Nothing Was Gained From 20 Years in Afghanistan

Why did it take presidents so long to realize this?


President Joe Biden hit the right points in his speech on the Afghanistan debacle. He acknowledged the failure of the country's western-backed government, the limited options after 20 years of occupation, and the need for Americans to withdraw and let events take their course. It was a realistic speech, almost enough to make us forget the years he spent promoting military intervention in Afghanistan and his role as vice president when the Obama administration concealed evidence that the war was unwinnable—evidence that should have prepared him for the Afghan government's inevitable implosion. Yes, he learned hard lessons about the costs of intervention, but others pay the price.

"American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves," Biden told the world on Monday. "We spent over a trillion dollars. We trained and equipped an Afghan military force of some 300,000 strong — incredibly well equipped — a force larger in size than the militaries of many of our NATO allies."

"We gave them every chance to determine their own future.  What we could not provide them was the will to fight for that future," he added.

This is all entirely true, and it is long past time that a U.S. president acknowledged these unpleasant facts. The previous three administrations knew this moment was coming and did their level best to hide hard reality from the American people.

"A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable," the newspaper reported in 2019. Implicated in the report were the administrations of George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Biden, of course, was vice president under Obama.

"We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn't know what we were doing," Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who headed up White House efforts in Afghanistan during both the Bush and Obama administrations, admits in the documents.

But American officials should have known better. In 2015, the U.S. Army War College Press published The Strategic Lessons Unlearned from Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan: Why the Afghan National Security Forces Will Not Hold, and the Implications for the U.S. Army in Afghanistan arguing that the U.S. was as doomed to fail in Afghanistan as in Iraq and South Vietnam because "all three countries were artificial colonial relics with no pervasive sense of national identity." Author M. Chris Mason, professor of national security affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute, cautioned that the Afghan National Army had "virtually no logistics capability," was incapable of maintaining its equipment, and was hobbled by corruption. But experts who gave the bad tidings to American officials were ignored, he added.

"U.S. officials tried to create — from scratch — a democratic government in Kabul modeled after their own in Washington," the Washington Post noted of similar conclusions in the documents it obtained. "It was a foreign concept to the Afghans, who were accustomed to tribalism, monarchism, communism and Islamic law."

Among the politicians who spurned warnings was Joe Biden. While he claims now that he "opposed the surge when it was proposed in 2009 when I was Vice President," that came relatively late in the game. He was better known for years as an advocate of military intervention in Afghanistan.

"And like it or not, our leadership role must include soldiers on the ground," Biden argued as a U.S. senator in 2002. "If others step forward, fine, but whatever it takes, we should do it. History will judge us harshly if we allow the hope of a liberated Afghanistan to evaporate because we failed to stay the course."

Biden remained hawkish on the campaign trail as he sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 against Barack Obama. But he seemingly changed his mind when he realized the extent of corruption under then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

"Whereas he had once felt that, with sufficient U.S. support, Afghanistan could be stabilized, now he wasn't so sure," New Republic's Michael Crowley noted of the disillusioned Biden.

Biden's long-gone "hope of a liberated Afghanistan" also highlights the revisionism of his insistence that "our mission in Afghanistan was never supposed to have been nation building.  It was never supposed to be creating a unified, centralized democracy."

Bush was especially unrealistic on this point, emphasizing his intent "to build a flourishing democracy as an alternative to a hateful ideology" in 2008. Later, Obama not only doubled down on troop commitments, he boasted in 2014 that the U.S. and its allies "have helped the Afghan people reclaim their communities, take the lead for their own security, hold historic elections and complete the first democratic transfer of power in their country's history."

That Biden seemed to grasp the hopelessness of the U.S. position in Afghanistan is apparent from his adoption, with a few months delay, of the withdrawal from Afghanistan negotiated by his predecessor. It's a welcome shift in policy after years of heavy cost.

As of November 2019, Brown University's Costs of War project estimated deaths in Afghanistan at 2,298 for the U.S. military, and 3,814 for contractors. Deaths among Afghan military and police were estimated at 64,124. Other allied troop deaths are estimated at 1,145. The civilian death toll is put at 43,074. Then there is the "over a trillion dollars" spent on the lost cause cited by Biden. If government leaders learned anything from the debacle, it has been learned at great expense, and after enormous delay.

That the price has yet to be fully paid can be seen in the faces of those flooding the Kabul airport in a desperate bid to flee the Taliban after the western-backed government collapsed. It was an implosion predicted not just by experts over the years, but by recent intelligence assessments, yet the U.S. government was unprepared. 

"The collapse has been sudden, our exit too ill planned to evacuate the vulnerable Afghans who worked with us," points out former Marine captain Timothy Kudo this week in a New York Times essay. He wonders of those who fought "how we could have given the best parts of their lives to such a lie."

So, it's good that a U.S. president is capable of learning hard lessons about failed policy, and of making the tough and thankless decision to end a war that dragged on for decades. But he's not the one who shouldered the burden through these long years, nor will he pay the price that will continue to be extracted from those who aided the U.S. and now remain behind to discover their fate.