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We Lost the War in Afghanistan. Get Over It.

After 18 years of war, thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars squandered, the United States accomplished precisely nothing.

President George W. Bush deliver remarks while flanked by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in the Rose Garden at the White House September 27, 2006 in Washington, DC.
President George W. Bush deliver remarks while flanked by Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf in the Rose Garden at the White House September 27, 2006 in Washington, DC. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Afghanistan has been back in the news lately, but most commentators are missing the big picture. In recent weeks there has been a raft of articles suggesting the United States and the Taliban were nearing a peace deal that would enable the United States to withdraw most, if not all, of its forces there. These rumors prompted immediate warnings from skeptics such as retired Gen. David Petraeus, who failed to win the war on his watch but wants his successors to keep trying, and assorted other hawks who want America’s longest war to continue and still think victory is achievable.

Next up was U.S. President Donald Trump. Eager for another high-profile photo-op, the narcissist-in-chief came up with a scheme to invite Taliban leaders to Camp David and crown the peace deal there. According to some reports, Trump eventually got persuaded to drop this ill-conceived idea, but this latest sign of a White House in disarray may have contributed to the decision to fire National Security Advisor John Bolton earlier this week.

In fact, all this recent juicy hoopla is missing the big picture. We can palaver about peace terms, residual forces, the implications for the upcoming Afghan elections, et cetera, as long as we want, but the cold, hard reality is that the United States lost the war in Afghanistan. All we are debating—whether in talks with the Taliban or in op-ed pages back home—is the size and shape of the fig leaf designed to conceal a major strategic failure, after 18 years of war, thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars squandered.

To be clear, the Afghan debacle is not, strictly speaking, a military defeat. The Taliban never vanquished the U.S. military in a large-scale clash of arms, or caused its forces there to collapse. Instead, it is a defeat in the Clausewitzian sense—18 years of war and “nation building” did not produce the political aims that U.S. leaders (both Republicans and Democrats) had set for themselves. The reason is fairly simple: Afghanistan’s fate was never going to be determined by foreigners coming from 7,000 miles away.

As some of us have been pointing out for years, the conditions for a successful counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign were almost entirely lacking in Afghanistan. The country is isolated, poor, mountainous, and divided into many different ethnonational groups. It has no tradition of democracy, a long history of local autonomy, and a deep antipathy to foreign interference. The central government in Kabul was and remains irredeemably corrupt. Pouring billions of dollars of aid money into the country made that problem worse, and its army and security forces remained ineffective despite prolonged efforts to build them up. The Taliban had sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan and support from Islamabad (which had its own reasons for providing such aid), which meant it could withdraw when necessary, limit its costs, and wait it out. Lastly, the claim that it was necessary to deny al Qaeda a “safe haven”—a rationale invoked by both Trump and former U.S. President Barack Obama—was increasingly dubious, especially once Osama bin Laden was dead and that terrorist group had morphed and spread to many other countries.

The taproot of the problem, of course, is the enormous difficulty of the sort of large-scale social engineering the United States was attempting in a country so very, very different from it. Trying to turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style democracy was an act of extraordinary hubris, and all the more so when U.S. leaders told themselves they could do it quickly. Rejiggering another society’s institutions and culture inevitably generates resentment and unintended consequences, and all the more so when one is using a crude instrument like military power and trying to do it more or less overnight. Fighting and governing are two different activities, and the ability to blow things up with great precision does not confer a similar capacity to shape political realities on the ground. As former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes once admitted, “the [American] military can do enormous things. It can win wars and stabilize conflicts. But the military can’t create a political culture or build a society.” Unfortunately, that is precisely what U.S. leaders were asking it to do.

All of this has been obvious for a long time—indeed, for more than a decade. In 2009, for example, I wrote: “The more troops we send and the more we interfere in Afghan affairs, the more we look like foreign occupiers and the more resistance we will face. There is therefore little reason to expect a US victory” (emphasis added). In 2011, I wrote the following: “The truth is that the United States and its allies lost the war in Iraq and are going to lose the war in Afghanistan. There: I said it. By ‘lose,’ I mean we will eventually withdraw our military forces without having achieved our core political objectives, and with our overall strategic position weakened.”

I take no pleasure in having seen where this one was headed, and my point is not to say “I told you so.” Rather, the point is that it wasn’t that hard to figure this out, and plenty of people on the inside understood this problem long before I did. But neither former U.S. President George W. Bush, Obama, nor even Trump was able or willing to bite the bullet, give Americans the bad news, and change course. And perhaps the most disturbing part is that it is easy to imagine those who criticize a U.S. withdrawal today writing the essentially the same op-ed 10 years hence, were America foolish enough to keep the war going for another decade.

Why didn’t the United States change course sooner? In part because it is a wealthy and powerful country, so it is able to do dumb and expensive things for a long time without feeling too much pain. In part because military commanders don’t like to admit defeat, which is a laudable feature most of the time but not in circumstances like this. In part because the country now relies on an all-volunteer force, and the men and women who have chosen to serve have been willing to undertake the sacrifices the country’s commitment entailed without complaint. And in part because a long series of commanders kept promising success, instead of telling the commander-in-chief that they had been given an assignment that wasn’t necessary and that they could not accomplish at a reasonable cost.

No one should be happy about this situation. But Americans might console themselves with the sober recognition that they’ve been through events like this before. The United States is a powerful, extremely fortunate, and intermittently virtuous country that has done great things for its citizens and for others on more than one occasion. But it is neither perfect nor omnipotent, and its history also contains any number of errors and disappointments. The War of 1812 was an ill-conceived venture that got Washington occupied and the White House set ablaze. The sad fate of post-Civil War Reconstruction might have taught the United States that remaking societies through military occupation is a chancy business at best. U.S. intervention in the Russian Civil War was a failure too, the Korean War ended in stalemate, and the war in Vietnam, as Andrew Bacevich reminds us, was an ignominious failure as well. Defeat in Afghanistan need not lead to defeatism; it should lead instead to smarter decisions about where and for what purpose the country commits its military forces.

No country should expect to win all of its wars, no matter how strong it appears to be and how virtuous or well intended its aims. But at the very least, a great nation should try to learn from its missteps and do what it can to avoid them in the future. An obvious corollary: Don’t take foreign policy advice from people who have been loudly and repeatedly wrong. In this respect, John Bolton’s departure from the White House might be seen as a step in the right direction.

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

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