A little more than a year has passed since President Biden courageously ended the U.S. combat role in Afghanistan. Now numerous military and civilian officials with a vested interest in how the war was prosecuted are trying to save their reputations by blaming American politics for failing to provide the time necessary to succeed.
Whether it was a lack of sufficient commitment, as retired general David Petraeus writes, or a lack of strategic patience, which others identify as the central weakness in our policy, staying the course for another 20 years would not have changed the outcome.
The war was not winnable and never should have been fought.
The U.S. has no mandate to reshape other cultures and societies because they don’t share our values and we don’t like the way they treat their women. Afghanistan is a tribal society which has always been ruled by regionally based warlords and tribal leaders with a relatively weak central government in Kabul. As long as the authorities in Kabul didn’t interfere too much with the regional leaders, they were tolerated.
Nation building efforts in such a country with this kind of political instability, endemic corruption, feeble government institutions and an economy heavily dependent on the drug trade was always a fool’s errand.
After Russia invaded Afghanistan in 1979, I commented during a colloquium that I was glad Russia had gone into Afghanistan because in a few years they would be begging to get out — it would become their Vietnam. Those of us who paid attention during our own service in Vietnam know that nation building and waging counterinsurgency warfare didn’t work there, and resurrecting a failed doctrine to try to salvage something in Afghanistan was doomed to failure — because we were an external power trying to prop up a corrupt, quasi-legitimate regime that couldn’t garner the support of a majority of its own people.
So, since we didn’t learn either our lesson from Vietnam or Russia’s lesson from Afghanistan, we once again, against all odds and historical evidence, tried to turn a failed nation into something it was unlikely ever to become.
Understanding why the result was fated
For those wanting to understand why we could not succeed in reshaping a failing country into a “Little America,” I recommend two excellent books.
In 2014, Fred Kaplan wrote a very readable history of Gen. David Petraeus’ attempt to develop counterinsurgency doctrine for the U.S. Army. In “The Insurgents: David Petraeus and the Plot to Change the American Way of War,” Kaplan produced a primer on the principles of waging counterinsurgency warfare derived from the writings of T. E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), David Galula, the legendary French paratroop officer, and British Field Marshall Sir Gerald Templar, who defeated the Malayan insurgency.
From these classic studies of insurgent warfare, Kaplan provides especially useful short summaries of the core principles and tactical guidelines that differentiate counterinsurgency warfare from the firepower-focused American way of war.
But Kaplan concluded that, despite the Herculean efforts of Petraeus and his team of military scholars, “In the end, they didn’t, they couldn’t, change — at least in the way they intended to change — the American way of war.” And most of Petraeus’ team came to doubt that U.S. military forces could ever counter an insurgency successfully.
In 2018, Max Boot published an excellent biography of Maj. Gen. Edward Lansdale, who was instrumental in defeating the Huk insurgency in the Philippines in the 1950s but was unable to persuade the U.S. government to follow a similar strategy in Vietnam.
In “The Road not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the Tragedy of Vietnam,” Boot explains how Lansdale, with solid support from Washington, used soft power to erode popular support for the Huk insurgents. Lansdale consistently argued against the commitment of large numbers of U.S. forces to fight the insurgents, either in the Philippines or in Vietnam, because the inevitable civilian disruption and collateral damage create more insurgents.
Lansdale’s keys to success were that he had considerable experience with the Philippine people and culture and knew many of the players in the government. Of critical importance, he befriended a well-respected Philippine leader, Ramon Magsaysay, who shared his vision of a national government dedicated to stamping out corruption, providing basic services to the people and reforming the national army into a force to protect the people instead of instilling fear.
As Boot makes clear, key to combating an insurgency is winning the people’s support for an indigenous government they view as free of corruption, willing and able to provide the essentials of community life, physical and economic security, and a vision for a better future for its citizens. With very few exceptions, the U.S. has proven inept at creating governments in other nations that could garner such popular support.
Afghanistan continues to prove this point. Various analyses of the results of the last national elections held in 2019, after almost 20 years of U.S. effort, indicate voter turnout could have been as low as 26 percent. Voter fraud was so bad that, ultimately, only an estimated 1.8 million votes were counted out of 9.6 million registered voters. President Ashraf Ghani declared victory while his main opponent refused to concede the election. And in a bizarre turn of events, both had themselves sworn in as president. What was there for the Afghan people to rally around?
Some leaders are students of history In a February 2011 speech, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates told an audience of West Point cadets that it would be unwise for the United States ever to fight another war like Iraq or Afghanistan because the chances of carrying out a successful change of government in that fashion were slim.
As Gates said, “In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have his head examined.”
You can have the patience of the biblical Job, but if your strategy is flawed, all you will get is a longer commitment that fails.