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Seven Myths about Afghanistan

Seven Myths about Afghanistan

There’s no shortage of misconceptions when it comes to our involvement in Afghanistan.

Erik G. Jensen

American withdrawal from Afghanistan over the last month has elicited an unprecedented volume of “hot takes,” journalistic provocation based on thin information. Everyone seems to have an opinion, whether they could identify Afghanistan on a map or not. And, predictably, the withdrawal has sparked vigorous partisan finger-pointing. In this polemical hothouse, there are at least seven widely held myths that underlie public perceptions of the war as well as the determination of many politicians to justify urgent, unconditional U.S. withdrawal.

Myth one: It must be either the Republicans or the Democrats who are to blame for the “failure” of the war.

Two Presidents prior to the current one tried to get out of Afghanistan based on a political calendar that did not dovetail with realities on the ground. Then a third President responded to a different sort of date, the twentieth anniversary of September 11, and adhered to a previous administration’s agreement despite its being discredited on many fronts. The biggest mistakes of the four Presidents involved—low points for two Republicans and two Democrats—include:

Diverting focus from Afghanistan to Iraq. I strongly supported going into Afghanistan after 9/11; the early days post-invasion brought relative peace and stability. The original sin wasn’t going into Afghanistan; it was diverting attention and resources to Iraq. The Iraq war was based on a problem conjured by a perceived political and military opportunity rather than on hard evidence—recall Colin Powell’s UN argument on February 5, 2003. On the face of it, the U.S. case strained credulity; the most surprising aspect of the case for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is that it fooled a host of foreign policy pundits and both Republican and Democratic politicians.

Implementing a surge and then announcing a withdrawal date. In 2009 President Obama announced a surge and then in May 2014 announced a withdrawal by that December, before the 2016 election cycle. There were a number of reasons why the longer term impact of the surge was limited, but announcing a withdrawal date most certainly blunted its impact. The Taliban have always said, “Americans have the watch, but we have the time.”

Negotiating an agreement with a date of withdrawal and weak conditions on the Taliban. The Trump agreement and the process of negotiating it showed that the United States just wanted to get the hell out of Dodge. The initiative to negotiate was right, but the negotiations and the resulting agreement were deeply flawed. For example, the Taliban adhered to the minimal condition of refraining from killing Americans during the withdrawal period. On the other hand, the United States obliged the Taliban by releasing five thousand prisoners, including at least four hundred high-profile terrorists, a much more significant concession.

Treating the Trump withdrawal agreement as a binding constraint and failing to renegotiate its terms. The Biden Administration has dismantled all sorts of regulatory measures that the Trump Administration installed. Why, then, did President Biden feel constrained by Trump’s withdrawal agreement? He didn’t. But it was a convenient excuse to get out of Afghanistan, something he had wanted to do certainly before the surge of 2009 if not earlier.

Myth two: Afghanistan is “America’s longest war.”

Aggregate numbers of U.S. financial and human resources investment in Afghanistan over a twenty-year period are recited time and time again: $2.26 trillion, 2,461 deaths of military and civilians employed by the Pentagon. Hearing numbers like these repeatedly over many years, it is unsurprising that before the withdrawal, 60 to 70 percent of Americans approved of leaving Afghanistan.

The moniker “America’s longest war” has stuck, but maybe it shouldn’t have. For a relatively short period, the U.S. military suffered heavy casualties in Afghanistan. But for at least the last five years, the U.S. role has looked much more like a stabilization program than a war. Before August 26, sixty-six U.S. soldiers had been killed in action since January 1, 2015; thirteen more were added in the suicide bombing at the Kabul airport. Any loss of life is tragic, but those aren’t war numbers. (For Afghan civilians and members of the military—more than 47,000 of the former and 66,000 of the latter lost during the war—it has been a different story.) Working with the Afghan National Army, allied forces achieved a low-level equilibrium of stability in the country. As unsatisfying as that equilibrium might be, the situation is now likely to get worse and may end up costing the United States more in blood and treasure than if we had stayed.

Myth three: International terrorist groups have migrated out of Afghanistan to other regions of the world.

