The End of Illusions?
Lessons from Afghanistan
by Russell K.Brooks and Brandon K. Brooks
Now that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is complete, the predictable finger-pointing has begun. President Biden’s political opponents have accused the administration of abandoning its Afghan allies and leaving Americans behind in enemy territory. Meanwhile, several former government officials have claimed the administration engaged in an unnecessary pre-emptive withdrawal that has damaged American credibility.
The media has piled on as well. Bret Stephens criticized the Biden administration for bucking the advice of its military advisors, overlooking America’s long-held commitment to civilian control over the military. Others contend the U.S. withdrawal was wrong on humanitarian grounds. Charity Wallace accused President Biden of abandoning the women of Afghanistan, while the Washington Post Editorial Board insisted a U.S. withdrawal would “lead to the reversal of the political, economic and social progress for which the United States fought for two decades.” Both of these comments seemingly forget the initial rationale for U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, to hold accountable those responsible for the September 11 attacks.
Sadly, when presented with an opportunity to take an earnest, albeit uncomfortable, look at what the U.S. got wrong in Afghanistan, too many within the foreign policy establishment are repeating over-simplistic sound bites.
To be clear, the U.S. never intended to permanently occupy Afghanistan, nor did it want to repeatedly return to prevent the country from becoming a terrorist safe haven. Instead, the U.S. sought to avoid those outcomes by installing a competent local government capable of governing effectively and securing the country.
The U.S. manifestly failed in this regard. To be clear, even in the face of the collapse of President Ashraf Ghani’s government, many within the Afghan armed forces fought valiantly. Afghan pilots displayed incredible professionalism, despite an ongoing assassination campaign against them by the Taliban. The Afghan special forces exhibited similar valor, fighting to regain territory and fill breaches in the Afghan government’s defenses as the Taliban advanced across the country. Unfortunately, their heroism could not compensate for the institutional corruption and ineptitude that were pervasive within the Afghan government.
These shortcomings were made abundantly clear in a 2017 report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), which noted that “corruption cut across all aspects of the reconstruction effort, jeopardizing progress made in security, rule of law, governance, and economic growth.” So long as Afghanistan’s political elite continued to pilfer the public coffers, confident in their belief that they would not suffer the consequences of their doing so, no level of U.S. assistance to the country could prevent an eventual Taliban victory. This was not lost on the Afghan rank and file. As Faran Jeffery notes, Afghan servicemen “don’t want to die for those corrupt few in Kabul who only see Afghanistan as a money-making opportunity.”
Some within Western media were undoubtedly aware of the Afghan government’s failings and the willingness of many within the general public to tolerate Taliban rule. Yet this reality was often obscured by interviews with Afghans, mainly in Kabul, who benefited from the foreign military presence in their country or favored a more liberal society. These attitudes may have reflected the prevailing opinion within the country’s urban enclaves, but they were clearly not indicative of the feelings and experiences of the majority of Afghans, particularly within the country’s rural areas. Had it been otherwise, the Taliban would have never succeeded.
The U.S. should keep these lessons in mind as it shifts towards the next front in the war on terror.
Although the U.S. will understandably shift towards a greater emphasis on great power competition, it will inevitably find itself, at least, tempted to weigh-in on a small war at some point in the future. Many experts have already begun to turn their gaze towards Sub-Saharan Africa, where Al-Qaeda and ISIS have exploited corruption, ethnic tensions, and other local grievances to establish a fervent support base in the Sahel, northeast Nigeria, and northern Mozambique, among other areas. Should the security situation in these countries continue to deteriorate, the U.S. will undoubtedly come under greater pressure to intervene.
The U.S. should recall its experience in Afghanistan before doing so. Recent reporting suggests many African militaries face the same challenges that plagued the Afghan armed forces throughout their war against the Taliban. As the Nigerian government confronts a rising threat from Boko Haram or ISIS-West Africa, frontline troops have expressed frustration regarding the quality of their equipment, the timeliness of reinforcements, and the failure to rotate troops out for rest and recuperation. They have also cited a lack of support and intelligence from local populations that see no real difference between the government and the insurgents. To complicate matters, Nigeria’s fight against the Islamist insurgency is occurring at the same time that the government is struggling to respond to a separatist movement in the southeast, the interminable farmer-herder conflict in the Middle Belt, and sporadic militant activity in the oil-rich Delta region.
Meanwhile in Mali, the French government appears to have grown increasingly frustrated with a military establishment that appears to be more concerned with maintaining its power in Bamako than fighting jihadists. How else do you explain two coups within a year? Nevertheless, President Emmanuel Macron is calling for increased international military support to bolster French counterterrorism operations in Mali and the broader Sahel region.
Unfortunately, a foreign intervention cannot fully compensate for the inadequacies of the partner government. If there are discrete areas for improvement, certainly a more modern or experienced partner military can help address them. However, if the problem boils down to widespread and justifiable unwillingness to fight for the host government, as occurred in Afghanistan, there is very little that any foreign power can do to change the eventual outcome.
The lesson to be learned from Afghanistan is not necessarily to refuse to engage in these conflicts. Rather, the U.S. must be judicious about the extent of its involvement, the terms for its support, and who it partners with. When there is no obvious military solution, the U.S. must demonstrate the capacity to employ other viable tools to meet its objectives.
Second, the U.S. must recognize that where force must be employed, it will not achieve its goals if the partner government cannot competently support a security establishment appropriate for its needs. The failure to properly account for the realities of local capacity inevitably results in partners who consistently fail to match up against their opponents. Therefore, the goal for the U.S. should not be to re-create foreign security forces in its own image but to ensure its partners are able to sustainably match or exceed the capabilities of their opponents.
Of course, this change of approach requires the U.S. to recognize the outcome of these conflicts is ultimately dependent on the capacity of its local partners on the ground. To address public grievances and restore confidence in their ability to effectively govern, U.S. partners must demonstrate a commitment to fair elections, fighting corruption, competent and inclusive governance, respect for the rule of law, and professional, apolitical militaries.
As the U.S. considers how to respond to future irregular conflicts, the true test of its military, diplomatic, and intelligence capabilities will be whether these bureaucracies can accurately and objectively asses the nature of these conflicts, the capabilities of its potential partners, its realistic prospects for success, and the importance to U.S. national security interests. It may be argued that this was the greatest failure of all in Afghanistan, the inability to properly and honestly convey the state of affairs there to both policymakers and the American people. We can and must do better in the future, and thereby prevent the U.S. from becoming involved in the next “forever war.”
The opinions expressed in the article are the views of the authors and do not reflect the policy of the U.S. government or any agency or department.