The REAL reason the U.S. failed in Afghanistan

Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that’s just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what ...

Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Walt-Steve-foreign-policy-columnist20
Stephen M. Walt
By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images
MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images

Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that's just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what went wrong. 

Both Nasr and Chayes make useful points about the dysfunction that undermined the AfPak effort, and I'm not going to try to adjudicate between them. Rather, I think both of them miss the more fundamental contradiction that bedeviled the entire U.S./NATO effort, especially after the diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. The key problem was essentially structural: US. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources, but the stakes there simply weren't worth that level of commitment. In other words, winning wasn't worth the effort it would have taken, and the real failure was not to recognize that fact much earlier and to draw the appropriate policy conclusions.

First, achieving a meaningful victory in Afghanistan -- defined as defeating the Taliban and creating an effective, Western-style government in Kabul -- would have required sending far more troops (i.e., even more than the Army requested during the "surge"). Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan's ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.  

Why did the U.S. fail in Afghanistan? (I know we are pretending to have succeeded, but that’s just camouflage to disguise what is in fact an embarrassing if predictable defeat). The reasons for our failure are now being debated by people like Vali Nasr and Sarah Chayes, who have offered contrasting insider accounts of what went wrong. 

Both Nasr and Chayes make useful points about the dysfunction that undermined the AfPak effort, and I’m not going to try to adjudicate between them. Rather, I think both of them miss the more fundamental contradiction that bedeviled the entire U.S./NATO effort, especially after the diversion to Iraq allowed the Taliban to re-emerge. The key problem was essentially structural: US. objectives in Afghanistan could not be achieved without a much larger commitment of resources, but the stakes there simply weren’t worth that level of commitment. In other words, winning wasn’t worth the effort it would have taken, and the real failure was not to recognize that fact much earlier and to draw the appropriate policy conclusions.

First, achieving a meaningful victory in Afghanistan — defined as defeating the Taliban and creating an effective, Western-style government in Kabul — would have required sending far more troops (i.e., even more than the Army requested during the "surge"). Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached the ratio of troops/population observed in more successful instances of nation-building, and that deficiency was compounded by Afghanistan’s ethnic divisions, mountainous terrain, geographic isolation, poor infrastructure, and porous borders.  

Second, victory was elusive because Pakistan continued to support the Taliban, and its territory provided them with effective sanctuaries. When pressed, they could always slip across the border and live to fight another day. But Washington was never willing to go the mattresses and force Pakistan to halt its support, and it is not even clear that we could have done that without going to war with Pakistan itself. Washington backed off for very good reasons: We wanted tacit Pakistani cooperation in our not-so-secret drone and special forces campaign against al Qaeda, and we also worried about regime stability given Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, these factors made victory even harder to achieve.

Third, we couldn’t get Karzai to reform because he was the only game in town, and he knew it. Unless the U.S. and NATO were willing to take over the whole country and try to govern it ourselves — a task that would have made occupying Iraq seem easy — we were forced to work with him despite his many flaws. Successful counterinsurgencies require effective and legitimate local partners, however, and we never had one.

In short, the U.S. was destined to lose because it didn’t go all-out to win, and it shouldn’t have. Indeed, an all-out effort would have been a huge mistake, because the stakes were in fact rather modest. Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been scattered, America’s main interest was continuing to degrade al Qaeda (as we have done). That mission was distinct from the attempt to nation-build in Afghanistan, and in the end Afghanistan’s importance did not justify a substantially larger effort.

By the way, I am not suggesting that individual commanders and soldiers did not make enormous personal sacrifices or try hard to win, or that the civilians assigned to the Afghan campaign did not do their best in difficult conditions. My point is that if this war had been a real strategic priority, we would have fought it very differently. We would not have rotated commanders, soldiers, and civilian personnel in and out of the theatre as often as we did, in effect destroying institutional memory on an annual basis and forcing everyone to learn on the job. In a war where vital interests were at stake, we certainly wouldn’t have let some of our NATO partners exempt the troops they sent from combat. And if the war had been seen aa a major priority, both parties would have been willing to raise taxes to pay for it. 

Thus, the real failure in Afghanistan was much broader than the internal squabbles that Nasr and Chayes have addressed. The entire national security establishment failed to recognize or acknowledge the fundamental mismatch between 1) U.S. interests (which were limited), 2) our stated goals (which were quite ambitious), and 3) the vast resources and patience it would have required to achieve those goals. Winning would have required us to spend much more than winning was worth, and to undertake exceedingly risky and uncertain actions towards countries like Pakistan. U.S. leaders wisely chose not to do these things, but they failed to realize what this meant for the war effort itself.  

Given this mismatch between interests, goals, and resources, it was stupid to keep trying to win at a level of effort that was never going to succeed. Yet no one on the inside seems to have pointed this out, or if they did, their advice was not heeded. And that is the real reason why the war limped on for so long and to such an unsatisfying end.

Stephen M. Walt is a columnist at Foreign Policy and the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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