A 20-Year Debacle in Afghanistan

Mission Creep

What are the lessons of the United States’ 20-year war in Afghanistan?


Now that we know how the United States’ generation-long misadventure in Afghanistan ended, one Army officer’s experience in 2005, recounted in Craig Whitlock’s excellent and depressing The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, takes on an elevated salience. About four years into the conflict, Maj. Charles Abeyawardena, a strategic planner based at the Army’s Center for Lessons Learned at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., flew to the war zone to study the ill-fated effort to create a modern Afghan army. The task was already proving to be difficult, but the US government remained hopeful—as it would, officially at least, for another 15 years—that the nascent Afghan security forces would eventually become capable of keeping the country stable on their own, enabling the United States to withdraw with honor.

Abeyawardena’s mandate was to interview the Americans and senior Afghan officials involved in the work of recruiting, training, and deploying the Afghan army. But he took it upon himself to talk as well to some rank-and-file Afghan soldiers. When Abeyawardena asked them why they’d enlisted, the answers they gave were not unlike the reasons American troops typically cited: They were seeking a solid paycheck, or they wanted to serve their country, or they were taking advantage of a chance to do something new and different. Yet when Abeyawardena probed further, Whitlock writes, the responses foreshadowed serious trouble:

When he followed up by asking whether they would stay in the Afghan army after the United States left, the answers startled him. “The majority, almost everyone I talked to, said, ‘No,’” Abeyawardena said in an Army oral-history interview. “They were going to go back and grow opium or marijuana or something like that, because that’s where the money is. That threw me for a complete loop.”

A decade and a half of grinding counterinsurgency warfare and expensive nation-building efforts later, President Donald Trump made a deal with the Taliban under which the United States would withdraw its forces in 2021. In return, the Taliban promised not to let Afghanistan once again become a safe haven for Al Qaeda or other terrorist groups. They also promised that, in the interim, they would stop attacking American troops and engage in peace talks with the Afghan government. Then, after Trump’s successor, Joe Biden, made it clear that he would follow through on most of the major aspects of the deal, setting the date for planned withdrawal only four months later than initially agreed on, the Afghan national army swiftly abandoned the battlefield, permitting the Taliban to take the capital, Kabul, essentially without firing a further shot.

Amid the ensuing chaotic effort to evacuate Westerners who had ignored earlier warnings to get out and Afghans who had helped the American-led NATO effort, officials at the Pentagon and the White House offered a rather sheepish excuse for the evident lack of planning and preparation for this endgame: The intelligence assessment had been that the Afghan government would likely endure for a much longer period after the withdrawal, leaving more time to get people out of harm’s way. If so, the lesson arising from Maj. Abeyawardena’s research had not been learned: The Afghan army risked becoming a Potemkin organization whose function was as much about absorbing American cash as providing an enduring security foundation for that country’s future.

The same can be said about the hollow government the army was supposed to be propping up. Even the puppet regime that the Soviet Union left behind in 1989, after Moscow ended its own occupation of Afghanistan, had managed to limp along for another three years before collapsing. Yet with twice the time spent trying to create stability in Afghanistan—and at the cost of more than $2 trillion, more than 7,000 dead American and allied troops and contractors, and more than 69,000 dead Afghan troops and police, along with more than 46,000 Afghan civilian casualties—the United States found that the Afghan state and armed forces it had created were not even capable of enduring long enough for the last American troops to finish getting out.

Whitlock is a reporter for The Washington Post, and his book is an expansion of a special project that the newspaper published in late 2019. It recounts how seemingly every positive thing that US officials said in public concerning the course of that ill-starred conflict—about the supposed strides being made by the Afghan army and the maturation of the national government, about battlefield progress against the Taliban insurgency and headway in eradicating opium poppy production—was misleading happy talk that masked ceaseless policy errors and failures, even if those policies had been undertaken with the best of intentions. Behind the scenes, many American officials recognized that the United States was getting deeper and deeper into a mess that the country could not back out of without risking the kind of fiasco that came to pass when Biden finally ripped off the Band-Aid.

