Elephants in the Room
Critics Should Stop Declaring Defeat in Afghanistan
The war is not yet over and its outcome is not yet certain.
One thing has been consistent throughout the long war in Afghanistan: critics’ insistence that the United States has lost it. The United States may indeed lose the war, but if it does, some small part of that will be due to critics who advocated withdrawal based on a false belief from the start of the campaign that it was an unwinnable, lost cause. Nothing in history is inevitable, but the critics’ presumption of knowing in advance how the war would end led to the natural conclusion that the United States should leave—which is the essential condition of defeat.
Most recently, Jason Dempsey, the author of Our Army: Soldiers, Politics, and American Civil-Military Relations, in the headline of a piece for War on the Rocks called for holding the U.S. military accountable for “America’s undeniable failure in Afghanistan.” Dempsey’s verdict on the war has a long pedigree. The New York Times ran a news analysis piece, “A Military Quagmire Remembered: Afghanistan as Vietnam,” on Oct. 31, 2001, three weeks after the Afghanistan War started. Days before the liberation of Kabul in November of the same year, the international relations scholar John Mearsheimer warned that the United States and its Afghan allies were “losing ground.” In May 2004, the New York Times ran the headline “NATO Flirts With Failure in Afghanistan.” The political scientist Barnett Rubin warned in 2007 that Afghanistan could be “sliding into chaos.”
Astri Suhrke published a book about the failure of the international project in Afghanistan—in 2011. Former Ambassador to India Robert Blackwill argued earlier that year that it was time for “Plan B,” because “the Taliban will inevitably control most of the Pashtun south and east,” which is “the best result that Washington can realistically and responsibly achieve.” Stephen Biddle, an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, argued in 2013 that the United States had little choice but to cut a deal with the Taliban, withdraw abruptly, or risk “losing expensively.” In 2016, Andrew Shaver and Joshua Madrigal wrote in Foreign Affairs that “decisive victory over the Taliban is not possible.”
These warnings were based on an obvious insight: The United States has never missed an opportunity to make a mistake in Afghanistan, and some outcomes that may have been possible earlier in the war are no longer viable. At most points over the last 17 years, the war was going poorly and risked failure. As a National Security Council director sitting on the Afghanistan and Pakistan desk from 2007 to 2009, I witnessed many of those mistakes firsthand, argued vociferously against many of them, and made a few myself. Critics are right to complain, as Dempsey does, about the military’s inveterate optimism. As often as critics have proclaimed defeat, the military has just as often announced victory is around the corner.
But some of the critics go beyond recognizing U.S. mistakes and make two key analytical errors. First, some (such as Dempsey, Blackwill, and Biddle) move from claiming, rightly, that the United States has made mistakes to the unjustified claim that it has irrevocably failed. Second, because they believe the United States has failed, they conclude that the right policy solution is to withdraw. The second argument is, of course, the best way to ensure the first is proven correct. But neither argument is justified—even granting that the war’s harshest critics are right about everything the United States got wrong.
Claiming the United States has failed is odd because the war is not over yet. Making mistakes is different from having failed. The first is a discrete, revocable action; the second is a permanent end state. Epistemological humility, if nothing else, should cause us to wait. As anyone who is honest about their own career knows, you can fail your way to success; that is, you can make mistake after mistake and still end up with the right final result. Mistakes are inevitable, they are normal, and they are part of how we learn, improve, and eventually succeed. The United States’ record of mistakes in the early months and years of World War II is enough to fill volumes.
The worst mistakes of the war were President George W. Bush’s light footprint and President Barack Obama’s withdrawal deadline. Obama corrected the first mistake and made the second in the same speech. President Donald Trump corrected the second mistake in August 2017 in one of the better moments of his presidency (admittedly a low bar), but now he seems bent on reversing himself. I am mostly pessimistic about the war’s outcome at this stage, but I also recognize that so long as the United States does not withdrawal and leave Afghanistan to its fate, things can still change.
One might argue that the critics’ warnings were prescient. The New York Times was proved correct, eventually: Afghanistan did turn into a quagmire. But that is to grant the critics too much credit. U.S. policy and strategy in Afghanistan has continuously evolved and changed over 17 years, sometimes for the better. The critics’ view of the war has not. The criticism of the war has been curiously static, stuck repeating similar arguments year after year despite changing circumstances. Afghanistan was not a quagmire in 2001, or 2002; the word does not ring true until perhaps 2007 at the earliest. Then Obama nearly won the war in 2012, only undercutting himself through his premature withdrawal. The quagmire returned as the United States began withdrawing in 2013. The New York Times was not prescient—it was lucky.