The claim that international terrorist networks have left Afghanistan for the Middle East and Africa was used initially as partial justification for withdrawal. That claim is incorrect, and preposterous on its face. And it fails to appreciate the modus operandi of terrorist groups: International terrorist and criminal networks are highly nimble and migrate to safe havens as they pursue targets of opportunity. These multinational networks indeed exist in Afghanistan—an estimated twenty terrorist networks are currently operating there—and may now thrive. Shortly after the United States  dropped the “mother of all bombs” on a maze of terrorist-occupied caves in April 2017, I had dinner with Afghanistan’s deputy national security advisor. He told me that only two of the three major caves had been cleared, and that the deceased included at least fifteen nationalities.

We should now expect that both the number of networks and their activities will expand. Though it’s hard to speculate whether their activities will reach American shores, it is certainly possible, if not probable, that they will further destabilize Southwest, South, and Central Asia. When you think through scenarios of instability, it’s clearly plausible that revived terrorist activity could negatively affect American business, diplomatic, and security interests.

Myth four: The Taliban has a unified and vertically integrated command structure that is separate from ISIS, ISIS-K, and other terrorist groups.

In an MSNBC interview on August 26, former National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster hit the nail on the head: “We try too hard to disconnect the dots [of terrorist networks]. These groups share people, resources, and techniques.” Indeed, one should be very skeptical about the claim that clean organizational lines divide the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Haqqani Network from ISIS and other terrorist groups. These networks metastasize and the modalities of their collaboration and competition frequently are not clear.

The Taliban, for example, did not claim responsibility for the tragic bombing in May 2021 of a Hazara school in Kabul that killed eighty-five people, mostly girls. Maybe it was an act of ISIS, as they claimed; maybe the Taliban and the Haqqani Network were involved; more likely the attack was perpetrated by a mash-up of all three organizations. More recently, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the August suicide bombing at the gates of the Kabul airport that killed nearly two hundred people. But they used a vintage Haqqani Network technique. Further evidence that terrorist organizations learn from each other is clear in the extent to which the Taliban are engaged in forcing women and girls from conquered groups to marry their fighters, which suggests they have learned well from ISIS over the last twenty years.

If the Taliban are going to form a government, can they govern with a level of political legitimacy? To do that they must focus on governance—delivering public goods to the people —and soften the radical ideology that has sustained them as a terrorist organization.

Myth five: State-building in Afghanistan was an utter failure, and state-building projects will fail.

The American state-building model that rushes to hatch a constitution, hold elections, and build a broad panoply of state institutions—especially in societies deeply divided along ethnic and sectarian lines—makes no sense. But the U.S. state-building project in Afghanistan wasn’t destined to fail: It could have succeeded with much more modest expectations and funding levels.

The larger project’s shortcomings had to do with timing (pursuing distraction in Iraq), military mission confusion, and development stupidity, including the disbursement of enormous amounts of funding to weak Afghan institutions without the necessary absorptive capacity and to leaders who were or became corrupt. The U.S. failure to bring down the hammer on rampant corruption in the Karzai and Ghani administrations undermined the legitimacy of the government in the eyes of both the Afghan public and the military. Even with more modest expectations and funding, it would have been a complex project to manage for a funder that struggles with coordination and coherence. But it was not, by its nature, not worth trying based on realities on the ground. Francis Fukuyama’s State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century (2004) lays out the problem of trying to develop a wide scope of state functions and a wide range of public institutions in the context of weak state capacity. That fundamental problem was not grasped in the state-building project in Afghanistan.

In 2002, when I was in Afghanistan trying to figure out the best uses of development assistance, I met with the head of a major foreign assistance organization. He asked my thoughts on developing a program to strengthen rule of law, and I observed that formal legal institutions had not functioned in Afghanistan for thirty years. Disputes, for example, were settled through informal institutions. I recommended that we develop a baseline of what types of disputes were arising, where citizens went to resolve them, and their level of satisfaction with the dispute forums they used. The mission director said, essentially, “That’s a fancy and academic idea.” I replied that it was a very practical one: Creating formal public institutions with wide jurisdiction is expensive.

