After nearly 20 years, four presidential administrations, and thousands of deaths, the United States armed forces precipitated a departure from Afghanistan, marking one of the most significant foreign policy disasters in American history. Why was this such a disaster? Because the Taliban, whom the United States removed from power in 2001, reclaimed authority over Afghanistan with little resistance from the American trained and equipped Afghani military forces. The United States invested nearly $1 trillion and thousands of lives only to see the pre-war status quo return.
Why did America send forces to Afghanistan?
American foreign policy in the Middle East radically changed after the events of September 11th, and the immediate objective of President George W. Bush became the elimination of al-Qaeda and the capture or kill of its leader, Osama bin Laden. The Bush administration immediately clarified to the world that no distinction would be made between terrorists and those who harbored terrorists.
Bin Laden and al-Qaeda had been hiding out in Afghanistan for years at that point, and of course, conducting a number of terrorist attacks against the United States. For a variety of reasons, the ruling members of the Taliban refused to turn over bin Laden and his followers to the United States. The Bush administration and the American people were in no mood to negotiate, thus the American mission included not only eliminating al-Qaeda, but removing the Taliban from power.
In its mission, the United States incorporated the Northern Alliance (an amalgam of Afghani rebel groups), Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Australia, and Canada. In the first two years of this war, this coalition effectively removed the Taliban and dispersed al-Qaeda. The time since then included a great deal of counterinsurgency work, slowing stamping out the remnants of these groups. The coalition has been very effective in killing the enemy, holding cities, and occupying territory. However, the United States could not stay in these towns forever, nor could they eliminate every member of these groups. Despite 20 years of fighting, the Taliban always held certain regions of Afghanistan and maintained a sizable base of support from the people.
What mistakes were made in this war?
Sadly, this war was doomed to failure from its inception because the United States did not learn its lessons from the Vietnam War.
The United States chose the wrong objectives. After the attacks on September 11th, the United States would settle for nothing less than direct military action to apprehend or eliminate responsible parties. In seeking justice for those attacks, they made the mistake of attempting regime change in Afghanistan, a nation with a history as the ‘graveyard of empires’ (see: Soviet-Afghan War).
No, the Taliban would not willingly give up bin Laden or his al-Qaeda followers, but would it not have been possible to send American forces into Afghanistan with the mission of attacking terrorist bases and ignoring Taliban forces unless they attempted to disrupt the American mission? This type of military action would allow Americans to pursue and eliminate its enemy while refusing to engage in a long term project of overhauling a nation’s political and governmental system.
The objectives chosen by the Bush administration sent the United States into almost a virtually endless conflict because it not only declared war on terrorism, but did not distinguish between terrorists and those who harbored them. A war on terrorism is a war on an idea, and there will always be terrorists in the world. The United States cannot police the entire world. Simply put, America spread itself too thin. This problem became more salient after the start of the Second Gulf War in 2002.
In Vietnam, the United States also chose poor objectives. Rather than focusing on helping a poor nation victimized by imperialism, the United States was concerned about the spread of communism and stopping it at all costs. The country was too afraid to lose a proxy war to the Soviet Union and this guided their intervention in a nation they had long ignored.
Regime change doesn’t work without wholesale support from the people. After the Allied victory in World War II, the United States had tremendous success in its occupation and rebuilding of several nations. In Europe, American forces established a strong military presence in both Germany and Italy. In Japan, the United States solely took control and took a firm position in South Korea. American influence undoubtedly affected these nations and the establishment of new governments in the post-World War II era. American cultural imprints are still visible today in these places. So, why has the United States failed to repeat these successes?
In the cases of Germany and Italy, their nations and societies were not radically different from American culture. A common Western cultural vibe translated to an easy transition away from the ugliness of fascism. Also, these nations needed the help of the United States to push back against the aggression of the Soviet Union. They wanted an American presence far more than they wanted a Soviet presence.
There is a similar truth in Japan and Korea. Though these Asian nations were not akin to the Westerners in culture, they did have the problem of the Soviet Union looming over them. In fact, many historians now believe Japan surrendered to the United States not because of the atomic bombs, but out of a fear of the Soviet Union moving its forces from Europe to assist the United States in the Pacific. Surrendering to the United States would garner much more favorable terms after the war than surrendering to the Red Army. Moreover, surrendering to a ‘miracle weapon’ like the atomic bomb would allow Japan to maintain some sense of honor in defeat.
In both Vietnam and Afghanistan, regime change didn’t work because the people were never unified behind it. In the case of Vietnam, the United States failed to understand that vast majority of people saw them as the next iteration of colonizers who would pick up where France left off. The American government propped up weak and corrupt administrations in South Vietnam and Afghanistan which neither controlled the entirety nor had the support of their people.
It’s also fair to characterize the situations in Vietnam and Afghanistan as internal struggles, rather than external problems of Europe, which sought to protect Western nations. The divisiveness in Vietnam and Afghanistan meant a unified nation needed for genuine change probably wasn’t going to happen.