And in another sense, the critics have been flat wrong. The United States has not failed: It is succeeding at exactly what it set out to do. U.S. strategy—the real strategy, reflected in budgetary and deployment decisions, not the paper strategy reflected in speeches and aspirational documents—aims to sustain an indefinite counterterrorism presence in South Asia to kill or capture militant leaders while avoiding a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, nothing more. That the United States is still in Afghanistan is not a sign of failure: It is what U.S. policymakers have deliberately chosen, because they will neither accept defeat nor pay the price of a more ambitious campaign to resolve the conflict. Indefinite, low-cost war is a feature, not a bug, of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan. It is not an attractive strategy and not the one I advocated for, but it is successful according to its own terms.
Despite the United States’ changing policies, evolving strategies, and efforts to correct its own mistakes, the war’s critics have been determined to declare defeat. They treat the war in Afghanistan as if it were already in the past, as if its outcome can already be known. The critics have often been surprisingly confident in their analysis, overstating the degree, depth, or inevitability of failure, sharing with certainty about the inevitable future course of events. They may eventually be vindicated. But unlike the war’s critics, I do not pretend to have the ability to predict the future. So long as the stakes in Afghanistan endanger U.S. interests—and they do—the United States has every reason to keep the door open.
Undeterred, the war’s critics are eager to commit their second error and counsel withdrawal from Afghanistan. Ironically, withdrawal is the one mistake the United States has so far miraculously not made. It is odd that critics understand so well all United States’s previous missteps—yet conclude the right response is to make yet another one. Leaving will be the last mistake the U.S. makes in Afghanistan because it is irreversible, and it would compound the tragedy by depriving the United States of its ability to undo any of its previous errors.
The argument for withdrawal makes little sense. It amounts to an argument for abandoning sunk costs: The war has lasted a long time, we’ve made a lot of mistakes, and progress seems unclear or impossible, so let’s go home. But while advocates for this line of thought rightly count the costs of staying, they rarely count the cost of leaving. Few doubted the wisdom of some kind of intervention in Afghanistan in 2001, because the stakes were clear: The United States needed to destroy al Qaeda and deny safe haven to its fellow travelers.
That was true in 2001. It is true in 2019. It is unclear what the war’s critics believe the United States should do in response to the continued threat from al Qaeda and affiliated groups in the aftermath of a hypothetical withdrawal from Afghanistan. Do these critics believe the United States should never have intervened in the first place? That would be the logical conclusion of their argument.
Few want to come right out and say publicly that after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States made a mistake toppling the Taliban regime. They do not want to argue that the United States should have tolerated the Taliban and sought to deal with al Qaeda through indirect means—because in the aftermath of 9/11, that would sound cold or dishonorable. But they counsel adopting the exact same policy in 2019.
The war of 2001 still has an air of justice and justifiability to it; the war of 2019 does not. But they are the same war. The war of 2001 was not (or should not have been) a war of revenge that the United States could conveniently leave when its bloodlust was sated. It was a war with a specific purpose in mind, a purpose that the United States has not yet achieved and that is still important.
It will be time for the United States to withdraw when al Qaeda and its affiliates have been definitively defeated or when the United States and its Afghan allies have successfully denied safe haven to them in South Asia. In lieu of that, there are few plausible policy options for what to do the day after withdrawal. Leaving would almost certainly mean a humanitarian crisis, a new wave of Afghan refugees, and one of the most significant reversals for women’s rights in the developing world in two decades. Advocates of withdrawal, who tend to be silent about these unfortunate realities, should at least be honest about the cost of their recommendations.
More pressing for U.S. security concerns, the war’s critics are implicitly arguing that the chaos, Taliban rule, and renewed terrorist safe haven that are likely to follow will somehow not threaten U.S. interests. We all hope that is true, but hope is not a strategy.
The calls for withdrawal are especially odd because the U.S. operation in Afghanistan is relatively small, faces limited domestic opposition, and is not costly compared to the much higher toll in lives and dollars during the wars in Iraq or Vietnam (or, for that matter, in Afghanistan during the surge). It has imposed a steep cost on the U.S. Special Operations community, but not the military at large, let alone the American people or the defense budget. At the present level of U.S. involvement, the war is indefinitely sustainable and entirely successful at its very minimal goal of preventing a Taliban takeover or a renewed terrorist safe haven.
