What went wrong in Afghanistan? How is it possible that we, a superpower bringing nothing but good things—education, development, democracy, equality—were driven out by a ragtag band with medieval views and hardly any resources? There are, undoubtedly, many factors that went into this debacle, but what killed the project is that it was never grounded in reality. It was a venture launched on a fantasy, conducted on wishful thinking, before ultimately concluding in a head-throbbing, stomach-churning hangover that is now causing us to make even more mistakes.
Almost every single premise that guided our Afghanistan policy was not only incorrect, but for each one, we knew or easily could have known the facts but chose to ignore them. We spent twenty years and two trillion dollars with our finger on the Override button. The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), our very own governmental watchdog agency, consistently waved giant red warning flags, documenting all the things that weren’t working, from aid projects to the military effort. We muzzled that watchdog. Did anyone ever read any of the reports? Can’t have. I will never forget the first one I read, expecting a bland government document, finding instead a precise and detailed account of a catastrophic failure unfolding, with names and dates and numbers that could not be ignored. But were.
Below is just a sample of some of the fluffy marshmallow building blocks in an edifice that never was going to stand.
The Afghan National Army is getting steadily stronger and will soon hold its own.
Wrong. U.S. troops and U.S. air power were doing all the heavy lifting, throughout the war. Afghan soldiers were consistently deserting (a huge retention problem) or did not exist at all, except on paper so their superiors could collect extra salaries (the so-called ghost soldiers) or were shooting us in the back in the so-called “green on blue“ attacks.
When this expensively equipped, salaried, trained, advised, and provided-with-intel military collapsed not within years or months, but within days, running away or surrendering to a Taliban militia that had nothing like its weaponry and was less than a third of its size, we expressed surprise. There was nothing surprising about it. This was never an actual, indigenous entity. And that this was a ridiculous idea from Day One should have been obvious.
Who, with even the faintest notion of history, could possibly believe that Afghans of all people need to be taught how to fight? When they want to, they can—for twenty years, even when hunted by drones and air strikes and night raids, provisioned only with tea and bread, having their leaders caught and sent to Pakistani prisons or Guantanamo. If they’re not fighting properly, it’s because they don’t want to, and are only humoring you to get your money.
The U.S. military war (Operation Enduring Freedom) ended with success in 2014. After that, we were merely monitoring and advising (Operation Freedom’s Sentinel).
Hardly. We were heavily engaged in military actions throughout, including a mini-surge as late as 2020.
We created a democracy.
No. We created a kleptocracy made up of old elites and warlords, supplemented by new elites from urban areas who knew how to play on our desires and provide us with adulatory sound bites, and we garnished it with the visuals of democracy as in a Hollywood set. The first election enthroned the president we picked, Hamid Karzai. In his reelection, we overshot the mark a bit, and he ended up being elected by more votes than the country had registered voters.
The last election, in which only an embarrassing 16 percent of the electorate showed up, was intended to re-enthrone our man Ashraf Ghani. When his minuscule majority was shown to be based on fraud, we declared him the winner anyway and placated his rival, Abdullah Abdullah, by inventing a new position and making him co-president. Two years later, Ghani thanked us for our loyalty by running away, taking a reported 168 million dollars with him. He thereby wrecked the deal we had made, that would have kept part of the acting government in power. This deal foresaw that the Taliban would refrain from entering Kabul and would engage in two weeks of moderated negotiations with the government to find a power-sharing formula. At the end of the two weeks, Ghani was supposed to resign and depart in an orderly fashion. He chose to jump ship, the government collapsed, the talks became moot, and the Taliban entered the city—with our express permission, because police and army and palace guards had followed their leader and also fled, and looting and chaos threatened, and someone had to go in and keep order.
All girls were in school on our watch.
This was the favorite fact mentioned at the start of each and every public speech and event on the topic of Afghanistan: that four-fifths of all girls, 3.5 million of them, were attending school. What a triumph over ignorance and discrimination, what a good, warm feeling after the cruel and backward Taliban had banned girls from school.
So, this one was partially true. It was true that the Taliban of yore was cruel and backward and oppressive to everyone and to girls and women in particular, and saw no need for girls’ education, which could only make them uppity.
What isn’t true is that we achieved a turnaround on anything near that scale. The 3.5 million figure was pulled out of thin air. In 2017, Human Rights Watch reported that “Sixteen years after the U.S. led military intervention that ousted the Taliban government, an estimated two-thirds of Afghan girls do not go to school.” At the conclusion of our twenty-year education blitz, female literacy had not reached even 30 percent.
The propensity to make up happy facts is annoying because on this topic, the actual facts would have been happy enough. What we did achieve qualifies as a legitimate game-changer. Afghan families and communities, even in rural areas, now largely endorse the principle of educating their daughters, whereas twenty years ago, many shared the then-Taliban view that it was at best unnecessary and at worse harmful.
And the “New Taliban” have obviously received the message that the world—and their own population—will not tolerate a ban on girls’ education. They immediately re-opened all the girls’ elementary schools. They have promised to open the high schools as well, sequentially, as soon as they have the logistics in place. High schools have traditionally been single-sex in Afghanistan, but the Taliban also want to assign only male teachers for boys and only female teachers for girls, which is requiring them to move around some of the staff. Their promise is believable because indeed, they have already reopened girls’ high schools in nine provinces so far.
The government we supported was inclusive, and the Taliban need to do the same for international recognition.
Oh, the government we supported was inclusive all right. Inclusive of warlords, murderers, drug dealers, and rapists, several of whom should have been in a courtroom in The Hague and not in the cabinet in Kabul.
We knew who these people were. We knew what they had done and were continuing to do, with impunity, on our watch, with our knowledge. This included, according to a meticulously researched report by Human Rights Watch: “mass killings, murder, rape, torture, beatings, enforced disappearances, theft, and arbitrary detention… many powerful warlords…have been funded by and worked alongside international forces, further entrenching them politically into the fabric of Afghan society.”
We made the Machiavellian decision to not only let these criminals off, but to emplace them in positions of power in the government, because we thought that would prevent ethnic and regional resentments and foster stability. Personally, I believe this poisoned our effort from the start, but I suppose one can debate the tactical logic. What one cannot do, is call this “inclusive” and pretend it’s an element of democracy.
It speaks well for the Taliban that they have, so far, managed to keep the creeps, carpetbaggers, and country-destroyers at bay.
Things were going well for us militarily and with more patience, we would have defeated the Taliban.
I’ll let a general handle this one: General John W. Nicholson, the former commander of Operation Resolute Support. SIGAR’s January 2018–March 2018 report quotes him as stating that “in this quarter the U.S. and Afghan forces were gaining momentum through the new South Asia strategy, and the Taliban was shifting to guerilla tactics and suicide attacks because it was no longer able to carry out attacks to seize cities or districts.”
Well… we all witnessed in the summer of 2021 just how unable the Taliban was to seize districts. They swept across the entire country in a matter of days, taking one district and province after the other as the Afghan National Army surrendered or fled in disarray. The White House knew that the Taliban was getting ever stronger while our guys were being pushed ever further back, even if Congress was still getting happy reports from the U.S. military. The Afghan National Army and the Afghan government were on a steady downward trajectory, unable even to defend Kabul against increasing deadly suicide bombings and attacks. It was precisely this assessment that ultimately led President Barack Obama to decide to withdraw, President Donald Trump to initiate the Doha Talks and set a timeline, and President Joe Biden to implement the exit plan. Three administrations can hardly be described as a “rush to the exits.”