The tragic evacuation of Kabul, after 20 years of efforts to stabilize Afghanistan, should open a period of critical reflection. Post-hoc criticism runs the risk of falling into simplistic, and sometimes unfair, analysis, but it is essential to learn from the mistakes made and avoid, as far as possible, repeating them in the future.
Despite all the common places about the impossibility of a successful military operation in Afghanistan, the truth is that the international intervention could have gone well. There were a number of clear opportunities to stabilize the country that were not taken advantage of for different reasons. In the background of the failure is the lack of solid leadership, due to the North American disinterest in operations in a remote country with little strategic value, the lack of understanding of the dynamics by which Afghan society is governed and what has been become one of the main strategic evils of our time: the priority of image and marketing over reality.
Afghanistan, American strategy, stabilization, counterinsurgency.
Criticism of complex strategic decisions, from the comfort of one who has no responsibility for them, always runs the risk of falling into a simplistic and often unfair approach. It is very easy to criticize when you do not feel the immense pressure that strategic decision-making carries with it, and even easier when you enjoy the advantage of analyzing other people’s decisions with the perspective of the passage of time. Despite this, a posteriori critical analysis is essential to improve future decision-making, although it must always be done with the necessary humility.
The long international intervention in Afghanistan, with its sad end, is a fertile field for criticism, since many mistakes were made and numerous opportunities were wasted, although on many occasions this did not happen because of laziness or incompetence, but because there were more pressing priorities. Afghanistan was always the forgotten war, a conflict into which the United States reluctantly entered and which it always considered of little value to its national interests. Probably, the lack of interest was the original vice in the failure in Afghanistan, although this original vice was joined by others such as the lack of knowledge of the real situation in the country, the lack of coordination between military operations and civil reconstruction or an evolution of the international situation that did not favor the maintenance of peripheral conflicts.
In spite of everything, the intervention in Afghanistan could have gone well. Despite all the legends about the impossibility of winning a war in the country, there were moments that would have made it possible to evolve towards a satisfactory, or at least not disastrous, solution of the conflict. The analysis of these lost opportunities, carried out with the aim not to search for culprits, but to identify failures in the decision-making system that can serve as a lesson for the future, is the subject of this article.
Legend and reality
The name Afghanistan evokes a series of legendary images, among them the indomitable character of the inhabitants of a country that always claimed victory against its external enemies. A country that is popularly known as “the tomb of empires.” The reality is much more prosaic, and the presumed tomb of empires has been totally or partially conquered by each and every one of the great powers that passed through the area: Achaemenids, Macedonians, Indian Maurians, Seleucids, Sassanids, the Abbasid Muslim armies, the Ghaznavids, the Mongols, the Turkish-Mongol armies of Tamerlane, the Mughals and the Safavids. Only in the 18th century an indigenous kingdom really emerged in Afghanistan and its autonomy did not last long.
The famous British disaster in Afghanistan only occurred once, in 1842, and had more to do with the incompetence of the British commander, Lord Elphinstone, than with Afghan ferocity. From that moment on, Great Britain decided to keep the Afghan territory under close surveillance with two essential objectives: to guarantee the integrity of the Durand Line1 as the border of British India, and to avoid the Russian presence in Afghanistan. Both objectives were successfully achieved and, when they were in danger, the United Kingdom did not hesitate to intervene militarily to restore the situation. Of course, the campaigns in Afghanistan had nothing to do with the decline of the British Empire.
The case of the Soviet invasion of 1979 did represent a painful setback for the former USSR, although not of the magnitude that occurs in the West. Although Saudi, Pakistani and American support for the Mujahideen insurgents put Soviet troops in a tight spot, the conduct of the campaign was by no means a disaster The withdrawal of 1989 was conducted in an orderly way and its main cause was the internal crisis situation in which the USSR was at that time. The Soviets left behind an Afghan government that continued to fight effectively against the Mujahideen until 1992 when, after the breakup of the USSR, the new Russian Federation suspended financial and military support to the Kabul government. Again, Afghanistan had little to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union, a victim instead of its own internal imbalances.
