A Year After the U.S. Withdrawal, Getting Out of Afghanistan Was Still the Right Call
Biden brought an unwinnable war to an end. But the lessons learned are only as valuable as the U.S. government’s willingness to put them to good use.
This month marks the one-year anniversary of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, which put an end to America's longest war.
Though 70 percent of Americans polled last year by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs supported President Joe Biden's decision to withdraw U.S. troops, they're now roughly split on the issue. When asked by YouGov and The Economist this month whether the U.S. made a mistake by withdrawing troops from Afghanistan last year, 40 percent of poll respondents said yes, while 39 percent said no and 21 percent said they weren't sure. Broken down by party, 61 percent of Democrats felt the withdrawal wasn't a mistake, while 68 percent of Republicans felt it was.
America's campaign in Afghanistan failed, but not for lack of trying. To date, the U.S. has spent over $2.3 trillion on the war—not including down-the-road interest payments on money borrowed or the lifetime care that veterans will require. It's estimated that over 46,300 Afghan civilians, 69,000 Afghan military and police officers, and 6,200 U.S. contractors and soldiers died during the conflict, according to Brown University's Costs of War Project.
Many aspects of the withdrawal could've been handled better. Since last August, critics have argued that leaving a residual troop presence would have ensured stability in Afghanistan at little cost to American lives and finances. But government reports released over the past year cast doubt on that approach, and on the idea of a sustainable nation-building presence in Afghanistan.
Last August, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report that named several key factors that doomed America's nation-building efforts. Among other failures, the U.S. government struggled to develop and carry out "a coherent strategy" and worked on unrealistic timelines that in turn encouraged quick spending and corruption. American personnel were often "unqualified and poorly trained." The government couldn't adequately tailor its work to the country it sought to transform.
America's strategy initially focused on Al Qaeda, but eventually became a much more nebulous reconstruction and anti-corruption mission. Officials felt that preserving stability would require building institutions and infrastructure, though the plans to do those things changed often. Douglas Lute, who coordinated Afghanistan strategy at the National Security Council for six years, said officials "didn't have the foggiest notion" of what they were undertaking. "With an ever-increasing list of enemies and priorities, it was tempting for U.S. officials to believe the solution was more troops and more aid," notes SIGAR. According to a senior U.S. Agency for International Development official, "The strategy was 'money expended equals success.'"
Officials misjudged how long reconstruction would take and often injected their own political preferences into what it should look like. The U.S. government "prioritized tangible projects on which money could be spent and success claimed more quickly" over less visible objectives that may have had more lasting effects. The Department of Defense's military organization that was tasked with training the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces didn't hold the body accountable, "simply performing tasks for them and providing funding regardless of actual progress." Money was often appropriated in Washington more quickly than it could be spent in Afghanistan.
American officials regularly failed to find enough qualified personnel for their ambitious projects. In 2009, the military reassigned chemical warfare response units to civil affairs projects, only giving them four-week-long PowerPoint crash courses to prepare. "With such a training deficiency" in policing, notes SIGAR, "some police advisors turned in desperation to television shows like 'Cops' and 'NCIS' to become more familiar with policing." Turnover was so bad that "every agency experienced annual lobotomies," with new staff doomed to make the same mistakes as their predecessors.
On a very basic level, U.S. officials didn't understand Afghanistan. That led to material issues, like U.S.-designed schools requiring the usage of cranes, which was impossible in much of the mountainous country. Planners selected obviously unusable construction sites for projects, like steep slopes and riverbeds. But more fundamentally, nation-building efforts neglected existing Afghan institutions and customs. That enabled certain "local allies" to exploit U.S. agencies "for financial gain and share a portion of the proceeds with insurgents." Officials attempted to instill American values and preferences into many Afghan systems without determining whether that was actually possible.
From the initial invasion to the withdrawal, the U.S. lacked the strategy and clarity needed to succeed in Afghanistan. Indeed, the definition of success changed dramatically between those two points, as the mission became much more complicated than just fighting terrorists.
Countless SIGAR reports over the years have exposed contract fraud and theft, deep-rooted corruption in the Afghan government, and policies that encouraged Afghan forces to over-rely on the American presence. Given the gravity of the failures outlined by SIGAR, there's little reason to believe they would've been magically resolved if only American troops had stayed a bit longer.
Unfortunately, American military engagement since the Afghanistan withdrawal proves that the U.S. government may—albeit on smaller scales—be doomed to repeat many of the mistakes it made in Afghanistan. America spent $300 million per day in Afghanistan with inadequate oversight; as of mid-June, it was spending $130 million per day in Ukraine with similarly shoddy monitoring. U.S. officials kept the American public in the dark on how poorly the war in Afghanistan was going; in July, The New York Times exposed the "stealthy network of commandos and spies," involving CIA personnel, who had covertly entered hostilities in Ukraine. Lessons learned are only as valuable as the U.S. government's ability to put them to good use.
Three presidents kept the U.S. entangled in Afghanistan in spite of the factors that spelled failure for the American campaign. After two decades of shifting goal posts, exorbitant spending, and futile reconstruction efforts, Biden was right to withdraw U.S. troops and put an end to the unwinnable war.