Print the Truth, Legend, or Nothing? Failing to Examine and Learn from America’s War in Afghanistan
By Benjamin Van Horrick
As the tagline from the Western Classic The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance states, “when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” When documenting the Afghan War, the Army and the Marine Corps are printing neither the legend nor the fact—they are ignoring the Afghan War. Two recent publications from the Department of the Army and the US Marine Corps, FM 3-0 Operations and Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication (MCDP-8): Information, make no mention of the Afghan War. Instead, the Army and Marine Corps inserted examples from the 2014 and 2022 Russo-Ukrainian War. By omitting the Afghan War from their doctrine, the Army and Marine Corps delay a reckoning with the Afghan War and the resultant learning. Not addressing the Afghan War postpones addressing a larger issue. America’s War in Afghanistan demonstrated the remarkable capacity of the U.S. officer corps for self-deception during the conduct of the conflict. As the services embark on ambitious force design and structural changes, confronting the Afghan War is a necessary step in restoring the American public’s confidence in its military and accounting for the services’ gross miscalculations.
Institutional amnesia of the Afghan War is beginning to take hold within the Army and Marine Corps. Both FM 3-0 and MCDP-8 included vignettes from the 2014 incursion into Crimea and the February 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. Each vignette is valuable; however, lessons from the Afghan War remain relevant, yet perishable. MCDP-8 examines how Russia used the information domain to its advantage while not addressing how the American military failed to grasp and then penetrate the information domain in Afghanistan.
The power and appeal of the Taliban’s narrative—fighting foreign invaders in the name of Islam—boosted the Taliban’s morale. For Afghan citizens, the narrative proved compelling and understandable because it was deeply tied to Afghan identity. The failures of ISAF to counter the Taliban’s narrative are not addressed in FM 3-0 and MCDP-8, yet each offers guidance on how to compete and win in the information domain.
Military leaders’ failure to grasp the appeal of the Taliban narrative led to repeated missteps and contributed to the rapid collapse of Afghanistan. As each service rushed to distill lessons from the infancy of the Ukraine conflict, they neglected the trove of lessons from the Afghan War, namely their failures in the information domain. Ignoring the Afghan War reinforces a growing narrative about the conflict and its outcome, both of which inhibit future action. In the process, neglecting the lessons of the Afghan War devalues the faithful and honorable service rendered by those who served.
Extracting and applying lessons from the Russo-Ukrainian conflict is an important responsibility of the Army and the Marine Corps. However, the public and policymakers should question the ability of the services to learn from wars we loss. Ignoring strategic defeat to focus attention on a new conflict is nothing new for the Army. In 1973, the Army rushed to extract lessons from the Yom Kippur War for the publication of FM 100-5 and in the process moved past the Vietnam War. However, the American public has the right to questions each service’s ability learn from wars we participated in, rather than rushing to learn from conflicts as a spectator. Each service has struggled during the past 20 years and their previous proclamations never materialized. As a result, the burden lies with the services. As H.R. Master points out, the services and the national security apparatus made similar proclamations between December 2011 and 2014 about Iraq. During the Afghan War, those responsible for its execution repeatedly reported progress, masking the operational reality. As Kabul fell, Generals Miller and McKenzie questioned the ability of ANDSF to withstand Taliban advances while neglecting the fact that the American military served as the principal architect of the ANDSF. Even in the weeks before the Russian invasion, General Mark Milley predicted to Congressional leaders that Ukraine would fall within 72 hours. The track record of false predictions now looms over the Army and the Marine Corps as they translate history to doctrine, with little evidence exists showing each can do so.
Some may argue the Afghan War is too fresh to examine, but the Ukraine War is even more recent and ongoing. The services risk codifying hasty conclusion from the Ukrainian conflict into doctrine even as the conflict evolves. During the fall of 2021, the Army released its official history of the Afghan War. However, the rush to publish the history excluded the chaotic and haunting coda placed on the Afghan War. Little evidence exists showing how the Army’s official history of the Afghan War and its controversial tome documenting Operation Iraqi Freedom influenced the training and education of soldiers. The Army and Marine Corps now serve as observers and enablers to the Ukraine conflict, but each was responsible for the planning and execution of the Afghan War. Turning their collective focus to the Ukraine conflict offers each service a convenient diversion from strategic failure, while delaying a required self-examination.
The same officer corps that obscured the lack of progress of the Afghan War now advances doctrinal and force structure changes while the services do not account for institutional lapses in judgment and honesty. The officer corps showed a remarkable ability to deceive both themselves and those they swore to serve.
