What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?
What went wrong in Afghanistan? How did a 20-year effort vital to American national security result in such an ignominious failure?
To Fight Without Hope
First, let's dispense with one notion: that this somehow reflects cowardice or a refusal to fight on the part of our Afghan allies. That's probably true of some of them, but a lot of Afghans have died in this war, 20 times as many as Americans, and we are hearing angry denials from those who fought alongside them.
"The Afghan military has consistently, in any one year, sustained more casualties in its fight against the Taliban than we have sustained in all 20 years of our war there. I fought alongside the Afghans. I watched them save American lives. In one instance, when a convoy I was in was ambushed, our Afghan partners were the first to drive back into the kill-zone to pick up wounded Americans. To say they are unwilling to fight because their forces collapsed after we turned our backs on them is a slap in the face not only to our Afghan allies but to Americans—such as me—who mixed our spilled blood with theirs....
"[T]o accuse our Afghan allies of not fighting hard enough, then to use their alleged incompetence as a smokescreen for our own, is the height of arrogance, and dishonor....
"Tell the Afghan soldiers who fought until they ran out of ammunition and were then slaughtered by the Taliban in Faryab province that they didn't fight hard enough, or perhaps tell the same to the Afghan commandos who fought all summer in a desperate battles in Lashkar Gah."
The whole piece, by Marine veteran-turned-report Elliot Ackerman, is excellent. I was particularly struck by his description of his encounters with Vietnam veterans: "They knew what was coming: betrayal. Of our allies, of our values, and of every American who was asked by this country to make promises to the Afghans only to have our political leaders break them."
Ouch. That one hurts because I've seen it coming for a long time, and because I suppose it highlights a similar sense of bitterness and futility among those of us whose contribution to the war effort has been only intellectual. I vividly remember that it was about three days after 9/11 when I was listening to some idiot in Congress and it struck me that this was going to be another war that is won on the battlefield and lost in Washington, DC. I made it my goal to do what I could to prevent that from happening. I believe that people like me made a difference and that disaster would have struck far earlier without us. But at some point, the American people just stopped listening.
More specific, though, is Ackerman's description of one of the big mistakes America made in training the Afghan military.
"[I]t is a military we decided to build in our image as opposed to theirs. We made it a nationally recruited force as opposed to a regionally or tribally recruited force. The result was that Afghans typically didn't fight in their native provinces. The backbone of accountability in Afghanistan—the disciplinary structures that have given them their reputation as fierce fighters—did not translate neatly into the structure we imposed on them. This was a strategic mistake made by us, one that has at times undermined our partnership with them in a counterinsurgency."
The other aspect of this is that we trained the Afghans to fight with close air support, the way Americans have grown accustomed to. But then we withdrew our air support and stopped providing maintenance for the small and underpowered Afghan Air Force. It's the same tale I've read from South Vietnamese soldiers. We trained them to fight as we did, with all the logistics and technology and air support—then wondered why they collapsed when we suddenly made that style of fighting impossible.
Kori Schake looks at America's spotty record at training foreign militaries. The key problem is that "We try to create militaries in our image, and that's often not congruent with the political and social circumstances in which those forces are operating."
Shay Khatiri expands on this.
"Americans trained the Afghans to fight as we do, not like the Afghans used to, so they became reliant on our methods, tactics, and equipment, including air support and a complex system of military units that requires an exhaustive command and communications network. While we may have had good intentions and good reasons for making the Afghans reliant on these tools and techniques, we never taught the Afghans how to do them on their own. We did them for the Afghans ourselves.
"When, in April, President Biden abruptly announced our pending withdrawal, the American focus turned from logistical support to exit. On top of the 3,500 American members of the military, 17,000 more military contractors stopped assisting the Afghans more or less overnight. The Afghan military lost the equivalent of two logistics divisions, without the time to adjust to the new reality, learn how to supply itself with logistical support—something we never taught them—and teach itself how to operate complicated American machines and equipment, which takes months, if not longer, to learn. The American personnel didn't even provide the courtesy of fixing the equipment they were leaving behind, much of it down due to maintenance issues."
But the most interesting comment on this is from David French, who describes how the collapse of the Afghan army can only be seen by appreciating a perspective the contemporary American soldier never has to face: hopelessness.
"What makes a man willing to stand and fight, even if fighting might mean his death? The answer is complex and varied, involving combinations and permutations of hate, fear, love, patriotism, professionalism, fanaticism, and—a critical ingredient—hope....
