How America Lost Afghanistan

The most technologically advanced military in the world never understood the country it spent 20 years fighting over

How America Lost Afghanistan
Col. Salim Razmindah, center left, and other aircrew get some rest at an outpost in Ghaniz province, Afghanistan /[ May 9, 2021 / Marcus Yam / Los Angels Times

The Taliban’s assault on Afghanistan and formal control of the country within a week requires an analysis of what went terribly wrong. The events and dynamics that led to these massive failures of the U.S. and the Afghan government and military clearly demonstrate how wrong it was to listen to pundits and “Afghan experts” who, as recently as two weeks ago, offered their assessments of the future of Afghanistan based on hope and optimism rather than on truth and realities on the ground.

Afghanistan has been in a state of war for 45 years. In the 1980s the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, killed millions of Afghan citizens and created the greatest refugee crisis of modern times. During the past 20 years the U.S. invaded and occupied Afghanistan, spent over a trillion dollars and was part of a war that killed more than 170,000 Afghan citizens. At the top of the list of reasons for this endless conflict were foreign invasions and occupations by “infidels” combined with severe ethnolinguistic cleavages that collectively fueled significant mistrust among large swaths of the country’s population. Terrorist groups and regional interlopers have also directly and indirectly contributed to Afghan instability and conflict. For the U.S. period in Afghanistan, however, we would add that uncertainty about what we hoped to accomplish there and a regularly changing strategy laid on top of an acute misunderstanding about Afghanistan’s population, politics and culture are central to understanding what eventually happened.

The U.S. withdrawal has already produced what will be long-term and profound changes for Afghanistan and the entire South and Central Asian region. The decision to leave ultimately reflects a deep failure brought about by historical and social realities, poor political choices and bad strategy. Many factors play a role here, but five stand out.

First, 1979 witnessed profound changes in radical Islamic groups. This was partly responsible for a very tough year for the U.S., Afghanistan and others. In November the takeover of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, Iran, destroyed America’s relationship with its closest ally in the region. Later that month, Islamic students in Islamabad, Pakistan, burned the American embassy there, killing four. Earlier, in February, the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Adolph “Spike” Dubs, was kidnapped and killed in Kabul. Finally in December the Soviets invaded Afghanistan to shore up its failing puppet Marxist regime, ostensibly under the Brezhnev Doctrine that was based on the notion that the Soviet Union had the responsibility to bolster any contiguous Marxist regime that was being challenged. Suddenly, within two months, angry Islamists and pro-Soviet Marxists upset American hopes for this corner of the world.

The U.S. under both Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan succeeded in turning the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan into its own Vietnam — a major U.S. goal. The U.S. military significantly aided those whom Reagan called Afghan freedom fighters. The U.S. aid to these mujahedeen — at the time the largest covert aid program to any group in history — was almost exclusively distributed by the Pakistan Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI). Pakistan also trained many of these groups in the mid-1970s. Controlling the aid also meant the Pakistanis had considerable influence on the mujahedeen at a time when Islamism was rising, such that Afghanistan became the first ideological battleground between Marxism and Islamism.

Shortly after the USSR withdrew north of the Amu Darya River in 1989, the U.S. cut off most of its relationships with Afghanistan as well as Pakistan. (President Ronald Reagan and Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev of the Soviet Union ushered in the Geneva Accords of 1988, and President George H. W. Bush invoked the Pressler Amendment in 1990, which brought about these events.) Over its 10 years of aiding the mujahedeen, the U.S. learned nothing about the nuances of Afghanistan’s people, history or culture — a problem that would continue to plague most of our actions for the 20 years the U.S. spent in Afghanistan.

Second, as the Afghan communists began to fade away, the mujahedeen, many of whom were radical Islamists and eventually became the base of the Taliban in the early 1990s, were left center stage. However, important and often-reinforcing ethnic, tribal, linguistic and religious cleavage lines that divide Afghan society grew more significant. But the U.S. was basically unaware of their importance. Pashtuns, who live in Afghanistan’s south and east, looked to their ethnic brethren in neighboring Pakistan; largely Shiite Hazara and Dari/Farsi speakers from western Afghanistan turned toward Iran; and Tajik, Uzbek and Turkmen Afghans from the north sought succor from the post-Soviet neighboring countries. These divisions were just the tip of the iceberg in the complex identity mélange that constantly roils Afghanistan and that the U.S. has never understood.

