Why America Lost in Afghanistan
Successive U.S. administrations failed to heed the lessons of a forgotten counterinsurgency success story from Vietnam.
The Trump administration is now using Henry Kissinger’s “decent interval” process of abandonment to end the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The strategy is simple: negotiate a peace agreement exposing an ally to certain defeat in the long run, impose it, withdraw U.S. troops, cut aid, and finally refuse to re-engage when those the United States once fought move to take over the country.
On Jan. 2, while disparaging his resigning defense secretary during a cabinet meeting, President Donald Trump raised a legitimate question: Why didn’t America win in Afghanistan Trump put the problem curtly: “You can talk about our generals. I gave our generals all the money they wanted. They didn’t do such a great job in Afghanistan. They’ve been fighting in Afghanistan for 19 years. … I want results.”
Washington didn’t get the results it wanted in Afghanistan because it used the wrong strategy. The United States never deployed an effective counterinsurgency strategy because it didn’t have one. Knowing how to kill people is far from sufficient to defeat insurgencies.
Since the Vietnam War ended, U.S. national security strategy has mostly and wrongly defined every path to victory as a technical process of removing violent actors from a tactical area of responsibility. The challenge the United States faced in both Vietnam and Afghanistan was corrupt and incompetent government more than armed insurgency. The former bred the latter.
U.S. national security experts overlooked what was necessary to win because they rushed to forget the Vietnam experience, including the successful Civil Operations and Rural Development Support (CORDS) counterinsurgency program in the villages of South Vietnam after 1968.
U.S. generals never deployed in Afghanistan (or in Iraq for that matter) the strategy and tactics used in Vietnam to defeat the Viet Cong—especially CORDS, which decentralized political power to the villages and so successfully mobilized rural Vietnamese against the communist insurgents.
Defense Secretary Robert McNamara in October 1966 admitted to President Lyndon Johnson that he could devise no strategy effective enough to defend South Vietnam from communist aggression. Johnson then turned to two civilians—Walt Rostow and Robert Komer—and they quickly proposed a new U.S. strategy in the war: comprehensive, integrated, civil-military, bottom-up counterinsurgency.
Johnson adopted their recommendation and changed U.S. war aims to build up the cultural, political, economic, and military power of the South Vietnamese nationalists from the villages on up. Once the South Vietnamese were empowered, U.S. forces would withdraw from combat.
This program began in 1967 through the use of elections nationally under a new constitution and the funding of village self-defense units, self-government councils, and self-development projects. By 1972, the Viet Cong had collapsed as an effective insurgent force. By the time of the 1973 Paris peace agreement, they had only some 25,000 full-time soldiers left in autonomous units. The South Vietnamese had 700,000 in their armed forces, with an additional 1 million armed men and women in local self-defense units. The war against Hanoi had effectively been won inside South Vietnam.
But thanks to Kissinger’s secret concession on May 31, 1971, in secret negotiations in Paris with Xuan Thuy of Hanoi, the Vietnamese communists were to keep some of their regular forces inside South Vietnam, with more along the Ho Chi Minh trail in Laos as logistics support for the planned future offensive against the nationalists.
As a mid-level CORDS strategist working for William Colby, then-deputy commander for CORDS in the U.S. Military Assistance Command, I was an eyewitness to the success of these efforts. In particular, I worked with the Tan Dai Viet Party of Vietnamese nationalists, which had been given special responsibility for implementing village programs.
CORDS integrated civilian leaders with political skills into the U.S. war-fighting machine, something the United States never did in Afghanistan. As a result, the U.S. military effort was integrated with South Vietnamese national policies through a Central Pacification and Development Council, which directed ministries, regional military commands, provincial administrations, district administrations, and village government to put the people first as front-line combatants against the insurgents. CORDS resulted in good governance in the villages of South Vietnam, and the rural people responded with participation in the fight against communist aggression.
The failure to replicate CORDS in Afghanistan was not the only oversight. U.S. officials also succumbed to narcissistic myopia. In the 1990s, U.S. foreign policy and national security elites fixated on only two kinds of unilateral power—hard and soft. They suffered from the conceit that, after the fall of the Soviet Union and with the peaceful rise of China under Deng Xiaoping’s policies, the world was unipolar and Americans were that single pole of international power. Thus, Washington could supposedly expect others to do what we wanted them to do out of fear of U.S. bombs and bullets or out of love for U.S. values.
In Afghanistan, the Taliban concluded that they could outlast the application of U.S. hard power and that Washington had no soft power to deploy against them. They were correct. The Pentagon’s substitute for a successful counterinsurgency strategy became largely an endless process of playing “whack-a-mole.” And now U.S. strategists are tired and still have no idea how to defeat them.
The United States has spent a great deal of money in Afghanistan, and many Americans tried very hard to be helpful, but they never had the kind of civilian leadership needed in counterinsurgency command positions or a unified civil-military organization to mobilize the rural people against the Taliban.
The United States effectively chose to protect the people from the outside of their communities, not arm them to protect themselves. A network of 18,000 local development councils was even organized across the country using nongovernmental organizations but never integrated into the security system.
In Afghanistan, the U.S. government never found a way to tame ethnic rivalries, undercut warlords, recruit local leaders, or find norms of justice that would give local people a reason to fight the Taliban. To accomplish all that takes politics, not war fighting.
The Taliban can still be defeated after the peace agreement is reached and U.S. forces have withdrawn, but the United States now seems too exhausted—and still too dumb—to get the job done.