Best Defense

Why the United States lost Afghanistan in 500 words or less: We failed to provide an alternative

By Doug Krugman Best Defense responder in the Afghan debate If we have lost in Afghanistan (seems likely, but I’d hold initial judgment for a few decades), it will be because we failed to provide a viable alternative government. It doesn’t matter how well we fought or planned our operations. From the perspective of many ...

afghan

By Doug Krugman
Best Defense responder in the Afghan debate

If we have lost in Afghanistan (seems likely, but I’d hold initial judgment for a few decades), it will be because we failed to provide a viable alternative government. It doesn’t matter how well we fought or planned our operations. From the perspective of many Afghans, after a brief period of brutal stability in the late 1990s, the United States and NATO brought back instability. After 15 years that instability is the legacy we seem to be leaving them.

Prior to 2001, Afghanistan had a government. It was a bad government by both practical and moral measures, but it functioned well enough to sustain the country. The US destroyed that government because of its role in the September 11th attacks. From the perspective of too many Afghans, the replacement was worse than the Taliban. James Clark summed it up nicely, writing on the 5th anniversary of the Marjah assault, describing the much-heralded government-in-a-box that was to follow the invasion force as something that “may have sounded great on paper, but if you let that sink in for a minute — yeah, it was never going to work.”

Saying it never worked is harsh — in some places the current Afghan government is probably working. Unfortunately, it isn’t working in enough places. The Taliban, a convenient grouping for those who oppose Karzai and now Ghani’s regime, have had little trouble recruiting new generations of fighters from those who want something better. Our forces have even helped them — in Helmand, the local Taliban franchise got a massive infusion of fighters after the British forced changes in the governing structure in 2006. We’ve built clinics and schools for an uncountable number of students of both genders, but we haven’t provided the stability and very limited government services like reliable dispute settlement the population needs to survive at a basic level.

There may have been a way for us to create a better government for Afghanistan, but I suspect it would have taken far greater resources than the United States and NATO were willing to commit.

The other option was what some have called “Afghan good enough.” That would have been stopping when we had a semi-stable governing structure, albeit probably a very bad one by many measures. It would have been able to welcome back elements of the Taliban regime in a violently negotiated process (call it Luttwakian if you want) until the system reached some measure of stability without our massive continuing involvement. We first passed that point sometime between 2002 and 2005, while our leaders focused their attention elsewhere. Since 2006, we’ve spent vast resources, with 3,000 dead ISAF personnel as just one measure, fighting to get back to a “good enough” outcome.

Doug Krugman is a Marine Corps Infantry Officer and Southeast Asia FAO who served twice in Afghanistan as a company commander. He is currently a student at Marine Corps Command and Staff College. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense, United States Government, United States Marine Corps, or Marine Corps University.

JAVED TANVEER/AFP/Getty Images

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 ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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