National Security & Defense

Afghanistan: An Elite Failure

U.S Army soldiers during a patrol in Khowst Province, Afghanistan, in 2009. (Zohra Bensemra/Reuters)
The manifold errors of the U.S. military and foreign-policy establishment should be remembered and their self-justifications rejected.

It’s over. After 20 years, trillions of dollars, over 2,300 Americans and 200,000 Afghans killed, the Taliban won. What comes next is difficult to say. While it seems unlikely that the Taliban will suddenly become a responsible stakeholder in Afghan society, any confident predictions are likely to be defied by events.

What is certain is that Afghanistan, despite how much President Biden dislikes comparisons to Vietnam, will become the new Vietnam of our political discourse. “Who lost Afghanistan?” will become the new rhetorical hand grenade tossed between politicians. As this develops, the lesson to American voters should be clear: The foreign-policy and military establishment has failed and failed miserably. The ostensible “smart set” was anything but. As they offer excuses with their newly acquired hindsight, the American people should realize that there were specific mistakes that led to this disaster. None of this was inevitable, but the establishment made it so. Their manifold errors should be remembered and their self-justifications should be emphatically rejected.

It is true that Afghanistan always posed a major challenge for any strategic planner. It has a varied terrain, a tangled relationship with Pakistan, and a society left broken in the wake of the Soviet invasion. Yet in the face of these challenges, the establishment committed several mistakes originating from either wishful thinking or a complete lack of knowledge. The ignorance started early, dating back to the anti-Soviet campaign before 9/11. Steve Coll in his book Ghost Wars explained that the CIA had to ask Afghan mujahideen how many Stinger missiles the agency had given them, as it had no idea. This kind of elite obtuseness continued to the beginning of the invasion, as the the secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld, a Princeton-educated former envoy to the Middle East, had to ask even what languages were spoken in Afghanistan. Given this level of illiteracy among our supposed experts and leaders, is it any wonder that they perpetuated as many mistakes as they did?

While there are many, three errors stand out as critical; the American role in feeding Afghan corruption, the failure to commit to a working strategy for victory, and the failure to withdraw in a responsible manner. In each of these, it was not inevitable or something in the air of Afghanistan that forced these failures. It was the fault of our leadership.

The first major policy failure was in actively undermining our own interests by promoting corrupt governance in Afghanistan. While the new narrative from the Biden administration is that “no nation has unified Afghanistan,” in reality policy-makers ensured that corruption would corrode any potential for the country to return to the comparatively calm era before the Soviet invasion. To begin with, the U.S. blocked the return to power of the former king, Zahir Shah, in favor of our client, Hamid Karzai. The Business Integrity Network of Afghanistan noted in 2015 that the Karzai administration resembled a mafia clan more than a democratically elected government. The U.S. then poured billions into this swamp, more than any developing country could reasonably absorb. According to our own special inspector, this double mistake stoked endemic corruption, which then “undermined the U.S. mission in Afghanistan by fueling grievances against the Afghan government and channeling material support to the insurgency.” Combined with our protection for abusive and criminal elements in the Afghan military, is it any shock no Afghan was particularly enthusiastic to die to keep them in office?

Second, the U.S., when given the chance, dithered when the time came to choose a strategy for victory. Carter Malkasian, a former senior Pentagon official, now blames our defeat on the Afghans, arguing that the Taliban could never be defeated. However, this too was not foreordained but the result of specific policy choices made by the “adults” in Washington.

In reality the war effort in Afghanistan was not doomed by some mythical “graveyard of empire” but rather by two dual decisions. After invading Afghanistan, less than two years later, the U.S. government was preparing for an even grander enterprise of invading Iraq, allowing the mission in Afghanistan to wither on the vine for years, until the 2008 election.

Early on in his administration, Obama ordered a review of our policy. In broad terms, the administration was split between those who advocated withdrawal and those who advocated a new surge, a beefed-up security presence and switch to a population-centric strategy. Rather than commit, Obama, cheered on by his vice president, chose neither. The president authorized troops, but fewer than what the military requested. A smaller surge was ordered but immediately undercut by the timetables for withdrawal. Colonel Ali Jalali, former Afghan army officer and interior minister, explained in his book A Military History of Afghanistan that the new troops were in place for barely a year before being withdrawn.

This move demonstrated that we were already looking for the exits. Instead of being forced to reckon with a changed situation on the ground, the Taliban realized it could simply wait us out. Years of neglect, followed up with one year of competent, albeit frenetic, effort immediately undercut by mixed messages to the enemy does not make for a winning strategy no matter where the war is being fought.

The last mistake responsible for the current state of events was the bungled withdrawal. After 20 years of failure, it was hard to argue that America had a vital reason to spend more lives and money on a botched effort. Once again, this current disaster was not inescapable. While this particular withdrawal has many shameful details, from the abandoned Afghan translators to a lack of meaningful counterterrorism options left after the fact, the worst is that it is predicated on a shambolic peace process with the Taliban.

Senior officials in both the Trump and the Biden administrations assured us that the Taliban could be dealt with to achieve an honorable peace. This was always a fiction. The regime that refused to bend in the 1990s is the same group that conquered Kabul today. Despite this obvious fact, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad allowed themselves to be gulled into thinking otherwise. Khalilzad promised that the peace process was “making strides” and that the Taliban would not overrun the country because they needed legitimacy. Even more foolishly, Pompeo, in an interview in March 2020, told the American people that the Taliban would cut ties and “destroy” al-Qaeda. This was simple wishcasting. Despite Secretary Antony Blinken’s lectures to the contrary, the Taliban clearly believed there was a military “solution” to the conflict. Moreover, earlier this year the U.N. Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team reported the obvious. Al-Qaeda and the Taliban remained joined at the hip. Biden-administration officials will insist they were bound by the ridiculous process started by the Trump administration, and former Trump officials will pretend their policy is somehow different from what is unfolding today. Neither deserve to be listened to.

The American people deserve an honest accounting of what happened. Commentators and scholars will debate counterfactuals, policies, and premises. Some of the establishment have begun to blame factors outside of their control, casting Afghanistan as some unsolvable Gordian knot of policy. For American policy-makers across four administrations, there is something falsely comforting in the idea that the Afghan mission was doomed from the start. Like a salesman after blowing a tough sell, they will justify themselves with a variety of tropes and excuses. This is self-serving. In reality, the establishment made concrete decisions. These decisions turned a difficult situation into a complete disaster. Their policies empowered corruption, indecision, and finally failure.

For other experts, they will become more brazen in their blame shifting. Tom Nichols, self-appointed defender of experts, proclaimed that it is not they who are to blame but rather the American people. Nichols believes Americans are responsible because they were never “serious.” They once supported the war and now they don’t. The reason why the American people now support ending a failure 20 years in the making never seems to enter Nichols’s calculation. He even admits that the policy-makers failed when they “only tried pieces of several strategies, never a coherent whole,” but somehow the villains in his piece are never those responsible for their policy choices. This self-exculpation also needs to be rejected. As is usual, the simplest explanation is best. Those who made the decision to implement failed and incoherent strategies are responsible for the results of those strategies. Not those who looked to them for leadership.

The culpability for the tragedy unfolding in the news today is not in some malevolent energy deep in the soil of Afghanistan, as some imagine it, or in the apparent, ungrateful fickleness of the American people. The experts need to look inward. To paraphrase the French statesman Talleyrand, “It was worse than fate, it was a mistake.”

PHOTOS: The Fall of Afghanistan

Joseph S. Laughon is a political-thought graduate of Concordia University, Irvine, and lives in California, where he writes on religion, politics, and national security.

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