The United States never learned that more troops, more money, and more bombs cannot always win a war. Groups like the Viet Cong, or the Taliban, are true believers in their cause. They fight for different reasons than an invading army, and as such, they are willing to lose large numbers of men to achieve their objective. In Vietnam, the United States killed the enemy at a ratio of nearly 20 to 1. The ratio is somewhat similar for the 20 years the United States has operated in Afghanistan.
Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking the United States military isn’t capable of winning a war in the sense of achieving tactical objectives. The American armed forces clear villages, find and eliminate enemy combatants, and do so with stunning efficiency. This does not mean the military always wins a war. An army can achieve its tactical objectives without achieving its strategic objectives. The enemy in both Vietnam and Afghanistan demonstrated they would continue fighting regardless of the losses. In the two decades of this war, American troop losses were at 2,442. Consider the length of time and the losses inflicted on the Taliban, this is a small number. (Losses in Vietnam were close to 60,000.) Unless the United States killed every last man in the Taliban, they were not going to achieve the victory they sought. Just like in Vietnam, citizens were eventually wondering why we were there and if the cost in dollars and human life was worth it.
No one established a clear exit strategy. Despite two decades to plan a real exit strategy, four presidents failed to establish one. Government officials never wanted to create a deadline for leaving, believing it would only encourage the Taliban and other terrorist groups to hold out until American forces left the country. The policy of multiple presidential administrations was to stay until the military completed its task.
Unfortunately, the propped up government in Afghanistan (and previously in South Vietnam) relied too heavily on American armed forces as a permanent crutch, one which would never leave until the job was done. American support in terms of personnel, military hardware, and money seemed like a never-ending spigot which the democratic Afghani government never was too interested in turning off. President Joe Biden remarked this past week that one more year, or five more years would not make a difference in achieving this objective. Much like in a game of poker, it’s time to fold the hand when you realize it cannot win. Yes, you put a lot of money into the pot, but there’s no use in throwing away more resources at a losing proposition.
Eventually, the American government treated the situation in Afghanistan like Vietnam. We would leave when the Afghan military could stand on their own and slowly draw down our number. In the 1970s, President Richard Nixon called it ‘Vietnamization.’ No one created a clever name for it this time, but it’s the same terrible plan — which is no plan at all.
Does the Taliban represent a threat to the United States?
Yes, and no. In the traditional military sense, the Taliban has a fighting force of somewhere in the neighborhood of 70,000 men. The quick fall of the new Afghani government meant that quite a bit of the military hardware provided by the American armed forces haas now fallen into the hands of the Taliban. Of course no one wants modern military equipment to fall into the hands of some bad people, but the Taliban, as a ruling entity of Afghanistan, is not going to attack the United States.
The concern Americans should have about the Taliban is the same concern from 20 years ago. The Taliban provides safe haven to terrorist groups like al-Qaeda, where they can operate training camps and conduct planning for attacks against the United States and its allies.
Also, we should have a serious concern for the individuals left behind in Afghanistan. In the absence of the Taliban, women gained significant measures of freedom and equality. Now, the radically strict Sharia Law implemented by the Taliban threatens those gains. Afghanis who assisted the American military as interpreters, informants, or soldiers face retribution for their actions. These individuals are so concerned about Taliban rule that they swarmed American airplanes leaving the country and were clinging to the landing gear of aircraft as they took off. People literally fell to their death rather than live under Taliban rule again.
Who bears the blame for this disaster?
Four presidents bear the blame for the policies which led to a terrible result in Afghanistan. President George W. Bush initiated these policies, established poor objectives, and left future presidents in a situation where ending the war would be unpopular. Bush created a broad based conflict when a more precise objective was needed.
President Barack Obama followed a sad pattern of increasing American personnel in the region and failing to follow through on timetables at removing troops after these troop surges.
President Donald Trump initiated peace talks with the Taliban during his tenure, and created a deadline for May 2021 for American withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Now, current President Joe Biden oversaw a withdrawal of American troops which appears haphazard, at best. Incidentally, the failure of the Afghan military to put up a fight against the Taliban reflects poorly on America as a whole. However, Biden is the current occupant of the White House, and the buck stops there. Success or failure rests on him.
The American people must also take on some of the blame. For years, we supported a broad based war that presidential administrations and Congresses carried on without any real exit strategy. Armed conflicts need definitive, measurable objectives so that we may apply pressure to our government if they do not achieve those goals or if they do achieve them and do not return the military home.
We now must swallow the bitter pill of failure. Biden did what other presidents probably wanted to do. He abandoned a foreign policy which wasn’t working. America’s national interests in Afghanistan could not be sustained without a near permanent military presence. Neither Biden nor any successive presidents could justify sending more Americans into harm’s way.
Citizens in the United States have rightfully expressed concern about a potential humanitarian crisis we are leaving behind. Yet, there are humanitarian crises all over the world where we have no military forces. Do we not also care about those people? The United States cannot solve every problem of the world. Attempts to do so continually undermine our credibility when there is a vital interest where American force is warranted.