Why the U.S. Lost in Afghanistan

Issue 266

Many people my age went off to fight in Afghanistan and Iraq. Our paths would cross again when they returned.

Danny Sjursen Sep 16, 2021

Almost 20 years ago, Uncle Sam sauntered up to the Afghan roulette table and placed a huge war wager on the taxpayer credit card — with the Afghan people on the hook as unconsulted co-signers. When Kabul fell to the Taliban on Aug. 15, U.S. bluffs were called and all debts came due. Washington’s interventionist addicts again learned the hardest of lessons: bet big, lose big. The fallout of all this has a rather ugly aesthetic, as videos show that the Taliban bank has repossessed American HMMWVs, drones, and small arms aplenty.

The four key lies U.S. military and civilian leaders told themselves these past two decades and the delusions they allowed themselves were these:

The Pentagon (publicly, at least) underestimated the skill, will and popularity of the Taliban, while (also pub- licly) overestimating the same factors for the security forces of the U.S.-installed and -backed Kabul govern- ment. While even such a skeptic as I was wrong about the likely speed, scale and scope of enemy victory — what’s clear from the nearly combat-free recent conquests is that Taliban success turned on mostly morale and psychologi- cal factors. Many local elders and power-brokers feared a return to 1990s-era chaotic civil war more than a Taliban takeover (and the semblance of at least order they hoped the latter would bring). Then, as Afghan security forces faced a recent string of defeats, often went unpaid, and lacked proper air or logistical support — they read the way the wind was blowing, decided not to die needlessly, and thus the Taliban tidal wave became unstoppable. Kabul’s soldiers aren’t all cowards — most Afghans are able and willing fighters — but neither are they stupid or suicidal.

While warmongers attempted to sculpt their legacy at CUNY, some of those they led into war were now trying to figure out their lives as civilians.

Washington never really admitted the extent to which America’s very invasion — and especially its prolonged military occupation — bolstered the Taliban narrative, somewhat understandably, if uncomfortably, legitimizing these oft pitiless Islamists as the only true nationalist resistance in town. That the recognized Afghan government remained so reliant, after two decades, on U.S. trainers, contracted-logisticians, and cold-hard- cash (Kabul still lacked enough tax revenue to even pay its own security forces) only magnified the perception that President Ashraf Ghani and company were little more than corrupt foreign lackeys (which they were).

Establishment elites—politicians and pundits alike— ignored the advice of actual nonpartisan experts, as well as centuries of history and even basic reason, believing (as they’re are apt to do) that America-the-exceptional would prove the exception when wading into the “graveyard of empires.” Deep down, even the U.S. military knew the score and the long odds. In my mandatory military his- tory course at Fort Leavenworth’s Command and General Staff College (the Army’s school for new majors), we were all taught about the all-but-unconquerable challenges of what’s called “fortified compound warfare” (FCW). In such a situation, one’s enemies possess four main ele- ments and advantages: 1) a regular or main force (massed Taliban foot soldiers), 2) an irregular or guerrilla force (dispersed Taliban fighters, as well as informants, urban terrorists and assassins), 3) a safe haven for the regular force (just over the Pakistani border), and 4) a major- power ally (Pakistan, and much later, and to a much less- er extent, maybe Russia and Iran). An official U.S. Army University Press publication dubbed compound warfare “the fatal knot,” and admitted that “[an enemy possessed of these advantages] nearly always defeated its opponents because the adversary’s necessary first step to victory, de- stroying the FCW defender’s main force, is almost im- possible.” Yet into the inferno America’s moral-coward generals and civilian chickenhawks gleefully leaped — re- plete with 20 years worth of sunny promises of progress. That is, until the Taliban called in their illusional chips.

Overall, and perhaps most profoundly, American leaders — enabled by an apathetic, deceived, and cowed citizenry — exaggerated the utility of foreign-imposed force in transforming far-flung complex societies. Even after countless (at best) indecisive draws, and (should-have-been) obvious Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan losses — not to mention abject failure in Vietnam — these criminally inept clowns never learned the limits of American military power. And why not? No one (at the top) is held accountable; no one fails to profit from even losing ventures, and none of the poli- cymakers were betting their own sons and daughters at the Afghan roulette table. These venal incompetents re- ally believed they were playing with the house’s (blood) money. Hence their careless actions.

That may sound like a stinging indictment, but I’m pretty sure I’m underselling it. What has happened is a col- lective exposure of America’s — and Americans’ — collec- tive guilt. False promises, unconscionable hubris, and the gap between grandiose U.S. rhetoric and the ugly reality of ground-level failure and futility have all been exposed.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army officer who served combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at West Point. A longer version of this article first appeared at Peace & Planet News.

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