Definitely, legends are legends, and successful military operations are possible in Afghanistan. That it is possible does not mean that it is easy, because if the Afghans are far from invincible, they are enormously belligerent, independent and tenacious. The successive empires that occupied Afghanistan always had to deal with rebellions, riots and conflicts of different kinds, and almost always used a carrot and stick strategy to manage them. This is a strategy that combines force with generosity, very appropriate to deal with tribal societies and that, in a simplified way, could be described as: negotiate when you have to negotiate, pay when you have to pay and give a military lesson when someone tries to modify the status quo.
Uncle Sam in Kabul. First chance
After the 9/11 attacks and the evidence that they had been the work of Al Qaeda, whose central core was protected by the hospitality of the Afghan Taliban regime, the United States was forced to undertake a task that did not cause any enthusiasm. Afghanistan had been useful in wearing down the Soviet Union and had later become a nuisance for harboring Osama Bin Laden and his jihadist networks, but there was no interest in invading the country, let alone rebuilding it. In spite of everything, the terrible blow of the attacks and the stubbornness of the Taliban forced to do something.
The doctrine of the newly arrived Bush Administration in 2001 was marked by a core of neocons in the Pentagon, led by an old Republican shark like Donald Rumsfeld. They argued that the United States should use its military power without complexes, without relying too much on its decadent European allies and even less on what is being discussed in the United Nations. What should not be done, under any circumstances, was to insist on the construction of States. Furthermore, the sights were already set on Iraq, so it was not considered opportune to devote excessive military resources to Afghanistan. The intervention in that country was designed to be quick, inexpensive, and leave the tedious task of stabilization and reconstruction to the United Nations and the international community.
Surprisingly, the operation was a success. For once, the United States applied a roundabout strategy by designing a military intervention with limited means. The combination of support for the Afghan armed opposition with airstrikes and special operations teams on the ground, and with the recovery of old CIA contacts with Afghan tribal chiefs, brought about the collapse of the Taliban regime in a couple of months.
Surprisingly, the operation was a success. For once, the United States applied a roundabout strategy by designing a military intervention with limited means. The combination of support for the Afghan armed opposition with airstrikes and special operations teams on the ground, and with the recovery of old CIA contacts with Afghan tribal chiefs, brought about the collapse of the Taliban regime in a couple of months. Quite simply, the Pashtun tribes abandoned the Islamic students, probably because they perceived that they were no longer the strongest and who was to succeed them would surely be more generous. Al Qaeda’s infrastructure in Afghanistan was destroyed, thousands of jihadists were annihilated, and Bin Laden first took refuge in the mountainous redoubts on the border with Pakistan, then sneaked into Pakistani territory.
The United States was strong and generous, and that has always been the key to winning a war in Afghanistan. The problem is that sustaining a position of strength and generosity over time is very expensive, especially in a country that at that time was considered of limited strategic value. The US military presence was reduced to a minimum aimed at destroying what was left of Al Qaeda and preventing the return of the Taliban and, although efforts were made to promote the political transition towards a democratic regime, the economic and organizational reconstruction effort was left in the hands of the allies and the United Nations. All the efforts of the United States began to be directed towards Iraq The US military presence was reduced to a minimum2 aimed at destroying what was left of Al Qaeda and preventing the return of the Taliban and, although efforts were made to promote the political transition towards a democratic regime, the economic and organizational reconstruction effort was left in the hands of the allies and the United Nations. All the efforts of the United States began to be directed towards Iraq.
Then came what has been the most peaceful period in Afghanistan’s recent history and the most obvious window of opportunity to stabilize the country. Between 2002 and 2006, violence remained anecdotal compared to the previous two decades. In 2005, most of the country could still be covered without fear of attack. In four years (2002-2005), 319 allied soldiers died in Afghanistan, the majority in accidents. In Iraq, in 2005 alone, casualties were 897, the majority in combat.3
The failure to take advantage of this long window of opportunity is at the root of the sad end result of all the efforts made in Afghanistan. Progress was certainly made in establishing institutions and democratically inspired laws, but that was of very relative value to the average Afghan, who expected an explosion of economic growth that never occurred, because neither sufficient resources were allocated nor were resources adequately controlled few assigned. The Afghan people had time to be deluded and disillusioned, and the Afghan elites had time to see that the United States and its allies weren’t that strong after all, and they certainly weren’t particularly generous.