"It's remarkable what a person can endure when they have hope, and hope is one thing we take for granted as an American fighting force. Yes, we're professional. Yes, we fight for the love of the man or woman beside us. Yes, the military is full of patriots. But rare is the day when any one of us feels as if we face hopeless odds, and I mean that in the most concrete way possible.... We never had to fight without hope....
"[W]hile training was difficult and professionalism was elusive, our alliance still gave these armies hope. They were allied with—in Bing West's words in his excellent book about the surge in Iraq—the 'strongest tribe,' the United States of America. Even a relatively small American presence gave our allies access to better intelligence to understand the enemy's disposition, to air assets that could turn the tide of virtually any battle, and to the raw technical ability to keep allied vehicles driving and allied aircraft flying.
"In other words, our allies went into the fight with a trump card in their back pocket. Remove the trump card, and you strip that hope. In fact, remove the trump card, and they can't even truly fight the way they've been trained to fight. You tell the ordinary soldier in the field that if they call for the cavalry, no one will come to their aid....
"So what happens to normal human beings when you remove the hope of victory by yanking away the trump card of American help...and place them in front of an enemy that will show them and their families no mercy in defeat? Many of them make the calculation that a doomed fight will seal their fates. To switch sides or simply attempt to disappear gives them and those they love a chance to live."
What You Get to Vote For
So what is the current state on the ground in Afghanistan? Well, the "withdrawal" has taken the form of a surge of thousands of US troops sent in to secure a single air strip to evacuate thousands of Western civilians and local Afghan allies in what will need to be a massive airlift.
But that assumes they can get to the airstrip, which is surrounded by the Taliban. Some of those who need to be evacuated have been blocked from the airport. In effect, the US effort is totally dependent on the forbearance and good will of the Taliban, with whom we have been in frantic negotiations.
"In an extraordinary move, the top US commander in Afghanistan, Adm. Peter Vasely, has been leading the effort to negotiate with his Taliban counterpart to maintain security at the Kabul airport and ensure the safety of both Americans and Afghans hoping to escape.
"So far, talks have produced mixed results at best. US troops have secured the airport with evacuation flights taking off successfully. However, the US embassy has explicitly warned that it cannot ensure safe passage for Americans attempting to reach the airport and CNN has reported that Afghans attempting the perilous journey there have been subject to violence and intimidation.
"One White House official said that while the US has several channels to the militant group, officials are still unclear about which Taliban fighters control what, and whether instructions are being properly passed down the chain of command."
Being dependent on the good will of the Taliban is the very definition of failure, and this is precisely what we have spent 20 years trying to prevent. But there are even worse people than the Taliban out there, like the Islamic State, a rival group to the Taliban.
The upshot of our situation in Kabul is that we are not in control—and that's what our leaders voted for, to not be in control.
It's a very great mistake, in war and in everything else, to think that you can choose outcomes, when all you can really choose is actions. You cannot choose peace, or military withdrawal, or the evacuation of all of your people and allies. You can only choose the actions you will or will not take to achieve those goals. Our current leadership, in a bipartisan decision, has chosen to not take action.
The man I miss most, in retrospect, is George W. Bush. He made many mistakes in his conduct of the War on Terror after 9/11. But his consistent virtue as a wartime leader is simply that he was trying. It was personally important to him to get the War on Terror right, because he saw it as a real thing—not just as a political football or as "optics.
Nobody since him has been trying.
Barack Obama did the usual politician's dodge, second nature to him, and tried to split the difference.
"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."
Donald Trump clearly just wanted to get out, but he let the generals delay him. They were delaying in the hope that the next president might actually have some idea what he was doing. They were disappointed.
Mr. "Zero Responsibility"
The Washington Post has some good reporting on how we got here, including Joe Biden dismissing warnings from the military and from our intelligence agencies.
"Months before Biden unveiled his withdrawal decision, Gen. Austin 'Scott' Miller, then the top commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan, warned that a rapid government collapse was not just possible but was the most likely result of a quick exit, according to one person familiar with his analysis.
"In weeks of intensive deliberations in Washington, Austin and Gen. Mark. A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, privately advised Biden against a full withdrawal, officials said.
"'It came down to where the assessment they were receiving from the military in Afghanistan did not support the preferred policy decision that the administration and certainly the State Department wished to pursue,' one of the officials said. 'The bottom line was that DOD was not the loudest voice in the room when it came to stating their candid assessment of likely outcomes.'"
That led up to this humiliating ending:
"As the Taliban continued to draw nearer to Kabul, [US negotiator Zalmay] Khalilzad told the militants it was not in their interest to seize the capital immediately. Thousands of US troops were already landing there and would fight if they had to, Khalilzad warned, according to people familiar with the discussions. If the militants would delay the move on Kabul, he told them, they would be in a much better position to achieve their fundamental goals.
