Our mission in Afghanistan was doomed at the start; nothing could have saved it

Our mission in Afghanistan was doomed at the start; nothing could have saved it

By Brian Hayes
Best Defense entrant in Afghan debate

We lost in Afghanistan because we tackled an impossible problem. The United States tried to fight a counterinsurgency in an environment tailor-made for insurgents; attempted to promote legitimacy and good governance without honest, reliable Afghan partners; and did both with limited resources and on a clock.

There was never a coherent, logical U.S. strategy for Afghanistan. To fight the Afghan Taliban, the U.S. had to rely on assistance from the Pakistani government — which in turn supported the Afghan Taliban. The CIA showered Hamid Karzai with cash while U.S. diplomats worked to undermine him. Our nation-building strategy relied on an influx of aid money — which created a culture of dependency, aggravated the problem of corruption, and sometimes bankrolled our foes.

Afghanistan was a textbook example of where not to do counterinsurgency. The presence of U.S. troops created legions of what David Kilcullen termed “accidental guerrillas.” We killed or captured a lot of them, but did so in a revenge-focused culture that hated us all the more for having done it. The Pakistani border guaranteed the Taliban sanctuary. Every significant U.S. strength, from our superior logistics to our awesome firepower, was neutralized by either geographic or political concerns. The Taliban were dedicated and willing to endure hardship, and they proved that they could govern honestly, if brutally. Our Afghan allies failed to measure up.

Army Major Jim Gant, who believed passionately that the U.S. could and should fight to win in Afghanistan, unwittingly explained why it was doomed to fail. To win, he wrote, “The strategic challenge of Pakistan as a sanctuary, recruiting base and source of funding and military expertise would have to be addressed,” and the problems of warlords, opium, and corruption would need to be solved. But no one has come close to solving one of these problems, let alone all four. The United States might as well have chosen a strategy predicated on suspension of the law of gravity.

What could we have done differently? In his appearance announcing the death of Osama Bin Laden, President Obama should have declared that the United States had accomplished its original mission in Afghanistan by eliminating the core Al Qaeda leadership that had used the country as a safe haven. The United States should then have declared victory and gone home. Sure, the Taliban would have returned to power, but they probably will anyway. The U.S. nation-building effort in Afghanistan was and is doomed to fail.

Brian Hayes served for fourteen years in the U.S. Army and Army Reserve, including a deployment to Afghanistan in 2010-2011. He is now an officer in the U.S. Navy, serving in East Africa.