In 2016, Whitlock received a tip that the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, or SIGAR, had conducted its own “Lessons Learned” project to assess the policy mistakes in Afghanistan in order to avoid repeating them. The SIGAR project involved interviewing hundreds of people who’d participated in the war effort, including senior military officials, diplomats, Afghan leaders, and aid workers. The tipster told Whitlock that the raw transcripts consisted in many cases of outspoken and explicit criticism. While SIGAR had published its own reports based on those interviews, their impact was limited by bureaucratic prose and by the fact that the agency had glossed over some of the harshest things the interview subjects told its researchers.

With The Washington Post, Whitlock pursued a legal battle under the Freedom of Information Act to liberate the raw transcripts, notes, and audio recordings of the interviews. The effort took three years but ended in success: Whitlock and the Post eventually obtained more than 2,000 pages of previously unpublished material from interviews with 428 people, although many of their names were blacked out. Whitlock also draws from several other troves, including an Army archive of more than 600 transcribed interviews with troops who had served in Afghanistan and had been interviewed between 2005 and 2015; a set of oral-history interviews of George W. Bush administration officials conducted by the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, which opened portions of them to the public in 2019; and the diplomatic cables that Chelsea Manning disclosed via WikiLeaks in 2010. Whitlock’s synthesis of these materials is not a comprehensive, one-stop-shopping history of the Afghanistan War. Instead, he declares that his purpose is “to explain what went wrong and how three consecutive presidents and their administrations failed to tell the truth.”

For this reason, Whitlock is not concerned with recounting particular battles or the evolution of military operations and counterinsurgency and counterterrorism tactics in Afghanistan. He barely mentions important policy matters that spun off from the conflict, like the use of indefinite detention and military tribunals for prisoners taken in Afghanistan and sent to the US prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, or the paradigm-shifting development of routine drone warfare. Nor is it surprising, given the date ranges of the oral histories on which his book is primarily based, that the later chapters—which recount events that took place after the available archives dried up—are less compelling. But Whitlock’s relentless, laser-like focus on the misjudgments and challenges in the early and middle years of the war delivers big-picture clarity. The Afghanistan Papers deserves to be counted among the small number of books, out of the many about the conflict published over the past two decades, that will still be read by future generations when they seek to understand America’s longest war.

The title of Whitlock’s book, which it shares with the original Post series, was inspired by the Pentagon Papers, the US government’s secret history of the Vietnam War, which was leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971. Based on internal military documents, the classified Pentagon study similarly revealed that a generation of political and military leaders under administrations of both parties had been lying to the public about the war in Indochina by putting forth a far more positive spin than they privately believed. Many of Whitlock’s chapters follow a similar pattern, one that stokes outrage at first before the reader becomes numbed by repetition: He quotes officials at the White House, the Pentagon, or the State Department making a positive public statement about some aspect of the Afghanistan War effort and then reveals that, behind the scenes, plenty of people understood that it was actually going poorly, as they admitted in their officially sanctioned oral-history interviews. As Whitlock notes:

Unedited and unfiltered, [these interviews, documents, and transcripts] reveal the voices of people —from those who made policy in Washington to those who fought in the mountains and deserts of Afghanistan—who knew that the official version of the war being fed to the American people was untrue, or aggressively sanitized at best. Yet in public, almost no senior government officials had the courage to admit that the United States was slowly losing a war that Americans once overwhelmingly supported. With their complicit silence, military and political leaders avoided accountability and dodged reappraisals that could have changed the outcome or shortened the conflict. Instead, they chose to bury their mistakes and let the war drift.

The impression of the war put forward here is that it was twice cursed: first because the effort to remake Afghanistan was executed incompetently, and second because that goal was a fool’s errand anyway. But it is worth disaggregating these two issues. Was there something the United States could have done differently that would have changed the war’s outcome?

