Argument

Why Afghanistan Is America’s Greatest Strategic Disaster

Pompeo's plan to make peace with the resurgent Taliban is a sad reminder of all that went wrong in Afghanistan—and how it could have been otherwise.

Soldiers lift a coffin into a van during the dignified transfer of two U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan
Soldiers lift a coffin into a van during the dignified transfer of two U.S. soldiers killed in Afghanistan at Dover Air Force Base in Dover, Delaware, on Feb. 10. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

Way back in January 2002, a few weeks after the Taliban fled terrified from Kabul, Kandahar, and other major cities, I went to Afghanistan to report on the aftermath. In just seven weeks, the world’s lone superpower had pounded Afghanistan’s Islamist occupiers into the ground, literally, with B-52s dropping massive laser-targeted bombs that seemed, to the hapless Taliban, to come from nowhere. It was the moment that “the nineteenth century met the twenty-first century,” an ebullient Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld later wrote. As I drove around, there wasn’t a Taliban fighter in sight, and the country seemed to lay wide open, practically begging the Americans to occupy it.

What’s keeping the peace? I asked the warlords I met. Pretty much the same answer came back over and over, often preceded by a gap-toothed grin: “B-52 justice,” said one man, pointing upward. 

Eighteen bloody years later, the conventional wisdom in Washington is that Afghanistan was always destined to be a failure. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo tweeted Friday that the United States had reached “an understanding with the Taliban on a significant reduction in violence across #Afghanistan” and announced that peace talks would soon begin in earnest, almost no one complained about the relegitimization of the Taliban, who will now have a powerful voice in ruling the country and may even take it over again. 

After all, it was inevitable, wasn’t it? No, in fact, it wasn’t, and some very smart strategists will tell you so. But you certainly won’t hear that from the many columnists, pundits, and scholars who blindly supported the diversion into Iraq—the main reason for the disaster of Afghanistan— and to this day can’t admit that they became what President George W. Bush’s former spokesman Scott McClellan called “complicit enablers” in possibly the worst strategic misdirection in American history.  

Yet some military historians and thinkers, including David Kilcullen, the author of a new book called The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, argue persuasively that Afghanistan—while it never was going to be easy—was a winnable conflict. At the very least, Washington could have stabilized the country with far less investment of time, money, and blood, had it simply paid attention.

“People say we took our eye off the ball. But we didn’t even realize there was a ball,” Kilcullen, a career soldier who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan and was chief strategist for counterterrorism coordination at the State Department, said in an interview. Around the time the Taliban were beginning to creep back down from their mountainous hiding places in the fall of 2003 to consolidate the Quetta Shura, the Taliban leaders’ council across the border in Pakistan, the Bush administration was in panic mode some 1,400 miles away in Iraq. U.S. troops there were fighting an insurgency the Bush administration failed to anticipate, after no weapons of mass destruction or links to Osama bin Laden—that is, to 9/11—ever materialized. Rumsfeld, who had blithely decided to keep what he called a “small footprint” in Afghanistan because he didn’t like the idea of nation-building (his boss, Bush, had campaigned against it in 2000) was by then paying Afghanistan no mind at all. 

The Afghans I met, meanwhile, were desperate for foreign intervention, knowing the consequences of U.S. withdrawal in the previous era, when Washington funded the mujahideen against the Soviets and then simply left (and the Taliban moved in). As Ismail Qasimyar, the head of the Loya Jirga commission, told me when I was there, Afghans saw that “a window of opportunity had been opened for them” and that Afghanistan was now “a baby of the international community.” 

“Everybody knows who the real muscle is,” Sayed Hamed Gailani, the son and spokesman for a powerful warlord in the south, Pir Gailani, said at the time. “I want the Americans here as much as possible to give me back my country.” 

