Everyone Knows America Lost Afghanistan Long Ago
Inflated threats, concealed costs, and lack of accountability for failure—and the complicity of the foreign-policy establishment—have kept the infinity war going for 18 years.
Last week, the Washington Post published a massive set of documents on the protracted and still unsuccessful U.S. war in Afghanistan, a conflict that Samuel Moyn and Stephen Wertheim have aptly dubbed the “infinity war.”
While not quite as revelatory as the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers, the release of these documents is still an important contribution to public understanding of U.S. national-security policy. In more normal times—without a looming impeachment, an endless parade of Trumpian distractions, and a congenitally irresponsible Republican Party—discovering that U.S. officials had obscured their doubts about the war and their recognition that U.S. strategy was failing might even prompt change of course.
To be clear, U.S. officials didn’t lie to the public so much as they misled them, largely by keeping their doubts hidden under a veil of government secrecy. The documents show that they understood the Afghan government was corrupt and unreliable, that Pakistan wasn’t going to end its support for the Taliban, and that U.S. strategy was ill-informed and riddled with contradictions. Yet instead of explaining these facts clearly to Congress and the American people, U.S. officials and military commanders repeatedly offered upbeat assessments of how the war was going in order to sustain public support and congressional approval.
For example, Gen. Stanley McChrystal, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, told a congressional committee in December 2009 that “the next 18 months will likely be decisive and ultimately enable success,” adding that “we can and will accomplish this mission.” His successor, Gen. David Petraeus, offered a similarly optimistic assessment a year later, even though it was at odds with U.S. intelligence assessments.
In 2010, Marine Gen. (and subsequently Secretary of Defense) James Mattis reported to Congress that “we’re on the right track now.” Such testimony was part of a well-established pattern. Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s staff produced a rosy-eyed report in 2006 that highlighted “a multitude of good news.” Gen. Dan K. McNeill spoke of “great progress” in 2007, and U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta all claimed the United States had “turned the corner” in 2011 and 2012; Petraeus echoed them, saying the U.S. military was “back from the abyss.” They were wrong, but Gen. John Nicholson recycled the same corner-turning phrase five years later, even though the situation in the country was objectively worse. Sadly, this familiar rhetorical trope has a long and depressing history.
Despite all that upbeat testimony from people at the top, evidence that the U.S. effort in Afghanistan was not going well was in plain sight all along. It was apparent in the many critical reports issued by John Sopko, the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction (SIGAR), whose interviews are the basis for the documents obtained by the Washington Post. It was apparent if you looked carefully at some of the recommendations that advocates of a prolonged commitment offered and saw that the effort would last at least another decade, cost hundreds of billions of dollars, and might still fail.
It was obvious to anyone who understood that a distant great power cannot win a counterinsurgency campaign when its adversary can disengage at will or retreat to safe havens in Pakistan, and when its local partner (the Afghan government) is hopelessly corrupt and dysfunctional. These harsh realities have been apparent for more than 10 years—see here, here, here, and here—yet U.S. leaders from both parties never drew the obvious conclusion.
To be sure, nearly two decades of effort and nearly $1 trillion did produce some results. Afghanistan’s economy has grown, education levels and life expectancy have risen, women’s rights have been advanced, and Afghans have gained some (uneven) experience with holding elections. But tens of thousands of Afghans have died (along with some 2,300 U.S. soldiers), and the United States is no closer to a stable political solution than it was when the Taliban were overthrown. It is increasingly clear that Afghanistan’s fate will be determined by the Afghan people themselves, and not by a foreign power from the other side of the world.
Make no mistake: The long war in Afghanistan may not have been as catastrophic an error as the decision to invade Iraq, but it is still an epic failure. So the real question is: Why did the United States’ large, well-educated, and well-funded national-security establishment keep at this fruitless effort? Why did so few members of that establishment recognize what was staring them in the face and begin to speak out about it? Given what insiders really knew, why did the war keep going?
One obvious reason is the United States’ favorable strategic position, which combines enormous wealth with geographic isolation. Even a costly quagmire such as the war in Afghanistan can be sustained with a $19 trillion economy and when the enemy has no way to hurt Americans significantly at home. (The Taliban’s objectives are entirely local, and they haven’t even tried to attack the U.S. homeland themselves, although the man they were sheltering, Osama bin Laden, did so in 2001).
Second, senior military leaders may be less inclined to use force than civilian officials are—before a war begins, that is—but they don’t like to lose and don’t like to admit that they cannot achieve whatever missions they’ve been given. Moreover, the Pentagon likes the supplemental legislative acts that are funding “overseas contingency operations,” because these bills aren’t subject to the same line-by-line congressional interference as the regular Pentagon budget. In effect, the supplemental budgets used to fund these operations are big, fungible checks that the Pentagon can use however it wants, provided it can plausibly relate the money to its overseas activities (which is pretty easy to do). No sprawling bureaucracy would want to give something like that up.
Defenders of the Afghan mission have also been adept at enlisting or coopting others into supporting the campaign. U.S. commanders invited prominent think tankers and academics to serve as informal advisors and gave them VIP tours of the region. Nothing undermines an expert’s objectivity and candor more than the belief that powerful officials are listening to them, and most of these advisors remained prominent cheerleaders for continuing the war for years afterward.
