The Longest Failure: The US in Afghanistan


Original image by Sgt. Mark Fayloga, U.S. Marine Corps

A lot is said of 9/11, especially of how it impacted everyone differently. People from all over the world and of all nationalities can still recall where they were and how they found out about the attacks. Those who had family members or loved ones on the planes, in the World Trade Center, or the Pentagon will of course never forget that absolutely harrowing day. Justice needed to be done for the atrocity that had been committed, and the world needed to see that the United States wouldn’t just sit around after a heinous attack. Unfortunately, the catastrophe of 9/11 ended up paving the way for a different one, one that is drawn out to this day.


The original justification for invading Afghanistan (even if the hijackers weren’t from there) was that the nation’s Taliban government was sheltering al-Qaeda, the terrorist organization that took responsibility for plotting and carrying out the attack, and on September 20th, 2001, US President George Bush made clear his intentions during a Joint Session of Congress when he said that the Taliban were to deliver al-Qaeda to the US or share in their fate.


When we think of the war in Afghanistan now, we can rightly see it as an utter failure in US foreign policy. However, what might be missed from all this by most people is that the original goals were accomplished… for a while. Those goals weren’t achieved 10 or 15 years into the war either, it happened rather early on.


So why has the US spent almost 20 years in Afghanistan? What succeeded and what failed? There are many areas to focus on when discussing what went wrong, but here I’ll focus on three critical issues: strategy, corruption and nation-building.


US soldier watches a CH-47 land, Afghanistan, 2018. (U.S. Dept. of Defense)

Strategy, or lack thereof


America's original objective when invading Afghanistan was to eradicate al-Qaeda presence in the nation, but that objective started expanding evermore to include overthrowing the Taliban government and later all other organizations that the Taliban worked with in what former Ambassador Richard Boucher called as a clear example of “mission creep”.


In a 2015 interview with the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Boucher talks about how American reasoning started going down a rabbit hole. Perhaps the most revealing thing learned by SIGAR from Boucher was that the US never had a clear exit-strategy. There wasn’t an achievable end-goal to aim for and call a definitive victory. Even if you set removing al-Qaeda or the Taliban as the end-goal, how would one define that?


The Taliban regime in Afghanistan collapsed in mid-November, 2001, by December, al-Qaeda was on the run. So why didn’t those moments count as victories? As Boucher reveals, those couldn’t be considered accomplishments of the mission, as a weak Afghan government with an unprepared Afghan army, tribal rivalries and the cross-border nature of the Taliban would just lead to them being back in power soon and al-Qaeda training operatives once again.


Retired US Army General Dan McNeill, basically confirmed Boucher’s testimony to SIGAR in an undated interview. Speaking of his experience as commander of NATO’s forces in 2007, McNeill states that he “tried to get someone to define for me what winning meant”, but states that there was no clear answer to the question.


By 2007, the anti-Taliban Afghan government under Hamid Karzai was well into its sixth year, but as McNeill declared, the US still didn’t really know what it was doing. Military operations in the country by NATO forces had no clear plan and were mainly “reacting to conditions on the ground”. Both McNeill and Boucher observe that the goal seemed to shift from military-strategy to nation-building, and that the nation that the US wanted to build in Afghanistan was a “Jeffersonian democracy” and that such a thing was “just not going to happen in Afghanistan.”


U.S. Army General David Petraeus. (Spc. Albert L. Kelley, 300th Mobile Public Affairs Detachment)

This disorder in planning continued to plague the US well into the Obama administration, as former US Army general David Petraeus recalls in his 2017 interview with SIGAR. Similar to Boucher’s comments about the Taliban’s cross-border advantage, Petraeus said that he never had confidence that the US would be able to “flip” Afghanistan the way they had done in Iraq. That pessimism was down to various reasons, but an important one was the fact that the Taliban could just retreat into Pakistan to reorganize and be back in fighting form.