The United States could have assumed direct leadership and made a major effort from the start, but that went against the principles and interests of the presidential administration of the time. A different option would have been to apply the indirect British model: letting the Afghans organize themselves, even counting on the Taliban, although influencing so that the candidate best suited can stabilize the country prevailed.
The fact is that the worst of both options was chosen. They opted for a democratic government supervised from abroad, but with a rather reluctant tutelage on the part of the United States and totally uncoordinated on the part of the rest of the international community. The United States did not lead, because it gave it up, but neither did the Afghans because they saw no need to do so. Sufficient economic resources were not provided to minimally rebuild the country, but they were provided to enrich the local elites. Those that were provided were lost in a chaos of lack of coordination, inefficiency and corruption. As in other parts of the world, the United Nations system proved enormously valuable in providing humanitarian aid, but utterly incompetent in leading a national reconstruction effort. The chaos in development aid reached ridiculous proportions4 and the initial window of opportunity was closed.
Crisis and reaction (2006-2012), second chance
The crisis came in 2006, when the International Afghanistan Assistance Force (ISAF) began expanding into the southern Pashtun areas of the country. Led by the British contingent, the expansion strategy was the victim of an intelligence failure or an excess of enthusiasm. Considering that the majority of the population was favorable to the Government of Kabul and that the Taliban were in a marginal situation, a classic counterinsurgency strategy was applied: maximum presence on the ground, distributing the British troops in redoubts (platoon houses) linked by patrols. The point is that the situation of the Taliban was indeed marginal, but that did not mean that the tribal chiefs and the Pashtun drug traffickers were happy to see foreign troops, and less British, meddling in their businesses. The result was a wave of attacks against ISAF positions and, most negative of all, a renewal of alliances between the Pashtun tribes of Kandahar and Helmand and the Taliban movement. It was the beginning of the Taliban’s recovery.
The relative success in stabilizing Iraq in 2007 through the change in strategy known as Surge led the Bush Administration, already in its second term, to believe that something similar could be achieved in Afghanistan. However, the priority of the Afghan theater of operations remained low and 2008 was an election year, so the decision on the Afghan Surge was left to the next administration.
His successor was Barack Obama, who had promised to end the foreign wars of the previous administration. Despite his initial skepticism, the success of the Surge in Iraq and the advice of its generals, who recommended doing something similar in Afghanistan, led Obama to embark on a strategy of limited escalation. A second chance then appeared based on a military effort to create another window of stability that would allow reconstruction to be resumed from a more efficient perspective.
The problem is that neither Obama, much less his then Vice President Joe Biden, had any enthusiasm for embarking on a military escalation strategy. The economic crisis that was beginning to affect national budgets did not help, nor did the attitude of general supporters of the Afghan Surge, Petraeus and McChrystal. The first had been the architect of the Iraqi Surge and the second had participated in it as head of the Joint Special Operations Command. Both recommended a substantial increase in troops, but also exerted pressure on Obama that led to disloyalty, exposing his escalation plans in public before their approval by the president, something that was harshly denounced by Biden.
Obama reluctantly relented, but again chose the worse of two options. He could have refused the request of his generals, deciding a progressive transfer of responsibilities to the Afghan Forces. He could also have listened to them and substantially increased both the number of troops and the intensity of operations. Instead, he chose to carry out a limited force increase with an expiration date of 18 months, and also made the mistake of going public.
With that information, the Taliban had no more to wait. With a secure base in Pakistan and a fairly significant popular support in some areas of the country, his only concern was not to engage in decisive confrontations with NATO forces, to economize on resources and to apply a strategy of slow attrition on his adversaries.
