This summer, the bipartisan, congressionally mandated Afghanistan War Commission (AWC) will kick off a four-year inquiry into the origins, conduct, and conclusion of America’s war in Afghanistan. You should care about this Commission, and you should care about the report they are going to issue. If the AWC produces a quality report—fair, comprehensive, evidence-based—it will guide and inform the next generation of U.S. foreign and security policy.
The AWC presents a rare opportunity: America’s democratic institutions roused to ask pointed questions of the men and women charged with our country’s national security. The Church Committee of the 1970s, and more recently the 9/11 Commission, suggest these types of congressionally-mandated inquiries happen once a generation. A British historian once joked that Britons acquired their empire in a fit of absentmindedness. That is an astute observation. For anyone, myself included, who has patiently explained to friends, family, the pharmacist, the grocer, and others that yes, we really were still in Afghanistan more than two decades after the initial invasion, it certainly rings true. As a nation, we obligated the authorizations and signed the checks without giving much thought about what it is we were authorizing, what we were paying for, or why.
The AWC’s report could ultimately prove to be a consequential moment for the United States. If we get a quality report; if the American people are allowed to read it and consider its meaning and implications for the whole nation, and not just this or that slice of America; and if the report ultimately informs real reforms; it will be significant. More importantly, if you’re looking for proof that democracy in America still works, it counts for something that, after two decades of war, the U.S. government has appointed capable, public-spirited people to investigate and explain clearly and openly what went down in Afghanistan. Exploring and identifying exactly what happened, however, will require AWC members to ask pointed questions ranging the entire breadth of America’s longest war.
Who Was Actually in Charge?
The first question the AWC will need to answer is: how was the war authorized? Authorities are the tendons of our national security. They are the invisible thread that connects the fire team on the ground to the American people back home, linking the budgetary and lawmaking authority of the legislative branch to the operational authority of the executive. Authorities matter.
There are different kinds of authorities and a key question in Afghanistan is: what took place under military authorities, civilian authorities, and intelligence authorities? In a war, authority is usually concentrated in the hands of a commander who, by literal definition, commands the war effort. The commander oversees the theater of conflict, and in this capacity works with Washington to set and implement the president’s strategy. A clear chain of command means clear responsibilities, and responsibility enables the American people to hold commanders accountable for failures and recognize them for their successes. That is the theory.
Yet well before the first American boots hit the ground, Afghanistan defied the logic of normal military operations. America’s involvement in the country before 2001 was driven primarily by the U.S. intelligence community (IC), and the IC took the lead in the discussions about going into Afghanistan in the immediate aftermath of the September 11 Al Qaeda attacks. This, in effect, placed the U.S. Central Command in an apparently subordinate role to the IC. In 2004, for instance, while many former Taliban headed to Pakistan to join the armed opposition to the U.S.-backed Afghan government led by then president Hamid Karzai, the U.S. forces commander on the ground, Lieutenant General David Barno, drafted policies to avoid harm to civilians. But, according to a comprehensive history of the war in Afghanistan, Lt. Gen. Barno did not command all of the special operations forces conducting the operations in Afghanistan. Numerous books, studies, memoirs, and newspaper reports suggest that, in Afghanistan, U.S. intelligence officers exercised significant autonomy. So then, who was in charge?
A related question is this: what is the appropriate role of intelligence in policy decisionmaking? In theory, intelligence is the function of gathering and analyzing information to inform military and policy decisions. A good AWC report on Afghanistan should ask whether that happened and whether we have—whether we need—updated guardrails to further separate the IC from the U.S. military and policy decision making process.
At the same time, if intelligence officers were in the drivers’ seat, the AWC should ask what impact they had on the core intelligence mission to generate objective, actionable information. Did confusion between the intelligence and policy process have an impact on intelligence? For example, the U.S. IC’s assessment of the durability of Ashraf Ghani’s government following a full U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan very likely was a critical component of U.S. war and policy planning efforts. Unfortunately, this assessment appears to have been inaccurate. The question is why.
What Were Our War Aims?
The United States sent its forces to Afghanistan to destroy Al Qaeda and bring Osama bin Laden to justice in the wake of 9/11. The moment American forces swept the Taliban from power—and the U.S. administration at the time refused to consider any post-war power structure that included the Taliban—the United States also became engaged in nation-building, whether America’s leaders liked it or not. Yet, it wasn’t really until 2005 that the George W. Bush administration started defining and funding a post-war Afghanistan. By then, however, the Taliban had already launched its insurgency in earnest. As that and subsequent U.S. administrations defined what post-war Afghanistan should look like, they became more and more committed to an idealized vision for developing a social democracy in one of the poorest countries in the world. Why did U.S. objectives seem to grow and then balloon even as it became clearer and clearer to informed observers that lasting, outright victory in Afghanistan was becoming less and less possible?
One excellent study has charted the U.S. tendency over the years to escalate its commitment to Afghanistan in the face of growing adversity. In democratic politics, as in bureaucratic politics, doubling down often cements authority, while flipflopping is the kiss of death. Added to that, Afghanistan was so far removed from day-to-day politics back home that the costs of staying the course in Afghanistan never seemed as bad as the risk that cutting U.S. losses could lead to a major disaster, perhaps including the reemergence of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. This logic seems to have driven policy makers from U.S. presidents to senior officials on the ground, apparently motivating them to respond to chronic American underperformance in Afghanistan by chronically overpromising future results that never materialized.
The proliferation of outsized objectives in Afghanistan was often matched by the proliferation of international actors. Beyond Washington and Kabul, funding appeals were met, policies set, and decisions taken by NATO in Brussels and other international organizations and actors in other foreign capitals, which combined created a dense web of overly ambitious commitments to Afghanistan. Did the many, overlapping lines of effort impede coherent planning or complicate U.S. efforts to set and follow its own established operational priorities? It is worth the AWC asking whether the internationalization of development and security assistance efforts in Afghanistan contributed to a mismatch between ends and means, between promises and what was achievable on the ground.
Post-conflict reconstruction is a tremendous task under the best of circumstances. In Afghanistan, the AWC should ask how and why a major, international peacebuilding effort coincided with a major counterinsurgency campaign to secure Afghan population centers and prop-up the then Afghan government. Fortunately, the AWC will have at its disposal the voluminous records of the Department of Defense’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which documented and continues to document the challenges and pitfalls of reconstructing that country in the midst of a war. Yet SIGAR’s reports are necessarily limited to U.S. governance and U.S. expenditure, which comprise only part of the story. The same question that applied to military command also applies to nation building: who was in charge, and what was the strategy?
The AWC might also consider the wider impact of the contradiction between U.S. reconstruction and war efforts in Afghanistan. U.S. military forces and civilian personnel in Afghanistan typically relied heavily on elite, English-speaking Afghans, familiar with the language of Western governments and donors, to tell them what was going on. What did it mean for ordinary Afghans to experience both the high-flying rhetoric of social reconstruction and the horrors of insurgency and counterinsurgency? What did it mean for hundreds of thousands of ordinary Americans, who responded to the call to defend democracy overseas?
Just as Americans need to understand why U.S. leaders found it so hard to define their objectives for the war, so too should we ask why the United States found it so difficult to find a path to a working and sustainable peace settlement in Afghanistan. This is not a purely historical consideration. In an era of great power competition, the United States needs to be able to speak with its enemies, and needs to be capable of defining limited, achievable objectives amid conflict. This capacity is critical to America’s ability to limit, control, and halt conflict.