During a speech at West Point Military Academy in December, 2009, President Barack Obama announced that another 30,000 troops would be deployed to Afghanistan, and that in 2011 “our troops will begin to come home.” Petraeus mentions in his interview that this surge in troop numbers and timeline for the drawdown was “imposed” by the President onto military leaders two nights prior to that speech, and that Obama’s plan was “take it or leave it”.


Knowing that what may have been the original exit-strategy was impossible now, the US focused on strengthening the Afghan government, both by providing vast sums of money and military training, believing that would create a strong Afghanistan that could defend itself after coalition forces were gone. But foreign assistance to Afghanistan faced a major problem the US didn’t foresee and failed to correct in time.


Taliban fighters in Herat, Afganistan, 2016. (Associated Press/Allauddin Khan)

Corruption, rampant and unhinged


Corruption is an issue that is hard to handle because it’s very difficult to accurately measure how widespread it can become. In Afghanistan, corruption was described by SIGAR to be “systemic”, to the extent that Dr. Rangin Spanta (Afghan National Security Adviser) is quoted as saying “corruption is not just a problem for the system of governance in Afghanistan; it is the system of governance.” What’s clear from SIGAR’s report is that the US failed to understand the threat corruption posed to their efforts to stabilize the nation and later rebuild it in the fashion of a Western democracy.


But this failure to recognize the scale and consequence of corruption isn’t the only reason America’s efforts to contain it failed, rather, containing corruption also found itself in conflict with more direct objectives of the US intervention. For example, in order to enforce security the US relied heavily on warlords and shady powerbrokers who did not turn out to be very good bureaucrats, as scholar Weeda Mehran has argued in the past. SIGAR found that these warlords, empowered by the US in its attempts to keep control of Afghanistan, would do nothing to ease corruption seeing as they depended heavily on it in order to maintain their power.


This approach not only allowed warlords to uphold corruption, but the CIA also pumped their pockets full of US cash, approximately $1 billion in 2001 according to Ahmed Rashid’s Descent into Chaos. But $1 billion is sadly a small figure compared to the sums that would be funneled into Afghanistan (and, therefore, its corrupt power structures) over the following years.


Since 2001, $115.5 billion have been disbursed in Afghanistan in the shape of foreign aid handled by the US Agency for International Development (USAID). In his interview with SIGAR, Boucher says he believed that at least 40% of the money sent into Afghanistan would never reach the intended targets and just disappear through all the layers of corrupt officials. An unnamed senior US official interviewed in December, 2015 talks about how little oversight there was in the spending of assistance money for reconstruction in Afghanistan, and how due to that, big companies who secured large contracts would just subcontract those projects to smaller companies, who would later subcontract to Afghan NGOs who then hired out local contractors to get the job done, with money being lost at every rung of the ladder.


It is incredibly hard to estimate how much money was lost to corruption in Afghanistan, but no way of looking at the issue could ever result in an amount considered acceptable. Since 2001 through 2019, the US spent around $2 trillion. While most of that wasn’t lost to corruption, what’s become certain after all these years is that it was lost anyway.


Afghan security forces seen in Kabul, February, 2020. (Associated Press)

Nation-building, not our job


America’s complete lack of an exit-strategy lead to what will no doubt be seen as a textbook example of mission creep to be taught at military academies the world over. That ever-expanding mission, from eradicating al-Qaeda, to overthrowing the Taliban, to pacifying the nation’s rural areas controlled by tribal warlords, ended up with the idea of solving just about all of Afghanistan’s problems. To stabilize the country, a central government had to be created, democratic institutions set up, the economy repaired, a new legal system needed to be crafted, legal employment had to be created for everyone, warlords had to get 9-to-5 jobs…


Boucher knew that these goals were nigh impossible in a country like Afghanistan. In his interview with SIGAR he talks about how when he first met with the Afghan government, then under Hamid Karzai, he realized how unprepared they were for the tasks they needed to undertake. From Boucher’s testimony one gets the impression that the Afghan government was a hollow façade. Sure, there was a ministry for women’s rights, and defense and education secretaries, but these were empty shells there for show and not for work. Boucher felt that the Afghans weren’t incompetent, they just didn’t want the type of government the US had.