In line with the old adage that getting involved in a land war in Asia is a classic geopolitical blunder, the ultimate error of the Afghanistan War was, arguably, to invade the country in the first place. At the same time, after Al Qaeda had murdered nearly 3,000 people on 9/11, the United States was assuredly going to counterattack, both to send a deterrent message to others and to dislodge this particular group of terrorists from their secure base in a country whose government tolerated their operations. There was also a popular and political thirst for vengeance that a one-off lobbing of cruise missiles at training camps would likely not have satisfied. Notably, every congressional lawmaker but one voted to authorize the use of military force against Al Qaeda and its Taliban hosts.

Even if some kind of invasion was inevitable, though, was there a real-world alternative in which the United States carried out a punitive expedition and then swiftly got out of the country? A key focus of The Afghanistan Papers is the Bush administration’s decision to embrace mission creep: Going beyond the limited objective of destroying Al Qaeda’s stronghold, it tried to build a functional modern state in Afghanistan. Years later, officials who’d played a role in the war said that in hindsight, the United States had invaded without any real idea of what it was trying to achieve or any exit plan specific enough to be meaningful. “What were we actually doing in that country? We went in after 9/11 to defeat al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, but the mission became blurred,” an unnamed US official who worked with the NATO Special Civilian Representative to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2013 said in a Lessons Learned interview. “Also blurred were our objectives: what are our objectives? Nation building? Women’s rights?”

There is a certain irony here, in that the fear of getting too heavily involved in Afghanistan may have thwarted the best chance to get out quickly. Wary of a major occupation, the decision-makers in the Bush administration who were running the initial phase of the war—Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Gen. Tommy Franks—developed a “light footprint” strategy that would primarily combine American airpower with ground forces supplied by the Northern Alliance. Then, in December 2001, Osama bin Laden and his top lieutenants were cornered in Tora Bora but managed to slip away. Critics blamed the escape on the Pentagon’s failure to surround Tora Bora with American ground troops, instead outsourcing the job to unreliable local forces. And as Whitlock observes, in the context of the 2011 raid into Pakistan that finally killed bin Laden, “As long as the al-Qaeda leader remained free, no president could realistically consider ending U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.”

So the United States stayed in Afghanistan past the Battle of Tora Bora to keep hunting for bin Laden, and in the meantime became ever more entangled in the country’s efforts to rebuild. Within a few years, Al Qaeda’s surviving members had largely moved on to other countries, Whitlock writes, which meant the main battlefield enemy in the effort to stabilize Afghanistan became the Taliban, along with the other regional and ethnic militias that worked with it—none of whom had carried out the 9/11 attacks. The United States would never have invaded Afghanistan simply to keep the Taliban at bay, but now it had to stay and fight them because it was already there.

Meanwhile, off the battlefield, The Afghanistan Papers argues, there were many other errors by which the United States drove itself deeper into the quagmire. It was a mistake, the interviewees cited by Whitlock insisted, to block the Taliban from taking part in the negotiations among the country’s various factions to form a new government. “One of the unfortunate errors that took place after 9/11 was in our eagerness to get revenge we violated the Afghan way of war,” said Todd Greentree, a Foreign Service officer who spent years in Afghanistan. “That is when one side wins, the other side puts down their arms and reconciles with the side that won. And this is what the Taliban wanted to do.” He added: “Our insistence on hunting them down as if they were all criminals, rather than just adversaries who had lost, was what provoked the rise of the insurgency more than anything else.”

It was a mistake as well to push the Afghans into creating an American-style government that concentrated power in one person—President Hamid Karzai, who grew increasingly hostile and erratic over time—and a centralized bureaucracy. “The only time this country has worked properly was when it was a floating pool of tribes and warlords presided over by someone who had a certain eminence who was able to centralize them to the extent that they didn’t fight each other too much,” said Richard Boucher, the former chief spokesman for the State Department. “I think this idea that we went in with, that this was going to become a state government like a U.S. state or something like that, was just wrong and is what condemned us to fifteen years of war instead of two or three.”