This early and relatively easy operation that killed many Taliban and most of al Qaeda in Afghanistan led to a U.S. belief that the Taliban would be easy to defeat.

Third, after al Qaeda attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001, President George W. Bush met with key military, intelligence and foreign policy leaders at Camp David to develop an initial strategy. Only CIA Director George Tenet brought a contingency plan for attacking al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Tenet’s plan involved the use of numerous U.S. Special Forces A-Teams in conjunction with many CIA operatives who killed the large number of al Qaeda and Taliban situated on the Shomali Plains north of Kabul. This allowed U.S. B-52s to decimate them. This early and relatively easy operation that killed many Taliban and most of al Qaeda in Afghanistan led to a U.S. belief that the Taliban would be easy to defeat. And, in fact, the Taliban regime fell in early November 2001, much sooner than most U.S. Afghan analysts or policymakers expected. The U.S. became unduly optimistic with its capabilities in Afghanistan and failed to recognize that the Taliban had retreated into Pakistan to regroup as an insurgency and would reemerge with a vengeance in 2004.

Almost immediately after it invaded Afghanistan, the U.S. started working with Afghan warlords whose popularity or dislike by the Afghan population was almost totally unknown to the U.S. Once again, our ignorance of whom and what we were dealing with hindered our presence and operations — both politically and militarily — in the country.

By early November, the Taliban regime was destroyed, and we had to cobble together a political future for Afghanistan through meetings held in Bonn, Germany, in late November 2001. Participation in these meetings was limited to the Northern Alliance — a group of northern minority groups that had driven out the Taliban with immense U.S. help — representatives of the former king and two small groups of former mujahedeen exiles. The Bonn meetings did not include Taliban moderates. The subsequent Bonn Accords allowed the Northern Alliance to claim most of the important Afghan ministries in an “interim authority” government that was led by Hamid Karzai of the exiles, while the erstwhile king was frozen out.

In June 2002, the Afghans held an Emergency Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) to select an interim administration. The plan was that all warlords would be kept out of the government. But notwithstanding the efforts of the United Nations election monitors to achieve that goal, the front-row seats of honor at the Loya Jirga were full of warlords and criminals, placed there by the interim authority. Unsurprisingly, the government was quickly filled with many of these men. This led to U.N. official Francesc Vendrell’s observation that “[t]he return to power of persons widely despised and dreaded by most Afghans for the atrocities and sleaze that had characterized their rule during the mid-1990s ensured that from the very beginning bad governance and corruption became the norm.” These disastrous early steps, taken by the U.S., suggested that it did not understand Afghanistan at all.

The U.S. also failed to understand how to rebuild Afghanistan. With an economy characterized by subsistence agriculture, opium production and enormous poverty, politicians’ power stemmed from control over militias.
The U.S. turned to the U.N. to run elections and to the international community for money (often promised but not paid) and forces, which were scattered to different provinces and controlled by the home country rather than the commanding general. The U.S. then divided its mission into counterterrorism (CT) and what came to be called counterinsurgency (COIN), which itself transformed later into a mission to build the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (although the false numbers and capabilities presented undermined this effort).

The Bonn Accords “constructed” a political map that was unachievable, but the U.S. made it worse by helping a Constitutional Loya Jirga in 2003-2004 develop a constitution that created a system of government with so many elections (rare in Afghanistan) that it was almost impossible for them to be held without considerable fraud. For example, the district elections, required as the basis for one-third of the seats for the upper house of Parliament, were never held. And the presidential election “victories” of Hamid Karzai in 2009 and of Ashraf Ghani in 2019 and 2014 further blighted the civic and political prospects of the country. Moreover, warlords’ control over all these elections facilitated the tremendous corruption that would dominate Afghan politics for the next 20 years.

Fourth, America’s combat performance in Afghanistan also failed miserably. Too few soldiers were sent to control a large rural country, and the strategy was divided between CT and COIN, as noted above. To find more soldiers and police, NATO was asked to join with the hated warlord-directed militias that were able to survive, partly by transforming into security companies. Collectively, these militias caused significant problems not only in the Afghan military’s response but also for a wide variety of political intrigues.

