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Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?
U.S. Army Special Forces and U.S. Air Force Combat Controllers with Northern Alliance troops

Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?

The defeat was two decades in the making, and repeats other American failures at other times in other places.

Michael Mandelbaum

After twenty years, the sacrifice of the lives of 2,448 American soldiers and 1,720 civilian contractors, with more than 20,000 Americans wounded and the expenditure of a trillion dollars, the American project in Afghanistan has failed—suddenly, definitively, and in humiliation.

Despite two decades of effort, the United States failed to bring peace to that country and to sustain a decent, stable, pro-Western government in its capital, Kabul. It also failed to prevent the Taliban, the fundamentalist Islamic movement that sheltered the terrorists who attacked on September 11, 2001, from regaining power: American military forces had vanquished them a few weeks after the assaults on New York City and Washington, D.C. The principal reason for sending military forces to Afghanistan was to prevent further terrorist attacks on American soil and, indeed, none has since occurred. That achievement is now in jeopardy, however, with terrorist groups reportedly poised to use the now Taliban-dominated Afghanistan as a base for their global operations.

Why has all this happened? What went wrong with the American undertaking in Afghanistan? The answers may be found in the most comprehensive history of the American military effort yet published, Carter Malkasian’s recently released The American War in Afghanistan, but also in the other similar and similarly painful American efforts at transforming societies dating back to the 19th century.

Malkasian spent extensive time in Afghanistan as a civilian American official; wrote a well-received book, War Comes to Garmser (2013), about one of the places where he served; and has known, worked with, and talked at length to a wide variety of both Americans and Afghans in Afghanistan. He is unusual even for an American with experience in the country in that he speaks Pashto, one of its two principal languages. He tells, in considerable detail, the story of America in Afghanistan across four presidencies.

The attacks of September 11 took place in the first year of the presidency of George W. Bush, which proceeded to remove the Taliban from power at very low cost and then helped to establish a new government, headed by Hamid Karzai. The administration then devoted relatively little attention and few resources to the country and, in 2006, the Taliban mounted a military and political comeback. By using guerrilla tactics, direct assaults, and suicide bombings they reestablished their control in part of southern Afghanistan.

The Obama Administration decided to send more troops to the country—the number eventually reached one hundred thousand—in an effort to replicate the achievements of the “surge” of American personnel in Iraq in 2007–08. Averse to an open-ended commitment, however, President Obama insisted that the Afghan surge be limited in time and scope. As his administration reduced the size of the American Army in the country, the Taliban rallied and were able to launch powerful offensives in 2015 and 2016.

Donald Trump, the third American President to preside over the war, came to office opposed to the American presence in Afghanistan and often said that he wanted to terminate it. He was persuaded to keep several thousand troops in the country, however, by the argument—which had influenced his two immediate predecessors and proved to be prophetic—that without them the American-supported government would fall and the Taliban would return, bringing with them terrorists who would again attempt to strike the United States. Peace talks with the Taliban came close to fruition in the Trump years but ultimately failed. This paved the way for the Biden decision to withdraw completely, leaving behind not a secure, stable Afghan government but rather one that could not defend itself against the Taliban.

From Malkasian’s account a number of reasons for the American failure emerge. The American government made mistakes. It rejected what in retrospect the author sees as potential opportunities to conciliate the Taliban, or at least some of them. Washington was slow to recognize the need for a competent Afghan police force and army. Nor did the United States consistently pursue a fixed goal in the country. For most of the two decades it concentrated on counterterrorism, a policy aimed at the remnants of the al-Qaeda organization that had launched the September 11 attacks. Intermittently, however, especially during the surge of 2009–10, it tried to practice anti-Taliban counterinsurgency, a far more ambitious and expensive undertaking involving trying to win support for the American-sponsored Afghan government through political reform and economic development.

Furthermore, in the American military’s fight against the Taliban it used tactics—notably air strikes—that led to civilian casualties, which alienated many Afghans, the people whose loyalty the United States was trying to help win for the government to which it was allied. Finally, the invasion of Iraq in 2003 diverted American attention and resources, making it impossible to make the investments in Afghanistan that might have led to a better outcome from the American point of view.