Some human-rights groups were quick to defend the mission too, arguing that withdrawal would jeopardize the gains made in women’s rights, education, and economic development. When all else failed, defenders trotted out the familiar “sunk cost” argument: The United States must stay in Afghanistan to ensure that past sacrifices were not in vain and to “protect our [prior] investment.” Anyone who recommended disengagement ran the risk of seeming “soft” and insufficiently supportive of “the troops,” and a label like that can be the kiss of death to an aspiring policy wonk’s career.
Equally important, selling the infinite war relied on the same techniques the foreign-policy establishment has used to justify an expansive U.S. role for many years.
Step 1: Inflate the Threat. The United States originally invaded Afghanistan to disrupt al Qaeda and capture Osama bin Laden. This response was entirely appropriate, in my view, but bin Laden is now dead, and al Qaeda itself has morphed, mutated, and migrated to many other places. Terrorism remains a serious problem in some ungoverned or contested areas, but is nowhere close to being an existential threat to the United States. (Indeed, to the extent that terrorism does hurt Americans, it is mostly homegrown terrorism from various right-wing groups).
Nevertheless, when both Obama in 2009 and U.S. President Donald Trump in 2017 sent additional U.S. troops to Afghanistan, they said they were doing this to prevent the country from becoming a “safe haven” for terrorists. It was a bogus argument then and remains bogus today, in part because the threat just isn’t that big and because the anti-U.S. terrorists that do exist have better places from which to operate. As Jack Goldsmith has argued, politicians keep throwing good money and lives at the terrorism bogeyman because they are deathly afraid of the political consequences of not taking every possible precaution, and they worry that a minor attack following a U.S. withdrawal might be politically fatal.
Step 2: Conceal the Costs. Although Americans want out of Afghanistan, there hasn’t been a groundswell of popular protest that might force politicians to reconsider. That’s in good part due to the fact that the war’s costs have been largely concealed from popular consciousness. Few Americans know exactly how much their country is spending there, in part because the U.S. government funds these wars by borrowing the money instead of raising taxes.
The all-volunteer force is also important; the United States’ college campuses would be far less quiescent today if privileged undergraduates were being drafted, couldn’t get exempted for bone spurs, and had to stop studying computer science, finance, or business and spend a year dodging roadside bombs instead. By reducing U.S. troop levels, confining military service to volunteers, and keeping the war off the front pages, supporters of the infinite commitment have been able to kick the can down the road for nearly two decades.
Step 3: Don’t Hold Anyone Accountable. The war effort in Afghanistan has had more than a dozen commanders since 2002. These men share some common features: None achieved victory, and most remain respected experts in today’s foreign-policy community. Furthermore, the “nation-building” and economic development effort in Afghanistan was riddled with waste, fraud, and mismanagement. Yet as Sopko told reporters back in 2015, “nobody in our government has been held accountable, nobody’s lost a pay raise, nobody’s lost a promotion. That’s a problem.”
As I’ve written elsewhere, this reluctance to hold people accountable or to speak truth to power is a pervasive problem in Washington, and it is one of the permissive conditions that permits follies like the infinity war to persist. Ironically, one of the best books about this phenomenon is H.R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty, which dissected the U.S. military’s failure to think strategically and give U.S. political leaders candid and accurate advice during the Vietnam War.
Yet McMaster appears to have succumbed to the same problem during his relatively brief tenure as Trump’s national security advisor. Instead of highlighting the persistent problems confronting the U.S. effort in Afghanistan (thereby reinforcing Trump’s desire to get out), McMaster remained a true believer and pressured a reluctant president to stay the course.
Does any of this matter, given how secure and wealthy the United States still is? It does.
In addition to the money squandered and the lives lost, the war in Afghanistan has also been an enormous distraction. The George W. Bush, Obama, and now Trump administrations have all devoted vast hours trying to figure out what to do about an impoverished, landlocked country in Central Asia, one that U.S. leaders never previously saw as a vital interest.
U.S. strategists were only too happy to watch the former Soviet Union bankrupt itself there, only to fall into their own version of the Afghan quagmire a few years later. Meanwhile, China has been growing rapidly, building world-class infrastructure at home and moving ahead of the United States in a few critical technologies. There may not be a direct connection between the war in Afghanistan and other U.S. policy failures, but neither are they completely unrelated.
Moreover, even if the United States can afford to keep the infinity war going for many years to come, that hardly means that it should. There are plenty of pressing needs here at home, the federal deficit keeps ballooning, and public support has gone permanently south. If staying longer won’t change the end result, why persist?
Finally, a systemic failure of this sort has domestic political consequences. Trump is mostly an ignoramus when it comes to foreign policy, and his attacks on the FBI, the intelligence agencies, and other government institutions are deeply worrisome. But one can understand why so many Americans have responded favorably to his relentless attacks on the so-called deep state.
Back in 2016, he said U.S. foreign policy was “a complete and total disaster,” and he blamed repeated failures on insiders with “perfect resumes,” claiming they were out of touch and unaccountable. Had our foreign policy establishment performed a bit better over the past 25 years—i.e., by adopting more limited, realistic, and short-term goals in Afghanistan, among other things—Trump’s attacks would not have the same prima facie plausibility. Indeed, he might not even be president today.
Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.