Bush’s subsequent decision to invade Iraq in 2003 was obviously a catastrophic mistake in many ways, but a major one was its impact on Afghanistan. The new war required the Bush administration to pull some of the best professional military units out of the country before the job there was done and replace them with less able National Guard units that cycled through on rotations. “There are certain sorts of basic policy conclusions that are hard to legislate,” said James Dobbins, an American diplomat who helped negotiate the initial agreement that created a new Afghan government. “First, you know, sort of just invade only one country at a time. I mean that seriously.”

And in the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency, amid the “surge” of troops intended to stabilize Afghanistan ahead of a hoped-for withdrawal, the United States erred in pumping far more aid money into the country than it could absorb, constructing roads, schools, rural government buildings, and clinics that soon fell into disrepair—and whose ultimate beneficiaries were the contractors and corrupt local officials whose pockets were lined along the way. US reconstruction spending soared from $6 billion in 2008 to $17 billion in 2010, Whitlock informs us. “It’s like pouring a lot of water into a funnel; if you pour it too fast, the water overflows the funnel onto the ground,” said David Marsden, a former official with the US Agency for International Development. “We were flooding the ground.”

Whitlock covers most of this high-level territory in his opening chapter. He follows with deep dives into the more specific difficulties of particular periods and themes, such as corruption and opium. A recurring motif is how the real-world conditions in Afghanistan gave rise to an endless procession of dilemmas and problems, making it hard to imagine how even the most competently executed mission would have been able to succeed. It was not just that Afghanistan shares an unsecurable 1,500-mile border with Pakistan, which allowed insurgents to easily slip back and forth into the country from the haven of Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas. It was also that there was much about Afghanistan that made it a poor fit for rapid rebuilding in a Western mold, and the effort by the United States and its NATO allies was further crippled by their failure to understand Afghan history and society.

However, the real talk from the war’s participants that Whitlock’s book quotes does not just consist of unvarnished observations about American mistakes and ignorance: It also includes numerous passages of candid disdain for Afghanistan’s backwardness. Few of the Afghans that the American forces were trying to train could read or tell time, let alone drive a vehicle or operate complex machinery. Maj. Alvin Tilley, an African American soldier, recalled passing through villages where the inhabitants had never seen a person with black skin before, and Tilley “said he was just as stunned by the sight of so many primitive mud huts without power or water.” Maj. William Burley, an Army civil-affairs team leader, spoke of delivering aid to villages so isolated that it was common for people to marry their first cousins. “I hate to say it,” Burley recounted, “but there was a lot of inbreeding. The district chief had three thumbs.” US troops were also forced to look the other way when their high-level Afghan partners—senior military officers, warlords, and other power brokers—“proclaimed their status by keeping tea boys or other adolescent male servants as sex slaves.”

Against that backdrop, improving the quality of the Afghan army’s recruits, many of whom used drugs on deployments or abandoned their posts, was a constant challenge. The Afghan police were worse, Whitlock writes: essentially militias of brutal shakedown artists who drew the ire of the local population, human rights groups, and the US military personnel who attempted to train them. One soldier said the Special Forces “hated” the local police, calling them “awful—the bottom of the barrel in the country that is already at the bottom of the barrel.” Another unnamed US military officer estimated that a third of the local police recruits were “drug addicts or Taliban.”

At times such passages verge on third world shaming: Suffering the consequences of deep poverty, cultural isolation, and a lack of education was not the fault of those unlucky enough to be born in war-torn Afghanistan. But reading the litany of such observations from those who were there, one cannot escape the conclusion that the effort to rebuild Afghanistan was doomed from the start. “Why does the U.S. undertake actions that are beyond its abilities?” said Jeffrey Eggers, a Navy SEAL who served in Afghanistan and worked as a White House staffer under Bush and Obama. “This question gets at strategy and human psychology, and it is a hard question to answer.”