The military and political efforts suffered from shortcomings on the Afghan side as well. The anti-Taliban forces had difficulty in cooperating, divided as they were by tribe and ethnicity. The government’s ministries tended to be dysfunctional and the political leaders corrupt. Hamid Karzai proved to be, for the Americans, a problematical leader, often temperamental, indecisive, and unrealistic about the dangers his government was facing. When he ran for re-election in 2009, American officials opposed his candidacy, albeit unsuccessfully. Malkasian has a more favorable view of Karzai, seeing him as someone who, while flawed, often had a more accurate appreciation than the Americans of what governing Afghanistan required and who had, for the purposes of leadership, strengths that other aspirants to his position lacked.

At the core of the failure in Afghanistan was a simple fact: although always outgunned and often outnumbered, for the most part the Taliban fought better—with more determination, persistence, and bravery—than the soldiers of the American-trained Afghan army. Ultimately the Taliban’s superior performance on the battlefield enabled them to conquer the country.

Napoleon’s dictum that in war moral forces are three times as important as physical ones explains, better than any other aspect of the conflict, what took place on the ground. The Taliban could draw upon widely held and deeply felt sentiments in the Afghan population; the government and the Americans could not. Those sentiments Malkasian specifies as resistance to foreigners and devotion to Islam. Together they constitute much of the Afghan identity as the Afghan people understand it, and the Taliban successfully portrayed themselves as, and certainly believed themselves to be, fighting to defend that identity.

This suggests that, even if the Americans had avoided what the author considers their mistakes in prosecuting the conflict, the United States would probably have been unable to achieve its goals without a continuing and substantial military presence in Afghanistan. There is another reason for skepticism about the prospects for doing so. Afghanistan was not the first country in which American troops arrived for reasons of security, stayed to try to change the local politics, and failed. At other times and in other places, as in Afghanistan, what Americans brought provoked rejection, like a human body rejecting a transplanted organ.

The first such effort, ironically, came within the United States itself. Post-Civil War Reconstruction in the defeated Confederacy attempted to implement the principle of racial equality there. White Southerners resisted, Northerners tired of keeping troops there and withdrew them, and the Southern institutions that came into being to enforce inequality lasted for almost a hundred years thereafter.

A modestly successful instance of what came to be called nation-building took place in the Philippines, where the United States took control from Spain in 1898. Even there, however, the American occupation triggered a fierce and bloody insurrection. While the American government did not give the Filipinos their formal independence until 1946, almost immediately after taking possession of the country it sought ways to relieve itself of what it had come to regard as the burden of governing them.

In both Vietnam in the 1960s and 1970s and Iraq in the first decade of the 21st century, the experience repeated itself. In both cases, anti-American forces were able to mobilize local loyalties to fight against an American-sponsored government. In both cases, as in Afghanistan as well as in the Southern states and the Philippines, the American public decided that a continuing troop presence was too expensive in lives and treasure and pushed the American government toward withdrawal. By the time that Biden decided to leave Afghanistan, a plurality of Americans opposed the war there.

The United States did succeed in fostering democracy and prosperity in Germany and Japan after World War II. But these countries had advanced industrial economies and some experience with democratic government. They had suffered so greatly during the war that their pre-war governments had been thoroughly discredited. American military forces remained in Germany and Japan for decades after the war, but in general aroused gratitude rather than resentment and resistance because the German and Japanese people saw the Americans as protecting their countries from the Soviet Union rather than imposing alien rule. The two great American success stories, that is, had almost nothing in common with Afghanistan.

In Afghanistan, as in Vietnam and Iraq, the United States had as its goal not imperial subjugation but rather—in addition to buttressing American security—the building of institutions that would make possible peace, prosperity, and democracy. Behind the American war in Afghanistan, like the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, lay a powerful idealism. Each intervention was, in its own way, intended to be a good deed. America’s era in Afghanistan, therefore, as in the other countries, bears out the rueful adage that no good deed goes unpunished.

Michael Mandelbaum is the Christian A. Herter Professor Emeritus of American Foreign Policy at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a member of the editorial board of American Purpose. His history of the failed American attempts to transform foreign countries after the Cold War, Mission Failure: America and the World in the Post-Cold War Era, was published in 2016.

Image: Master Sgt. Chris Spence, FOB-53/U.S. Army, U.S. Special Operations Command, Public Domain,

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