The situation was further poisoned because McChrystal was dismissed from his post as commander of ISAF in 2010, due to his statements to the press, and also the Bank of Kabul, one of the most important financial institutions in the country, went bankrupt in the framework of a scandal corruption involving various government personalities, including President Karzai. International aid, already weakened by the economic crisis, suffered greatly from the scandal, and so did the Afghan economy. Starting in 2013, GDP growth stagnated, and even decreased.5
The Afghan Surge drove the Taliban back in some areas, but as they already knew it, their attrition was perfectly manageable. In 2012, the American contingent began to decrease,6 and with it that of the rest of the NATO allies. The military successes had little impact as the reconstruction effort that should have followed was marred by the fatigue of the international community, the economic crisis, the Bank of Kabul scandal and a prolonged drought that affected many Afghan provinces between 2008 and 2012. A last event sentenced the definitive loss of the second chance to stabilize the country. Bin Laden’s death in 2011 brought a sense of “mission accomplished” in Washington that discouraged further efforts in Afghanistan. With Al Qaeda headless and their central organization practically dismantled, Obama and Biden, who had always considered that intervention in Afghanistan only made sense as a means of destroying Al Qaeda, saw no more desirable future than the gradual withdrawal of their forces.
The second opportunity was not as clear as the first and to be successful it would have required a considerable and sustained effort that, with a new administration and a public opinion tired of foreign wars, was unlikely. The problem was that, again, a significant but not sufficient effort was made. Thousands of American, allied, and Afghan soldiers died between 2009 and 2011 trying to achieve an effect similar to the Iraqi Surge that was never produced.
Afghanization (2012-2021), third chance
President Obama, who was already redirecting the US strategic effort towards the Pacific and China, decided that the combat operations of his forces in Afghanistan would cease in January 2014. ISAF would dissolve and be replaced by a NATO training mission (Resolute Support) that would continue to provide training to the Afghan Army. Thousands of US soldiers would, however, remain in the country on support tasks and counterterrorism missions. In addition, thousands of civilian contractors would continue to provide administrative and logistical support to Afghanistan’s armed forces, which is especially important for maintaining the most complex combat systems.
The Afghan Army suffered from several serious problems. The first was the difficulty in recruiting and maintaining their staff. Pay was low and insecure and, unlike the police, its members could be deployed across the country. The most serious problem remained corruption and the inefficiency of the chain of command. Soldiers often did not receive their pay on time, leading to frequent desertions or even arms sales that sometimes ended up in the hands of their own enemies. Many units declared a much greater number of soldiers than the real one so that the officers could keep the payrolls of the absent personnel.
Despite all the problems, Afghans could fight acceptably if they felt supported by foreign troops, but when they fought alone the chances of catastrophe were greatly increased. The assumption of responsibilities by the Afghan army in late 2014 led to a rapid Taliban advance, forcing US forces to increase again from 8,000 in 2015 to about 12,000 in 2017.
In 2014, there was also a political turnaround when Hamid Karzai did not run for the presidential elections. The victory of Ashraf Ghani, a respected Western-trained economist, who also came to power in a national unity agreement with his political opponent, Abdullah Abdullah, was viewed with hope in the West. The change in the political scene, coupled with the “Afghanization” of national security, opened a last window of opportunity. However, taking advantage of that window required two essential conditions: the unequivocal US commitment to supporting the Kabul government and a progressive integration of the Taliban movement into the country’s political game. Again a carrot-and-stick strategy in which the Taliban suffered a painful attrition if they decided to fight but received attractive offers if they decided to negotiate.
Initially, this strategy was applied with not very satisfactory results, but not completely negative, and the situation remained reasonably stable until 2018. The government dominated the cities and a considerable part of the rural areas, and the Taliban controlled a territory that oscillated between 10 and 15% of the country, although they used to maintain a variable presence in another 30 or 40%.7
The critical moment came in 2018 when, with Donald Trump already in the White House, a series of peace initiatives began to take shape. Much of the initiative came from President Trump himself, who was even less interested in staying in the country than his predecessors.