"The Biden administration, however, has less and less ability to shape events as the Taliban grip grows stronger."
President Biden's response so far has been buck-passing and stonewalling, including the lamest possible excuse: Trump made me do it.
"In justifying the decision, Biden's aides argued that the president's hands were tied by Trump's February 2020 agreement with the Taliban, which committed the United States to withdrawing in 2021. If Washington reneged, they argued, the Taliban would resume attacks on American troops."
But the overall tone Biden has been presenting to the public is one of contemptuous indifference. This shouldn't surprise us, because he warned us about it last year.
"As a candidate in early 2020, Biden was asked whether the United States had a responsibility to Afghan women and girls in light of a possible Taliban takeover. 'No, I don't!' Biden said. 'Do I bear responsibility? Zero responsibility.'"
"Zero Responsibility" should be blazoned on Biden's tombstone as the way we remember his legacy.
(This, by the way, might have been enough to turn me against Biden in the last election—except that Trump's policy was really no different. More on that below.)
We can see this contemptuous indifference mostly in the way Biden has treated our NATO allies. As late as June, he was still offering American guarantees to our allies that the withdrawal would not lead to chaos.
"Biden promised UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and other leaders at the Group of Seven summit in Cornwall, England, that 'critical US enablers' would remain in place to keep Kabul safe following the drawdown of NATO forces, the note said. British officials determined the US would provide enough personnel to ensure that the UK embassy in Kabul could continue operating."
When these guarantees came crashing down, Biden couldn't even bring himself to talk to our allies.
"It has all unfolded with scant communication from Biden himself, who waited 48 hours after Kabul fell to speak with any foreign leader. He phoned Britain's prime minister on Tuesday afternoon, and on Wednesday spoke to German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
"The White House said regular calls were going out from lower levels of government focused on logistical or operational matters. But other countries' leaders had still found time to talk to each other — by Wednesday, Merkel had spoken to the leaders of Britain, France, Italy, Pakistan, Qatar and the United Nations' high commissioner for refugees.
"The messy crisis in Afghanistan has taught both Americans and leaders in foreign capitals some new things about the still-new president, whose four decades in public life had lent him an air of familiarity. Some of his most marked political characteristics, like empathy and optimism, have been replaced by a colder realpolitik. His promise of restoring competence to government has been undercut by scenes of chaos and confident predictions that turned out to be wrong.
"'It's a lack of communications, of honesty, with the American people and with allies around the world who are deeply disappointed with a Biden administration that they felt would be much more multilateral, especially on an issue where the allies have been fighting with the Americans for 20 years now,' said Ian Bremmer, director of the Eurasia Group. 'The decision on how and when to leave was made unilaterally by the Americans, and that's not the way you treat your allies, frankly.'"
So this may seem like it's "just" about Afghanistan, but it's really about all of our alliances, and this has shaken not only NATO but also our alliance with Taiwan.
We Told You So
All of this has been a good opportunity for us long-ignored hawks to remind everybody that we told you so.
Here is Condoleezza Rice:
"[W]e might have achieved a reasonable outcome with a far smaller commitment. More time for the Afghans didn't have to entail combat troops, just a core American presence for training, air support, and intelligence.
"More time for us might have retained American intelligence and counterterrorism assets on the ground to protect our allies and our homeland from the reemergence of a terrorist haven. More time might have preserved our sophisticated Bagram air base in the middle of a dangerous region that includes Pakistan and borders the most dangerous country in the Middle East—Iran.
"More time would have served our strategic interests."
David Petraeus, the most successful counterinsurgency commander in recent decades, raised the prospect that US troops are eventually going to have to go back in to do more than secure a runway.
"He outlined how keeping guard against al Qaeda or Islamic State establishing a presence in Afghanistan could now be 'even more costly' than having kept US forces in Afghanistan, with military drones now having to fly from Gulf states or aircraft carriers. And, asked whether US and coalition forces might have to return to Afghanistan one day, Gen Petraeus said it was not 'inevitable,' but added: 'A lot really does depend on what the Taliban now does.'...
"'[C]oalition partners [could] be forced to return in some manner,' he continued. 'In the way that, of course, we had to go back into Iraq two-and-a-half years after we left, when the Islamic State was allowed to reconstitute there.'"
Ryan Crocker, General Petraeus's diplomatic partner in Iraq during the Surge, gives a lesson on the importance of "strategic patience," the ability to stick to a policy over a period of decades.