Western donors tend to have a bias against informal institutions, but it’s a bad idea to create public institutions that supplant functions handled reasonably well by informal ones. If there is not strong public demand and need, and if the tax base cannot sustain large institutions after foreign assistance inevitably recedes, it would be unwise to replace an arrangement that’s working.

I then asked the mission director what he planned to do. He replied that a group of senior officers from Citibank had just visited Afghanistan and they recommended support for the drafting of a commercial code. I said it was a bad idea, that if everything went right over the next ten years, Afghanistan might come to need certain aspects of a commercial code. But it didn’t need it then, and drafting it would contribute to cynicism about foreign assistance and its failure to address people’s real, immediate needs. The mission director said, “Perhaps, but we can have a commercial code drafted before the Afghans have their pencils sharpened.” On this model we have left Afghanistan littered with expensive public institutions and thoughtless development initiatives that were more concerned about ticking boxes in logical frameworks than they were with meaningful change.

On the other hand, I think that some human resource capacity-building was effective. The human resource capacity unleashed in civil society and the private sector post-Taliban was something to behold. Many programs in journalism, women’s empowerment on many levels, grassroots development, business development, and health and education were high-value achievements given the relatively modest funds they received. Since the U.S. invasion both maternal and child mortality have been reduced by half. Life expectancy has increased by nine years. The status of women in Afghanistan is still low, but I cannot tell you how much better it is today that when I first visited Afghanistan in 2002. Girls’ education has expanded dramatically from almost nil in 2001 to approximately 40 percent of girls attending school.

While I worked to build a law degree-granting program at the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF), young Afghans gave me hope that we could do good there. I saw how U.S. government funding for AUAF transformed the lives of students and gave them a pathway to realizing their human potential. During the dozen-plus years that I have sat in on law classes at AUAF, among other positive dynamics, the demeanor of female students changed remarkably. Before, the few women in class sat timidly huddled together. Now women—more than half the law students—tend to be the best students in class. They dominate the prizes awarded at moot court competitions and actively engage in debate with their male counterparts in the classroom.

I have asked myself many times in recent weeks, and many times during the last twelve years working on the project, “Was it, is it worth it?” The transformation I saw in the classroom in Kabul is like nothing I have experienced before, and I think that our work in higher education will be ripe for evaluation a decade or more hence. Let us see what these young and capable leaders of the next generation do in the diaspora and in Afghanistan.

Myth six, a prospective one: Getting out of Afghanistan will cost less in blood and treasure than staying would have.

The “boomerang effect” is well known in foreign policy circles; it takes into account the possibility of the unintended consequences both of foreign intervention—and of ceasing it. The way we withdrew from Afghanistan may create a boomerang effect just as it did when we abruptly withdrew from Iraq and then had to return and fight like hell to quell ISIS. If there is a full-on boomerang effect in Afghanistan, it may end up costing more to leave than it would have to stay and maintain a stabilization program. I fervently hope it’s not the case this time and that this prospective myth turns out to be true.

Myth seven, a hopeful one: The Taliban have changed their deeply ideological ways and will act in their own interest in order to receive international recognition and all the benefits that flow from that recognition.

My most passionate wish is that this myth comes to fruition. But I think that the chances are not strong. The appointment of Sirajuddin Haqqani as interior minister in the Taliban cabinet probably says it all. He is the leader of the Haqqani Network and has a $10 million U.S. government bounty on his head for terrorism. On an issue closely watched by the international community, the Taliban’s chief negotiator, silver-tongued Sher Mohammed Abas Stanekzai, has said all the right things about women’s education from his perch in Doha, Qatar. Simultaneously, on the ground, Taliban military commanders have shown that they are no more tolerant of girls’ and women’s education than they were two decades ago. Among many things, I am very worried about the future of girls’ and women’s education and, more broadly, the status of women under a Taliban regime. Since they assumed power, behavior that includes beating women and violently responding to peaceful dissent shows no evidence that the Taliban’s old habits will change.

Erik G. Jensen is professor of the practice and director of the Rule of Law Program at Stanford Law School. He is an affiliated core faculty member at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law.

AfghanistanU.S. Foreign Policy