterinsurgency] is impossible—just that we have a pretty abysmal record of a) judging whether the conditions necessary to succeed are present and b) executing it properly.”

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