The moment was ripe, because just about every non-Taliban warlord was open for business to the CIA—happy to work with the Americans in exchange for payoffs. “The Taliban were scattered. Many of them went home,” Kilcullen said. “Gradually they went to Pakistan and formed the Quetta Shura. By 2004 the insurgency begins, and it starts to get really bad by 2005. If we hadn’t invaded Iraq when things started to go bad, and in the early phase had a much more engaged political stance in Afghanistan … but it was basically ignored until [Barack] Obama got elected.” 

And by the time President Obama and his team debated what to do in the early 2010s, matters may have gone too far, especially after the Taliban took the city of Kunduz in 2015, surging back to threaten the urban areas and the Kabul government itself.

Indeed, what gets lost in discussions of the now-infamous “Afghanistan Papers”—the not-so-secret Pentagon history of the 18-year Afghan war revealed by the Washington Post late last year—is that Afghanistan was never just one long continuous history. Instead the conflict had at least two distinct phases: one in which the United States under Bush diverted most of its resources and energy elsewhere, sending even critical stabilizing U.S. forces like Pashto- and Dari-speaking special ops units to Iraq, and a second phase in which Washington abruptly awakened to the Taliban’s return and recklessly threw money and troops at a problem that had already metastasized out of control. 

“The Bush administration made three fundamental early errors in Afghanistan,” said James Dobbins, who served as Bush’s first envoy to post-Taliban Afghanistan and later lamented to me that Washington had turned Afghanistan into “the most under-resourced nation-building effort in history.” 

“First was believing that a devastated country with no national army or police could secure its territory and population unaided,” Dobbins said in an email Friday. “Second was the failure to engage those elements of the Taliban, including its top leadership, that were prepared to lay down their arms. 

“Third was not understanding that while Pakistan had ceased supporting the Taliban government after 9/11, it had not ceased to support the Taliban movement. By the time these failings were rectified the Taliban had regrouped, rearmed and, operating from its Pakistan safe haven, projected a large scale insurgency back into Afghanistan.”  

Recalcitrance from neighboring Pakistan was critical to the Taliban’s return. But much evidence suggests that the abrupt shift into Iraq also disillusioned the Pakistanis, who until then had been successfully strong-armed by Washington into containing the Taliban somewhat, as well as hunting al-Qaeda terrorists. Pakistan helped, for instance, in the capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Shaikh Mohammed in Rawalpindi in March 2003. 

But sensing that Washington was going to leave the region to its own devices, Islamabad reverted to past practices, setting up the Taliban once again as an Islamist ally. In an interview with me in the mid 2000s, Mahmud Ali Durrani, then Pakistan’s ambassador to the United States, said that just as Bush was about to invade Iraq, “al-Qaeda was almost destroyed in an operational sense. But then al-Qaeda got a vacuum in Afghanistan [as U.S. focus wandered]. And they got a motivational area in Iraq. Al-Qaeda rejuvenated.”

All of which suggests, Kilcullen said, that the so-called war on terror that began with 9/11 may well have resulted in the worst strategic mistake made by any major world leader since Adolf Hitler decided, on the cusp of total victory over Europe and Great Britain, to turn and invade the Soviet Union—a decision that most historians agree cost the Nazi dictator World War II.

“Hitler thinks England was just going to fall on its own, and then he launches into what he thinks is going to be a cakewalk” against the Soviet Union, Kilcullen said. “That is literally what happened to us with Afghanistan and Iraq. While the battle of Tora Bora [the mountain redoubt where a fleeing bin Laden was said to be holed up] was still going on, the Bush administration was already starting the planning process for Iraq.” 

Worse, America’s worst enemies have used the nearly two decades since 9/11 and America’s initial invasion of Afghanistan—a moment when U.S. power, manifested as “B-52 justice,” still inspired awe—to learn innumerable asymmetric techniques, including IEDs and the use of small, spread-out cells that began in Iraq, Kilcullen said. 

“In 1991 the Gulf War showed everyone how not to fight us, but the 2003 invasion of Iraq showed everybody how to fight us.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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