In their time as president, both Obama and Trump wanted to remove US forces from Afghanistan but were talked out of it by generals and other national security officials, who warned that exiting would risk disaster. Indeed, the catastrophic rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, taking advantage of the vacuum left by Obama’s withdrawal of troops from Iraq in 2011, provided a stark demonstration of what could go wrong if the United States detached too soon from a fragile country whose previous government it had overthrown. But the unsparing portrait of the war that emerges from The Afghanistan Papers suggests that the whole enterprise was so misbegotten that it was always going to end badly, so each president’s decision to postpone the withdrawal merely left it to his successor—ultimately, Joe Biden—to assume the mantle of scapegoat.

The case put forward by some national security and foreign policy specialists critical of Biden’s decision to withdraw rests, not surprisingly, on a different interpretation. Some of their arguments are transparently weak: They tend to cite, for example, the lack of American combat deaths in the war’s final phase—at least until 13 service members were killed while guarding the Kabul airport during the August 2021 evacuation, in a horrific ISIS-K suicide bombing that also killed at least 170 Afghans—thus suggesting that the United States could have stayed on indefinitely without incurring significant new casualties. This argument glosses over the inconvenient fact that the lack of US combat deaths was due to the cease-fire component of Trump’s withdrawal agreement with the Taliban, who certainly did not stop killing Afghan soldiers in the interim. Reneging on that deal and staying—let alone carrying out strikes targeting the insurgents to keep them from overrunning Afghan cities—would have immediately started a bloody new cycle of conflict.

Such critics also tend to dwell on how the withdrawal was botched, and especially how the military left behind some people who needed to get out, in a way that avoids addressing the more disputed issue at the heart of what they think: that Biden should not have withdrawn at all. As I understand this line of thought, it questions the premise that the costs of staying on indefinitely would have exceeded the costs of getting out. From a humanitarian perspective, the luckless people of Afghanistan will now suffer a new era of misrule by religious extremists, likely with particularly dire consequences for women and girls. From a counterterrorism perspective, the United States is now dependent on the Taliban to live up to their claim that they will not let Afghanistan be used again as a base for global terrorist attacks by Al Qaeda or some successor group. If the Taliban renege, Biden’s plan is to use “over the horizon” air-based surveillance and drone strikes from faraway bases. But this plan has serious drawbacks: The lack of a robust ability to gather on-the-ground intelligence will increase the risk of bad strikes that kill civilians, and it leaves the US dependent on neighboring Pakistan for consent to transit its airspace. This quandary speaks to a larger dilemma the United States faces, which is how to respond to the Middle East’s seemingly unending cycles of conflict between corrupt authoritarians and religious zealots—an engine of chaos that keeps sending troubles, from terrorist attacks to refugees, into the broader world.

A similar lack of an obvious good answer complicates the core critique in The Afghanistan Papers of how the war evolved into a nation-building project. Many believe that a contributing factor to the 9/11 attacks was the United States’ earlier decision, after the Cold War ended, to abandon Afghanistan. Having helped fighters there resist Soviet occupation in the 1980s, the US looked the other way in the 1990s as Afghanistan sank into a civil war that set the stage for what followed. So it is not hard to imagine that even if the Bush administration had managed to kill or capture bin Laden in late 2001, there would nevertheless have been bipartisan pressure to stay on afterward and help Afghanistan rebuild. In the world of counterterrorism strategy, it sometimes seems that every available door leads to its own version of the same doom.

For Biden, who in his eight years as vice president had watched Obama struggle with Afghanistan, the need to finally bring an end to the war’s demonstrated pathologies outweighed the risks. Whitlock concludes his book with excerpts from a speech that Biden delivered in April 2021, when he made it clear that the United States was going to get out. Noting that the US had killed bin Laden a decade earlier and yet stayed on, even as the terrorist threat had dispersed to many other countries, Biden argued that “keeping thousands of troops grounded and concentrated in just one country at a cost of billions each year makes little sense to me and to our leaders. We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result. I’m now the fourth United States President to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats. I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.” N

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