"I was ambassador to Pakistan from 2004 to 2007. I pushed Pakistani officials repeatedly on the need to deny the Taliban safe havens. The answer I got back over time went like this: 'We know you. We know you don't have patience for the long fight. We know the day will come when you just get tired and go home—it's what you do. But we aren't going anywhere—this is where we live. So if you think we are going to turn the Taliban into a mortal enemy, you are completely crazy.'
"We have again validated their skepticism."
He also emphasizes that we have thrown away the actual low-cost option in favor of paying a higher cost later on.
"When I left Afghanistan as ambassador in 2012, we had about 85,000 troops in the country. The Taliban controlled none of Afghanistan's 34 provincial capitals. When President Barack Obama left office there were fewer than 10,000 US troops. And when Mr. Trump departed there were fewer than 5,000. The Taliban still did not hold any major urban area. Now, they hold the entire country. What changed so swiftly and completely? We did. Mr. Biden's decision to withdraw all US forces destroyed an affordable status quo that could have lasted indefinitely at a minimum cost in blood and treasure."
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair continues this theme.
"In the aftermath of the decision to return Afghanistan to the same group from which the carnage of 9/11 arose, and in a manner that seems almost designed to parade our humiliation, the question posed by allies and enemies alike is: Has the West lost its strategic will? Meaning: Is it able to learn from experience, think strategically, define our interests strategically and on that basis commit strategically? Is long term a concept we are still capable of grasping? Is the nature of our politics now inconsistent with the assertion of our traditional global leadership role? And do we care?...
"We didn't need to do it. We chose to do it. We did it in obedience to an imbecilic political slogan about ending 'the forever wars.'"
The rest is worth reading, presenting a case for treating "Radical Islam" across the world as an interconnected strategic challenge to all liberal societies.
But notice that the "imbecilic political slogan" he is talking about—I knew there was a reason I liked Tony Blair—is a bipartisan one. My recent experience is that you are likely to hear this claptrap about "forever wars" as frequently from the right as from the left.
Real Afghanistan Withdrawal Has Never Been Tried
The current disaster is the result of both the current president's decision and his predecessor's decisions.
A lot of Trump supporters are trying to maintain the fantasy that he would have done things completely differently. But we know he wouldn't because he didn't.
It was Trump who sprung the current Taliban leader out of prison and started negotiations with him, in effect anointing him as the new leader of Afghanistan. As early as April, Trump was cheering on Biden's Afghanistan withdrawal and urging him to get out faster.
If you have any doubts, read Andrew McCarthy's thorough dismantling of Trump's craven deal with the Taliban last year.
But as I put it in The Bulwark last week:
"The mainstream consensus emerging in response to the disaster in Kabul is that withdrawing from Afghanistan was the right decision to make, but President Biden botched its implementation.
"Some serious and thoughtful people hold this position, but it strikes me as fitting a little too comfortably with certain powerful partisan impulses. If you're on the left, it allows you to establish that of course you're a good peacenik and you want America to end its interventions overseas—while disowning the actual consequences of doing so. If you're on the right, it allows you to indulge the fantasy that Trump would have executed this withdrawal so much better—it would have been the best, the strongest retreat, everybody says so—even though Biden was following the basic roadmap Trump drew.
"So everyone will compare the actual retreat from Afghanistan to the idealized fantasy model in their heads and assure us that real Afghanistan withdrawal has never been tried."
See also David French discussing why the other times when we supposedly could have withdrawn from Afghanistan without some similar disaster are illusions.
But there is worse going on in the American right than mere excuse-making for Trump.
The Monster from the Conservative Id
I don't know if anybody remembers that way back in 2007, Dinesh D'Souza came out with a book basically blaming terrorism on the West's debauched secularism and basically declaring his sympathy with the Islamist complaints against us, just from a Christian perspective. The argument was, thankfully, widely dismissed on the right.
At the time, drawing on a high-quality science-fiction reference, I called D'Souza "The Monster from the Conservative Id," representing what at the time was a carefully repressed aspect of their philosophy. It is not so carefully repressed now, and Donald Trump long ago unleashed the conservative Id. In response to the Taliban's triumph, this aspect is now making something of a tentative comeback. I'm seeing just hints and implications, more or less clear, and some will be dismissed as merely ironic. But that's what happened with the rise of the openly racist "alt-right" in 2016. It was all just a joke, just kids trolling—until it wasn't.