Examining the Afghan War proves even more difficult because it requires confronting an unsettling reality. The two-decade war long exposed a remarkable capacity for the American officer corps to deceive both the chain of command and themselves. The data metrics and false reports about the war’s progress masked the truth. Underpinned by rosy planning assumptions, the deceptive data deep dives painted a picture of progress. All parties involved masked risk, which then accumulated for decades. Those risks then exploded in the summer of 2021. By not confronting their deception, the officer corps reported Afghanistan was turning a corner. In actuality, the officers turned their back on their professional obligations and those they swore to serve.
With the Marine Corps’ much-debated Force Design 2030 and the introduction of the Army Multi-Domain Task Forces (MDTF), each service now attempts to adapt to near-peer competition. However, the ambition of these changes was undertaken without conducting a sufficient self-reflection on the heels of Kabul’s fall in 2021. Many charged with guiding, directing, and implementing force design changes are veterans of the Afghan War. Each service now must rectify the biases formed during OEF before the successful implementation of force design. If not, each service will fall into the trap of cognitive biases that plagued America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) now fills the void left by the DOD’s reluctance to examine the Afghan War. Led by John Sopko, SIGAR’s reporting provides a complete and unvarnished look at America’s War in Afghanistan. The oversight agency’s trove of interviews with senior military officers became the Afghan War’s confessional. Under the cloak of animosity offered by SIGAR, senior military officers provided an accurate depiction of the progress or lack thereof in the Afghan War. The cache of interviews began receiving attention after The Washington Post started publishing the interviews in December 2019. The Post’s publication of the interviews uncovered how senior officials obscured the truth and hid challenges from the public. SIGAR continues their work after Afghanistan’s collapse including publishing reports highlighting numerous shortfalls in the planning and execution of development projects and the challenges of security force assistance. SIGAR offers a blueprint for assessing the Afghan War, yet the Army and Marine Corps are not seizing this fleeting opportunity at a critical moment in their history.
The success and lessons of the Afghan War remain relevant yet unexamined. Twenty years of security force assistance shows the importance of employing a partner force in accordance with their capabilities. Joint, combined, and partnered combined structures will become the rule, not the exception, in the future. The study of ISAF, IJC, and Regional Commands offers a wealth of lessons for future commanders and planners when they determine command relationships. Company-grade officers should consider how units in Afghanistan executed distributed operations due to tactical needs and geographic restraints. The successful employment of Special Operations Forces in Afghanistan, in particular, Village Stability Operations, demands review as the capacity and capability to wage irregular warfare remains critical. Lessons from the Afghan War remain valuable, but perishable.
The delayed reckoning with the Afghan War grows in importance as public opinion of the military declines. Recent surveys indicate that Americans across demographics and partisan lines are losing trust in its military in the wake of Afghanistan’s fall. Coupled with the public’s erosion of trust, military recruiting faces numerous challenges as the services pursue their recruiting mission. Decreasing public trust and recruiting struggles cannot be attributed to the tragic end of the Afghan War, but delaying examination and accountability hinders the restoration of public trust. A service led autopsy of the Afghan War is a critical initial step.
The service’s actions during the conduct of the Afghan War demand examination. The recent establishment of the Afghanistan War Commission is a needed step, but t the Joint Staff must take the lead. The Army and Marine Corps can give valuable perspective, but only the Joint Staff can task and marshal the resources required for an autopsy of America’s War in Afghanistan. The Afghanistan War Commission is guided by a Congressional mandate, while the services are bound by their professional and moral obligation. Flawed and changing strategic guidance from policymakers does not absolve the Marine Corps and the Army for their failures in the Afghan War. The public and those who served in Afghanistan deserve better. Each service can begin restoring its professionalism and honor by examining how different decisions in Afghanistan could have led to better outcomes.
It is uncertain whether anything could have prevented the tragic end of the Afghan War. However, the services must examine and explain the failures of the Afghan War. Until the services complete their own reckoning of the Afghan War, the American public and policymakers will look with suspicion on the services’ assertions about future conflict. By examining America’s War in Afghanistan, the Army and Marine Corps can prove their professionalism is fact, not legend.
The views presented are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of the U.S. Marine Corps, the U.S. Navy, or the Department of Defense.
 Craig Whitlock, “Confidential Documents Reveal U.S. Officials Failed to Tell the Truth about the War in Afghanistan,” The Washington Post (WP Company, December 9, 2019), https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-confidential-documents/.