Best Defense

Why did we lose in Afghanistan?: ‘Afghan good enough’ wasn’t the problem; ‘American good enough’ was—and still is

A special post by Best Defense debater on Afghan war.

An Afghan policeman (C) poses with US soldiers, part of the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), as they stand guard on the outskirts of Laghman on June 5, 2013. The Afghan army and police have grown rapidly in a multi-billion international effort to build up the country's security forces, which now number roughly 350,000. AFP PHOTO/Waseem NIKZAD (Photo credit should read WASEEM NIKZAD/AFP/Getty Images)

By Dr. T. Negeen Pegahi

Best Defense debater on the Afghan war

The leap from the first to the last question in Jim Gourley’s initial post goes a long way in explaining what has gone so wrong for us these past 14 years.  Gourley begins with “Why did we lose in Afghanistan?”  He ends with “why did we fail to render our enemies — those people who actively participated in open hostility against our forces — powerless?”  This gives the impression that these are the same question – as in, that we lost because we failed to defeat those who fought us on the battlefield.  This myopic view didn’t serve us well in Vietnam and, unsurprisingly, it hasn’t served us well in Afghanistan either.

Figuring out “why we lost” is tough, in part because we’ve defined “victory” multiple ways.  We had hoped to wage a successful counterinsurgency campaign, not only defeating our current enemies but also addressing root causes so new recruits wouldn’t just take their places.  We viewed setting up an Afghan government seen as legitimate by the people as a key part of that.  But out of a combination of expediency and ignorance we signed on with a number of the worst offenders in Afghanistan’s brutal last few decades.  COIN was out and we hear about it now only as a cautionary tale.

While COIN may’ve been a bridge too far, a two-pronged mission of train, advise, and assist (TAA) on the one hand and counterterrorism (CT) on the other seemed a no-brainer.  We couldn’t or wouldn’t tackle the root causes of the insurgency but we could certainly help build the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and continue to “mow the lawn” while we did so.  Creating a sustainable ANSF would be our exit strategy; when we left, our Afghan partners could take over for us.  CT was, or should have been, just a way to buy everyone time for the critical work of TAA to take place.  Instead, we over-emphasized CT and neglected TAA.

What TAA we did, we did poorly.  It turns out we’re not well-suited to the work of building sustainable partner forces.  This will come as no surprise to anyone who’s been paying any attention to Iraq, where the security forces we poured so much time and money into collapsed in the face of what should’ve been a manageable threat.  This mission set requires people who care about our partners, listen to them and their goals, and help them find ways to achieve those goals that make sense for them.  These are not, however, the people we recruit or the people we train.

While Gourley’s question was about our failure to defeat our enemies, I think our failure to prepare our friends is just as important.  We haven’t been at all shy about blaming our partners when things haven’t turned out well.  We’re much less forthcoming, though, when it comes to assessing our own role in these debacles.  Anytime you hear someone say “Afghan good enough,” know what they really mean is “American good enough.”

Dr. Pegahi is an Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs at the Naval War College.  She served as a strategic advisor and analyst to Special Operations Joint Task Force – Afghanistan/NATO Special Operations Component Command – Afghanistan (SOJTF-A/NSOCC-A) in Kabul, Afghanistan from 2013 to 2014.  The views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Naval War College, the Department of the Navy, 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 @tomricks1
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