A negotiation after a lengthy period of war is something very sensitive and needs a balance between what is granted and what is required. The negotiations that officially began in December 2018 suffered from a fundamental problem: it was noticeable that the United States was trying to disengage from the conflict as soon as possible, and this led it not to demand sufficient counterparts from its Taliban interlocutors. Despite Trump’s experience in the real estate business, he couldn’t help but appear as a homeowner in a rush to sell, made the Taliban take advantage of the situation and buy cheap.
The chaos in the US administration did not help establish solid negotiations either. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis maintained a more aggressive strategy than his president would have liked and under his mandate air strikes increased, to which the Taliban responded with massive attacks on cities. As a consequence of this attrition strategy, the number of civilian casualties skyrocketed, and the Taliban were able to use that fact to their advantage. In the Taliban narrative, the Kabul government killed its citizens in airstrikes and was unable to protect them against terrorism, which the Taliban attributed to other groups, especially the newly emerging Islamic State of Khorasan. Neither the Afghan government nor the United States were able to offset this narrative.
In 2019, Mattis resigned, and Trump decided to get serious about negotiations. The Taliban simply maintained their terms and continued their operations on the ground. After all, the initiative for the peace talks had not been theirs and they interpreted it as a sign of weakness. The absence of the Afghan government in the meetings (the Taliban refused to negotiate with who they considered a puppet) also reduced the legitimacy of the entire process.
In September 2019, the advances of the Taliban were of such magnitude that even Trump suspended the negotiations. However, the election year was approaching, and the president needed a foreign victory, so in December the Americans returned to the negotiating table. Since then, in addition, the North American air attacks were reduced dramatically.8 In February 2020, a conditional peace agreement was reached between the United States and the Taliban that included a prisoner exchange, a vague commitment to talks with the Afghan government, and the announcement of the withdrawal of US troops in 14 months.
Obviously, that was the beginning of the end. The manifest willingness of the US forces to withdraw completely meant that the United States was no longer a relevant actor in Afghanistan, and it was necessary to prepare for a future without it. Despite everything, there was still some hope, including a possible change of presidential administration at the end of the year. Joe Biden wasn’t exactly keen to keep up the effort in Afghanistan, but he was expected to at least be pickier about the terms of the deal than the Trump administration.
When Biden arrived at the White House in January 2021, the situation was already very bad. The Taliban had not ceased their offensive during 2020 and Trump had made things even more difficult by accelerating the reduction of forces, which dropped to just 2,500 troops on January 15, 2021. The situation was so bad that, for once, the Docile Defense Secretary Mark Esper warned the president that steps were being taken toward catastrophe, costing him his job.
Biden, however, disappointed expectations for greater control of the deals. In April 2021, he announced that all US forces would withdraw from the country before September 11 of that same year. That announcement was the signal not only for a new Taliban offensive, but for all Afghan political and social actors to begin making plans for a future without the United States, and it soon became clear that this meant making deals with or joining the Taliban. Biden removed the last card holding the Afghan house of cards and it collapsed almost immediately.
With this, the last chance was definitely lost. The Kabul government could have held out considerably longer with a limited US presence, but one capable of supporting the Afghan armed forces, delivering deadly blows, and forcing the Taliban to honor their commitments. Nor would such a presence have been too expensive compared to the enormous sum spent in 20 years. However, nobody wanted to know anything about Afghanistan anymore, although nobody expected such a rapid collapse of the government, a final test of the permanent misunderstanding of the Afghan situation by the United States and its allies.
The first conclusion is that it is difficult to win wars in which one does not believe. Despite all that has been said about the strategic, geopolitical and economic interests of the United States in Afghanistan, the truth is that Washington was never really interested in intervening in the country. Unlike in Iraq, where oil reserves and geographic location in a key area like the Middle East did represent major strategic assets, there was — and is — little profit in Afghanistan.
