The 2016 Epidemic of Afghan War Amnesia

There are reasons Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump aren’t talking about U.S. failures in Afghanistan. They're just not good reasons.

<> on July 3, 2009 in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
<> on July 3, 2009 in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

During the first two presidential debates, did you notice that neither Hillary Clinton nor Donald Trump ever uttered the word “Afghanistan”? One wonders how the 8,400 U.S. military personnel still serving in America’s longest war felt about that. When the two candidates vying to be commander in chief are not asked to state their views on a war the United States is still fighting and feel no necessity to raise it themselves, it tells you a lot about the bizarre political campaign we’ve been saddled with this year, as well as the cavalier way our country now regards a conflict we seem readier to forget than to end.

When future historians look back on the conduct of the Afghan campaign, I suspect they will deliver a harsh indictment of the entire U.S. national security establishment. Although there have been many examples of individual gallantry, personal sacrifices by civilians and soldiers alike, and repeated efforts to devise a winning formula, the end result will still be a costly failure. To put it bluntly: We didn’t win, we didn’t break even, and we couldn’t find the wisdom or will to get out of the game.

The failure is wholly bipartisan, beginning under Republican George W. Bush and continuing with Democrat Barack Obama. It is simultaneously a failure of U.S. military leadership, the intelligence services, diplomats, aid agencies, and the broader multinational effort that was supposed to deliver success. One could toss in most of the foreign-policy punditocracy, whose members occasionally raised doubts about the war but for the most part proved unwilling to admit that what the United States and its allies were trying to do was neither working nor worth the effort.

If you don’t believe me, read “Lessons From the Coalition: International Experiences From the Afghanistan Reconstruction.” It is a report derived from a “lessons learned” conference organized by the U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) and the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published back in April, featuring a diverse set of U.S. and foreign experts involved in the long campaign. The exercise is entirely laudable: After 15 years of fighting, a massive international development effort involving 40 countries, and hundreds of billions of dollars spent, what do we have to show for it? What lessons can we learn from the many failures and relatively few successes?

Unfortunately, the main takeaway from this measured and sobering report is that the entire “state-building” effort in which the United States and its allies have been engaged since 2002 was doomed by a variety of strategic, organizational, and political mismatches. There was never a clear integration of short-term military objectives and longer-term development goals, for example, and only sporadic agreement on key objectives within the donor community itself. There were few capable and reliable local partners with whom to work, and foreign commanders and aid officials usually lacked adequate knowledge of local conditions. To make matters worse, personnel were routinely rotated out of the country after relatively brief tours, just as they were beginning to understand the local context, in a process a conference participant called an “annual lobotomy.” And without a strategy that could guarantee security and stability over the long term — which would have required ending Pakistan’s support for the Taliban — and without a peace agreement that satisfied the widespread desire for ethnic autonomy inside the country, no development effort or state-building campaign was likely to work.

Although few Americans realized it at the time, the Afghanistan War was haunted by failure from the start. Remember: The United States invaded the country after 9/11 in order to capture Osama bin Laden and his associates, and it went after the Taliban only because they refused to hand over al Qaeda’s leaders. Kabul fell with surprising speed, but command errors at the battles of Tora Bora and in Operation Anaconda allowed bin Laden and other al Qaeda operatives to escape into Pakistan, where they remained hidden for more than eight years. From the very beginning, therefore, the military campaign in Afghanistan had failed to achieve its central objective. Moreover, although relying on local warlords (the so-called Northern Alliance) made it possible to oust the Taliban quickly, it also empowered the same forces that bedeviled Afghan politics in the 1990s and have undermined reconstruction efforts since 2002.

Next, the well-intentioned Western effort to create a new Afghan state from scratch was equally misguided, as the new constitution envisioned a centralized, Western-style government in Kabul that was at odds with Afghan history and traditions. It also presumed a level of administrative competence and a revenue base that far exceeded Afghan capacities. Yet none of the international participants who embraced this outcome seemed to realize they had taken on an unrealistic and open-ended burden and that the new Afghan state would be dependent on lavish outside support more or less indefinitely.