Moreover, the U.S. and NATO fought the Taliban from highly secure military enclaves while working “banker’s hours,” which was counterproductive in and of itself. To defeat a group like the Taliban demands near-continuous presence in the rural areas that represented the “center of gravity” of this conflict. The support or at least help of the rural population is critical, and the U.S. military generally proved too lazy or ignorant to learn the desires and needs of rural Afghans. This allowed the Taliban to dominate in these critical areas, especially with their narratives and stories that addressed the collective memories of Afghans and were delivered via traditional Afghan distribution means.

Later the Taliban developed an extremely effective presence on the internet and especially in social media. There is absolutely no question that the Taliban destroyed the U.S. and Kabul in the information campaign. And considering that the U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine clearly suggested that COIN operations were 80% informational and only 20% kinetic, the failure on the part of the U.S. is stunning. Our COIN doctrine — that you could not capture or kill your way to a COIN victory — was never followed or understood by the U.S. military. Our impressive military technology was irrelevant in so many ways in Afghan operations, where the Taliban clearly won the war of stories. Ever since the 9/11 attacks on the U.S., the conflict between CT and COIN was almost as problematic as the conflict between the Taliban and U.S.-supported Kabul government. Many of the CT actions significantly violated Afghan — especially Pashtun — tribal values and codes and helped push many rural Afghans to support the Taliban. While it is overly simplistic to refer to rural Afghanistan as simply an honor-revenge society, many Afghans can be greatly influenced by this dynamic. And an Afghan man’s honor for a millennium has been defined in a very real sense by how female family members, who exist in a state of purdah (seclusion), are treated, as well as how their possessions and property are treated.

For well over two years, we raided rural Afghan compounds in the middle of the night to grab and bag prospective “terrorists.” In so doing, we forced sleeping women in their bedclothes out into the open compound. This is possibly one of the most egregious actions that a nonfamily member can take against another, and it immediately caused family members to regain the family’s honor by seeking revenge against the U.S. These were exactly the kinds of actions the Taliban hoped the U.S. and its allies would pursue. The overall military goal of the Taliban was to encourage the U.S. to make such terrible miscues.

The Taliban wanted U.S. or NATO maneuver elements to chase a group of Taliban or madrassa students around the countryside. Those being pursued would then seek the relative safety of an Afghan village and hope that the U.S. Air Force would drop bombs. The Taliban understood that if errant weapons, of which there were many, killed an innocent Afghan woman and/or child, that village would be lost to the U.S. (and its Kabul allies) forever.

The arrest and transport of hundreds of Afghans to Guantanamo and other foreign detention centers under the CT campaign, keeping many of them for years with no charges or ability to be released, also played into the hands of the Taliban. Those who were released back to Afghanistan, like Mullah Zakar, immediately returned to Taliban senior positions. They were not only more radicalized by Guantanamo but also viewed by other Taliban as having a “military medal of honor.”

The fifth and final factor was the broader reality of events happening elsewhere. Two cases stand out, both of which had major implications for the military situation in Afghanistan. The Taliban, being predominantly Pashtun, fled across the border into Pakistan, both to Pashtunabad, just outside of Quetta, Baluchistan, and to the Federally Administered Tribal Agencies between Khyber-Pakhtunkwa and the Afghan border. These are heavily Pashtun areas and the old digs of the mujahedeen from the 1980s. By fleeing there, the Taliban once again became indebted to the ISI.

It is nearly impossible to defeat an insurgency that has such an easy refuge in a contiguous state. While President Barack Obama’s CT assets found and killed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in May 2011 in Abbottabad, which is part of Khyber-Pakhtunkwa, it would prove to be just one victory in the wider war. Pakistan controlled the major access route into Afghanistan and continued to shelter the Taliban, making Pakistan a complicated “frenemy” of the U.S.

Also, when the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, Afghanistan became the “forgotten war” and considerable resources were redirected away from the country. In 2003, over 300,000 American troops invaded Iraq, while less than 10% of that number were in Afghanistan. Neither war turned out well for the U.S., and the preoccupation with Iraq for much of the past 20 years occluded our march toward doom, allowing our policymakers, generals and ambassadors to talk of “stalemates,” “progress” and “the light at the end of the tunnel.” For Afghanistan there was perhaps some utility in being forgotten.

In late 2018, Zalmay Khalilzad, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, initiated negotiations between the U.S. and the Taliban. Over the next year, Khalilzad held a series of nine rounds of talks concluding in what Khalilzad called an “historical peace treaty” of Feb. 29, 2020. The treaty had four main provisions:

1. A temporary reduction in violence leading to a lasting cease-fire among U.S., Taliban and Afghan forces.

2. The U.S. agreed to reduce its number of troops in Afghanistan from roughly 12,000 to 8,600 within 135 days. All U.S. and other foreign troops would leave Afghanistan within 14 months (by May 1, 2021).