This idea that Afghan institutions were created more as ends (show ponies) rather than means through which to achieve stability is reflected in academic literature around capacity-building and economic development. In a paper published by the Harvard Kennedy School’s Center for International Development (CID), Frank de Weijer argues that by 2013 Afghanistan’s basic institutions were clearly incapable of fulfilling the obligations of the state. De Weijer identifies many issues and reasons why local institutions were failing, among which are a “lack of critical mass of people able and willing to maintain them when external support recedes”, a bias toward the importance of immediate results over the creation of capable institutions and the top-down implementation model used.


De Weijer noticed that, in great part due to the desire for quick results, Afghan government institutions had fallen into the now-famous concept of a “capability trap”, that is, they had become stagnant in development and effectiveness even as they externalized their intentions to grow and be better. Rather than focus on tailored answers to solve very local problems, Afghan institutions relied on “isomorphic mimicry” (as described by Andrews et al.), adopting reforms that would make them look good but didn’t actually improve performance. These reforms were usually cookie-cutter “best practices” imported by foreign advisors, and resulted in no benefit to them or the people they served.


Looking back on the top-down approach to capacity-building, Boucher regrets not having incorporated more members of the Afghan diaspora into the process, people who may have better known the specific issues that needed to be dealt with in Afghanistan. De Weijer also points out how Afghanistan was never a country with an efficient or effective central government, and thus top-down policy mandated by edict would never work.


Time has proven de Weijer and others like him right, the approach taken by the international community never changed over the following years. Now, the institutions that took billions of dollars to build face the same issues they faced over 18 years ago, they’re weak without external technical support, and it would seem that there just aren’t enough people in Afghanistan interested in making this project work. It appears then, that President Bush was right when he said in October, 2000 that the military shouldn’t be involved in nation-building. If only he had stuck to that.


Cargo is unloaded off a transport plane, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, October, 2019. (U.S. Dept. of Defense)

What now for Afghanistan and the US?


It’s now December, 2020 and the US seems determined to withdraw its forces entirely from Afghanistan. After 19 years, around $2 trillion spent, some 2,500 American lives lost, and over 100,000 Afghan civilians dead, it’s time to come home. I’ve no doubt that the Afghan government will collapse after the US leaves, the Taliban have already made clear their intent to continue the war, the real doubt is how long that’ll take, and what the consequences will be.


The advancement of women’s rights under the governments of Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani will be overturned by the Taliban whenever they get back to controlling Kabul. The women who obtained an education in those years will probably be punished harshly by them. That’s not to claim Karzai and Ghani were champions of women’s equality, but they weren’t the oppressors that the Taliban most definitely are.


Al-Qaeda, while weak in comparison to their strength in 2001, will see this result as a win. After all, the US will leave, the Afghan government will fall and the Taliban will be back supporting al-Qaeda’s mission. The relationship between al-Qaeda and the Taliban resisted the years of war, as Weeda Mehran writes, the Taliban consult with them on everything they negotiate with the US.


So, al-Qaeda and the Taliban will be back in control of Afghanistan, which render the original goals now clearly unaccomplished. So did the US get anything out of this? Well, Afghanistan will hopefully serve as a brutal teacher of important lessons for the US foreign policy establishment. The appetite for war, in particular for regime-change wars, in the US has died down tremendously. The best we can hope for is for this war to serve as a warning to the government in DC, a gruesome tale of being unprepared, of a lack of vision and the consequences of hubris.

Next year, a new government will be inaugurated under President Joe Biden. Biden will hopefully stay away from starting new wars, but the presence of people like Antony Blinken, Neera Tanden, Avril Haines and Lloyd Austin in high roles of the incoming administration leaves some worry over how different this government will be, because it’s starting to look like more of the same.



Luis Gonzalez is a lawyer from Caracas, Venezuela currently working in private practice and is founder and co-editor of The Explorer. You can find him on Twitter at @lagm96.