So we have pro-Trump congresswoman Lauren Boebert borrowing one of Joe Biden's slogans to declare, "The Taliban are the only people building back better." Is this poking a finger in the eye of a domestic rival—or cheering on the enemy?
Pascal-Emanuel Gobry—one of those Catholic conservatives who longs for a reunion of church and state and foolishly imagines it will be his church—minimizes the reimposition of the burqa by likening it to wearing face masks during a pandemic.
Speaking of false moral equivalence, it seems that the US has no right to criticize the Taliban on free speech because sometimes social media companies cancel somebody's account. So say the Taliban, and so says Republican congressman Matt Gaetz, who goes on to add that the Taliban is "more legitimate than the last government in Afghanistan or the current government here."
If you want to unleash the Id, no better place to do it than on Twitter.
A whole section of the right has decided that the real threat coming out of Afghanistan is not the Taliban or al-Qaeda, but the local Afghan allies who helped us fight them. Why? Because they represent a bunch of dangerous immigrants, the foreign hordes conservative have long obsessed over.
That argument came down from Stephen Miller, former Trump advisor and white nationalist mole, who spat out that "Resettling [Afghans] in America is not about solving a humanitarian crisis, it's about accomplishing an ideological objective—to change America."
It went straight to Laura Ingraham, then to Steve Cortes, to Charlies Kirk and J.D. Vance. But it was left to Tucker Carlson to openly integrate it with racist "replacement theory" and spout crazed imaginings about how the importation of a few tens of thousands of refugees into a nation of 330 million people will "change the demographic balance of this country."
The general trend among conservatives is that the Taliban are not so bad because they're not "woke." When I mentioned on Twitter that "mass rape and sexual slavery are the hallmarks of fundamentalist Islam wherever it manages to impose itself," a couple of fringe "reactionary" types responded that "abortion, pornography, sodomy, gender-bending, free divorce, and pedo-propaganda are all ubiquitous features of liberal democracy."
Rod Dreher, who has recently been promoting the conservative authoritarian regime in Hungary, brought the basic premise out into the open when he tweeted a meme about how the Taliban's triumph shows the merits of "clinging to your guns and religion." At root, at the level of the subconscious and sense of life, religious conservatives recognize their compatriots.
But what seems most typical of the Trump era, the real Id that has been unleashed, is the attitude that it is OK simply not to care at all.
The Lions of Panjshir
What can we do about Afghanistan? That's not the right question, because until there is a dramatic change in leadership in either or both parties, the United States is unlikely to do anything. But we can ask what other people are doing, and already we see the Afghans themselves, so recently slandered as cowards, standing up for themselves.
While Western leaders fantasize about a "moderate Taliban," because This Time Is Different, Afghans in Kabul and other cities, who have known a relatively high degree of freedom for the past 20 years, have taken to the streets to protest against the new regime.
The protests were quickly quashed, but others have taken up a more substantial form of resistance, with remnants of the Afghan national forces falling back to the Panjshir Valley, a redoubt of the anti-Taliban forces before 9/11, and reforming the old Northern Alliance. Ahmad Massoud, the son of the Northern Alliance's pre-9/11 leader—Ahmad Shah Massoud, the legendary "Lion of Panjshir"—is calling for help.
"I write from the Panjshir Valley today, ready to follow in my father's footsteps, with mujahideen fighters who are prepared to once again take on the Taliban. We have stores of ammunition and arms that we have patiently collected since my father's time, because we knew this day might come.
"We also have the weapons carried by the Afghans who, over the past 72 hours, have responded to my appeal to join the resistance in Panjshir. We have soldiers from the Afghan regular army who were disgusted by the surrender of their commanders and are now making their way to the hills of Panjshir with their equipment. Former members of the Afghan Special Forces have also joined our struggle....
"I entreat Afghanistan's friends in the West to intercede for us in Washington and in New York, with Congress and with the Biden administration. Intercede for us in London, where I completed my studies, and in Paris, where my father's memory was honored this spring by the naming of a pathway for him in the Champs-Élysées gardens.
Know that millions of Afghans share your values. We have fought for so long to have an open society, one where girls could become doctors, our press could report freely, our young people could dance and listen to music or attend soccer matches in the stadiums that were once used by the Taliban for public executions—and may soon be again."
Massoud adds, "The Taliban is not a problem for the Afghan people alone." They certainly are not. As one expert who monitors militant Islamists puts it, this is "the most significant boost to the global jihadist movement since September 11."
This was all predictable and preventable, and many of us warned against it. What went wrong in Afghanistan is that too few people were listening. So we're going to have to start all over again, picking up the broken pieces of the free world's defenses against Radical Islam.