3. The Taliban agreed to start talks with the Afghan government in March 2020. Throughout the negotiating process, the Taliban had resisted direct talks with the government, calling it an American puppet. But the Taliban then indicated that talks were possible, with deputy Taliban leader Sirajuddin Haqqani writing in a New York Times op-ed, “If we can reach an agreement with a foreign enemy, we must be able to resolve intra-Afghan disagreements through talks.”

4. The Taliban guaranteed that Afghanistan would not be used by any of its members, other individuals or terrorist groups to threaten the security of the U.S. and its allies.

Ancillary but still part of the agreement was that Kabul would release 5,000 jailed Taliban commanders and members and that the Taliban would protect Afghan women’s rights. The U.S. basically negotiated Afghanistan’s future without any significant input from Kabul.

Several things should be discussed concerning the U.S.-Taliban negotiations and the resulting “treaty,” which scholar William Maley suggested was based on the poorest, most misguided negotiations since Munich in 1937 and the 1971-2 Paris Peace Talks to end the Vietnam War. First, Khalilzad rarely discussed his talks with Kabul. Considering that he was negotiating Afghanistan’s future without significant input from Kabul, one can reasonably make the argument that Khalilzad and the U.S. were treating Afghanistan as a U.S. colony. This became quite evident when Ghani was extremely disgusted that the U.S. was negotiating issues such as a prisoners’ release without Kabul’s input. Second, the “treaty” resulted in no permanent calls for a total cease-fire in Afghanistan. “Peace negotiations” without an accompanying cease-fire is an oxymoron. Third, the agreement looked more like a plan for a phased withdrawal of troops and other foreigners from the country. Finally, intra-Afghan talks did not occur in a few months, as suggested by the agreement. They were eventually held in Doha starting Sept. 12, 2020. And these talks basically turned out to be little more than political theater. It took two months for the parties to agree on procedures and objectives. The Taliban then took a two-month break from the talks, clearly wanting to see what President Joe Biden’s view of the treaty and war would be.

The negotiations were preordained to be a failure when a key assistant to Mullah Baradar, the cofounder of the Taliban and chief Taliban negotiator, declared the Taliban had two nonnegotiable demands for the talks: the reestablishment of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan and institution of the Taliban’s radical view of Deobandi Islamic Sharia law.

We are convinced that the Taliban would fight for another 50 years to accomplish their Islamic, political and social goals.

We are convinced that the Taliban would fight for another 50 years to accomplish their Islamic, political and social goals. The “talks” were merely political theater based upon the reasonable assumption that two very different U.S. presidential administrations were keen to get out of Afghanistan.

The failure of the U.S. has been rooted in the inability to help the Afghan government find political legitimacy. One possible way this may have been created after 9/11 was through restoration of former King Zahir Shah in a kind of a constitutional monarchy. Khalilzad and the CIA reportedly browbeat Zahir Shah into stepping aside even though a majority of the Emergency Loya Jirga delegates petitioned for the return of the king — not as a government administrator but as symbolically leading a constitutional monarchy, similar to the U.K. or Japan. Another option, establishing a strongly fragmented government with authority rooted at the rural level, was also profoundly rejected.

And so, here we are. The U.S. went to war in Afghanistan with an inadequate understanding of the country, its people and its neighborhood. A misguided commitment to U.S. interests prompted mission creep that made America hang around indefinitely in Afghanistan. The U.S. can no longer be a great power if its people do not choose to carry the burdens of leadership that great powers must carry. The U.S., racked with extremism and racial challenges, disagreement over whether its citizens should be vaccinated against an infectious disease, challenges to its democracy and unwillingness to join together to do anything, has also lost every significant war since World War II. We deeply regret what has come to Afghanistan, but also the world, which may only be able to see U.S. perfidy as the profound failure of a declining power.

As for Afghanistan, the likelihood that the U.S. could stand against the realities of world politics and help Afghanistan rise just would not happen. It was a disaster from the beginning to the end. Many good, inspired, brave and even noble people from all over America and around the world tried very hard to make Afghanistan a success. Others schemed to thwart all that effort. They won, and we failed.

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