Nonetheless, that effort might — repeat, might — still have succeeded had the Bush administration kept its eye on the ball and focused laser-like on al Qaeda and Afghanistan. Alas, Bush & Co. redirected U.S. forces and intelligence capabilities toward Iraq instead and had to divert more and more resources there as the occupation went south, the insurgency grew, and the violence increased. Invading Iraq and downgrading Afghanistan helped the Taliban regroup and regain momentum, thereby ensuring the United States would lose not one war but two.

Barack Obama’s turn to fail came next. Having called Afghanistan the “good war” during the 2008 presidential campaign, facing a military leadership determined not to lose, and concerned that he not appear “soft,” Obama reluctantly agreed to the pointless “surge” in 2009. He justified it as necessary to keep Afghanistan from reverting to a “safe haven” for terrorists, even though Islamic extremists were not an existential threat and had plenty of better “havens” elsewhere. Obama compounded the error by setting a deadline for the U.S. withdrawal and devoting little effort to broader regional diplomacy, thereby giving the Taliban little incentive to come to the table and end the war.

To be sure, the massive foreign effort in Afghanistan did have some positive effects. As Carlotta Gall noted recently in the New York Times, there have been a number of tangible signs of progress over the past 15 years, and she clearly believes the United States and its partners should stay the course lest these achievements evaporate after we are gone.

But the case for staying the course is not compelling. It would be impossible to spend a trillion dollars or so on a poor country and not produce a few positive effects; the problem is that these gains are bound to be ephemeral in the absence of effective and legitimate political institutions and a stable security situation, the two features that outsiders have been unable to provide. Instead of forging a capable Afghanistan that can stand on its own, in short, the United States and its allies have created a dependent country that cannot survive without continued outside support.

Most importantly, neither the United States nor its allies ever confronted the inherent strategic contradictions in their effort. The “safe haven” argument never made much sense and especially not after the Arab Spring gave Islamic extremists lots of new areas from which to operate. Defeating a resilient insurgency was not possible as long as the Taliban could slip across the border into Pakistan as needed and as long as the Pakistani government turned a blind eye to their activities or gave them active support.

Counterinsurgency campaigns also fail when there are no reliable local partners, and it was clear by 2008 that the United States and its allies did not have one in Kabul. Repeated efforts to reduce corruption were stillborn, and Secretary of State John Kerry was forced to cobble together a constitutionally questionable and largely ineffective power-sharing arrangement between President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in 2014, a dozen years after the United States first invaded.

Lastly, as the SIGAR/USIP report makes clear, the large and unwieldy multinational effort to fix Afghanistan was the wrong vehicle for the job. Having lots of stakeholders and participants ensured that different actors would have different priorities and made it easier for Afghan officials to play foreign donors off each other and evade accountability. As the report notes, efforts to make outside aid conditional on badly needed internal reforms were “undermined by the presence of multiple donors that could provide alternative sources of aid.”

Yet as this long, slow-motion train wreck proceeded, hardly anybody in the U.S. national security establishment raised their voices to acknowledge the futility of the effort or to propose a radically different course. Instead, in a manner strikingly reminiscent of the U.S. effort in Vietnam, top officials were willing to do just enough to make sure Afghanistan didn’t fall on their watch. And so the Afghanistan War will still be underway when the next president takes office — tying down troops, costing more billions of dollars each year, and essentially going nowhere.

There’s a final lesson here: It’s easy for the United States to launch bold new initiatives in distant lands and then to lose interest in them when they prove to be more expensive or difficult than originally expected. Concerns about credibility and the desire not to appear “soft” may keep America committed long after the costs have exceeded the benefits, because the United States is still a secure and wealthy country that can afford a few losing investments. We do come home eventually, however, usually leaving the local actors to face the consequences.

In the next debate, it would be useful to hear Clinton and Trump lay out their respective plans for this largely forgotten war. Do they think we should stay in, and if so, why? What strategy does each think we should follow in order to raise the odds of success (however they choose to define it)? Or do they believe it is time to withdraw completely, and are they willing to say so in a clear and unambiguous fashion? Whoever wins in November will have to make that decision once in office; surely the American people — and the thousands of soldiers who are still waging war in Central Asia — are entitled to have some hint of what his or her decision will be.

Photo credit: JOE RAEDLE/Getty Images

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

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