In November 2017, I interviewed Hamdullah Mohib, then the Afghan ambassador to the United States, at the Special Operations Policy Forum, hosted by the New America think tank. I asked him how he and Afghans broadly felt about the possibility of the U.S. withdrawal. “You’ve already left,” he said. The United States had drawn down to just 8,000 troops at that point. There is no convincing reason to withdraw further. Drawing down to zero gets the United States almost no further gain but carries enormous risk of collapse, defeat, and irreversible failure.
Critics of the war pretend they already know how it ends. Their policy of withdrawal is based on futurology. They are not engaged in strategic forecasting, which sketches broad, probabilistic scenarios based on trend lines. They are declaring a final and definitive verdict about one specific future event—the end of the Afghanistan War—that has not actually happened yet and is therefore unknowable.
In doing so, they help bring about the very failure they believe has already happened—because withdrawing from Afghanistan now is how the United States and its allies lose the war. In doing so, they also dodge their own agency. If the war is already lost, there is no danger in counseling withdrawal; they cannot be held responsible if anyone actually follows their advice and loses the war.
But nothing in history is inevitable, and nothing in history is impossible. Part of the responsibility of policymaking is to study the past carefully and not rush to ascribe meaning prematurely. The meaning of an event is not fixed until it is over. How a story ends is a crucial part of understanding what the story was about all along. My chief compliant about the war’s critics is their presumption to know in advance what the end is and then to read that meaning backward to justify, conveniently, their own policy preferences.
We only truly understand something once it is over. The war in Afghanistan is not over. It might have ended in 2004 or 2005 if the Bush administration had executed a competent, well-funded state-building effort and not blocked the U.N. from meaningful peacekeeping outside of Kabul. It might have ended with something like a military victory, or at least with highly favorable negotiations, in 2012 or 2013 if Obama had maintained the military pressure of his surge.
Today, the United States lacks the leverage or resources to reach for such outcomes. It is instead seeking a way to mitigate the costs of exiting. The peace talks currently underway are unlikely to secure the Taliban’s agreement to the longstanding U.S. demand that it accept the Afghan Constitution. Why would it? It has every reason to believe that, upon a U.S. departure, it would have leverage and be able to win an outright victory and write its own constitution, even if it has to allow for a decent interval before the final phase of its victory. Holding peace talks when the United States lacks leverage is the best way to arrange for a smooth, untroubled withdrawal of U.S. forces and a transition to Taliban control in Afghanistan. The smartest and most well-intentioned negotiators in the world cannot negotiate away from these realities.
Some critics, such as Mearsheimer, have argued the United States should pull back everything except for a minimal counterterrorism force, absolving itself of responsibility for nation-building in Afghanistan. That is, of course, roughly what the United States did from 2001 to 2006, and again from 2013 to the present. The results speak for themselves: deteriorating security, increased terrorist safe haven, the risk of spillover into Pakistan, and the loss of humanitarian gains for women and minorities in Afghanistan.
It was only when the United States built up its forces and made halting gestures toward counterinsurgency and peace-building that the U.S. and its Afghan allies saw any progress. That was also when the United States generated the intelligence for, and had the prepositioned units available to carry out, the Abbottabad raid in Pakistan in 2011, during which Osama bin Laden was killed. The irony is strong: The most significant counterterrorism operation in recent history would not have been possible under the “counterterrorism only” strategy that the war’s critics proposed for Afghanistan.
The alternative course is some version of the same argument I and others have been making for over a decade: more resources, real counterinsurgency, no deadline. We have made the argument before—but just because it is repetitious does not mean it is false. The right strategy would take more than the 12,000 or so U.S. troops currently in Afghanistan to sustain embedded training, counterterrorism, and counterinsurgency operations. But it does not require 100,000 U.S. troops, because there are now tens of thousands more Afghan soldiers in the fight.
The United States has tried aspects and components of the right strategy on and off for over 17 years, but never all together simultaneously. One does not have to share the U.S. military’s inveterate optimism to recognize that the war is not over and failure is not inevitable. Some version of an outcome acceptable to U.S. interests is still achievable in Afghanistan—but not if the United States withdraws.