Best Defense

Why did we fail in the Afghan war? Because we didn’t understand the place

Our problem was we quickly lost sight of the purpose of war: to force your enemy to submit to your will.


By Major Andrew Rohrer, U.S. Army
Best Defense debater on Afghan war

Jim Gourley asked us to, in 500 words or less, explain “why did we fail to render our enemies — those people who actively participated in open hostility against our forces — powerless?” Our problem was we quickly lost sight of the purpose of war: to force your enemy to submit to your will. When the mission to Afghanistan began, we sought to punish the Taliban and defeat Al Qaeda. Along the way, the unwavering belief that a political, economic, and social system like ours prevented terrorism drove us to seek the transformation of Afghanistan in the image of those things, despite their incompatibility to that place.

Paraphrasing Clausewitz, war is politics by other means. We should never construe this to mean we can interchangeably, and freely, alternate between violence and discourse. Violence unresolved poisons discourse; discourse without the potential for violence is unlikely to yield resolution. In Afghanistan, the narrow, warring mission to punish the Taliban and defeat Al Qaeda transmogrified to a broad attempt to remake it into a nation we deemed compatible with the international order we sought to lead. In the wake of 9/11, the United States military swept into Afghanistan, quickly toppling the Taliban regime and then casting Al Qaeda into such disarray it no longer posed a threat with global reach. With our initial goal in Afghanistan mostly realized, but certainly not resolved, we set about to transform the country into one that was politically similar to our own, friendly to our interests, and a constructive participant in the international community.

What began as a punitive expedition became instead an enterprise to remodel Afghanistan into something safe to us, but entirely foreign to Afghans. The weakness in our plan was a failure to accept, or inability to see, that our goal was at odds with Afghanistan itself. Three key factors doomed us from the start: a history of tolerated totalitarian government with little reach beyond the capital, pervasive xenophobia making brutal neighbors more appealing than relatively benevolent foreigners, and a widely held and deeply conservative social value set that we felt compelled to change. Moreover, while we pursued the ambitious goal to remake Afghanistan, we believed successful transformation of Afghanistan into a country modeled on our liberalist ideals would resolve the grievances festering from decades of violence.

In a milieu where violence was the vernacular of power and politics, the conversion of the political system required violence to defeat violence, and bolster discourse. The error of our way was twofold: we failed to grasp that to truly transform Afghanistan we had to be a willing and complete partner to the violence, and that the goals were reflections of our cultural history. To achieve our ends, we would have had to defeat the Taliban in such a way that they could not rejoin the discourse, and our transformation had to be compatible with Afghan cultural history, not ours. We failed because we did not understand Afghanistan.

Andrew Rohrer did two tours to Iraq as a PL and troop commander and one tour to Afghanistan as a strat planner in RC-S (82nd OEF 11-12), and he is currently assigned to the ARSTAF. He began his career as a cavalry officer, and now is an Army strategist. This article represents his own views and are not necessarily those of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.


Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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