The much-mentioned strategic mineral reserves will require decades of investment and infrastructure construction to be minimally profitable, and while the presence in Afghanistan projects influence over Central Asia and puts Iran in an awkward position, it comes at a cost that is not worth it. In fact, Afghanistan only has strategic value within the regional game between India, Pakistan, Russia and Iran; and that is something that has only interested the United States when it has been presented with the opportunity to weaken one of its adversaries. The United States only intervened in Afghanistan because it was forced to do so after 9/11 and was entangled in a reconstruction operation that it did not want, did not believe in, and initially viewed only as an image operation.
The second conclusion is precisely that you have to be careful with image operations, because if they are complicated they can have a totally opposite effect to what is sought. The United States wanted a short war, a limited presence, and contained spending in Afghanistan, but to maintain its image as a liberator and promoter of democracy, it insisted on promoting a process of national reconstruction. Initially, it endorsed the weight of that process on the international community, only to verify that it is doubtful that such a thing exists and that, if it does exist, it is absolutely incapable of conducting a project of such magnitude. The evidence that it was failing forced Washington to become increasingly involved to protect the image previously worked on, until a peripheral and secondary war ended up becoming a bleeding of lives and resources.
The third is that, in strategy, the intermediate options are dangerous. The United States was able to opt for committed and sustained intervention from the start, as it did in Korea in the 1950s, and perhaps the opportunity that arose in the early years of occupation would have brought about permanent change. He could also have opted for the indirect British model: minimal presence, bargaining, paying, and occasionally showing the great military club. The point is that, ultimately, the operation turned into something too expensive to be sustainable and too weak to cause a radical change in the Afghan reality.
The fourth is that you cannot rebuild what was never built. Afghanistan is one of those cursed countries in which modernity never penetrated and you have to go far back in history to find some time that can be described as prosperous. All the empires that have passed through Afghanistan have occupied the territory, sometimes for centuries, but few of them will be remembered for what they built on Afghan land. Permanent stopper state between Persia and India first, and between Russia and Great Britain later, Afghanistan was always a barren frontier land on the periphery of empires, inhabited by rude and warlike tribes who were paid or exterminated, but never it was trying to modernize. The hope of turning the country into the Switzerland of Central Asia in a few years has been simply a Western delusion. However, there were opportunities to achieve something more modest, such as an acceptably stable country that did not pose a threat to the rest of the world.
As has happened so many times throughout history, the lack of realism in the definition of the objectives ended up consuming lives and wasted resources
- Line drawn to mark the limits of British India to the west. That demarcation was not recognized by Afghanistan until 1919 because in fact it separated the ethnic Pashtun community in two, part of which continues to live today in present-day Pakistan.
- In 2002, the US troops in the country numbered a few thousand, which increased to about 10,000 in 2003, see Reality Check Team, “Afghanistan: What has the conflict cost the US and its allies?,” BBC News (August 16, 2021), https://www.bbc.com/news/world-47391821
- Data obtained from www.icasualties.org
- The case of the Qakai Qazi hospital, in which USAID spent 665 million dollars and suffered structural defects so severe that it could never be used more than a small part of its capacity, became an example of the lack of control in the cost of reconstruction of foreign agencies, see Fariba NAWA, “Afghanistan Inc,“ Corpwatch (October 6, 2006), https://www.corpwatch.org/article/afghanistan-inc-corpwatch-investigative-report
- “GDP (currentUS$)-Afghanistan,” The World Bank, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD?locations=AF
- 110,000 US soldiers in 2011, 75,000 in 2012 and 64,000 in 2013, see Reality Check Team, “Afghanistan: What has the conflict cost the US and its allies ?,” https://www.bbc.com/news/ world-47391821
- Christopher WOODY, “Some of the most important gains made in Afghanistan are slipping away,” Insider (October 31, 2016), https://www.businessinsider.com/taliban-is-regaining-control-in- some-areas -of-afghanistan-2016-10
- From more than 1,000 drone strikes in September 2019 (drones had then become America’s main means of providing close air support), it rose to 344 in December and sporadic strikes during 2020, see “Strikes in Afghanistan,” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, https://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/projects/drone-war/charts?show_casualties=1&show_injuries=1&show_strikes=1&location=afghanistan&from=2015-1-%201&to=now
Translated by CIVIME and Claudia Iwasaki