‘Your country just betrayed us.’ So Haji Sakhi, a resident of Kabul, recently remarked to a New York Times reporter. ‘Look at what they brought on us,’ the 68-year-old Afghan continued. ‘They lost the war and just fled the country.’ His they refers to us — the United States of America.
Haji Sakhi’s unsparing judgment deserves sober consideration. Kabul is about to fall to the Taliban, faster than even the most gloomy experts predicted. Our nation’s ‘longest war’ is now ending in abject failure.
How are Americans — at least those few of us who attend to such matters — to apportion responsibility for the outcome? Who or what is to blame for ‘losing’ Afghanistan? Was it ever ours to lose in the first place?
Haji Sakhi may number among the first but he will not be the last to place responsibility squarely at the feet of the United States. After all, we promised Afghans a far better outcome than we have managed to deliver. Yes, in the fall of 2001, we did oust the Taliban-controlled government from power in Kabul, a goal accomplished with astonishing ease. But it’s been downhill ever since.
Just shy of two decades ago, in December 2001, US officials played a leading role in convening the Bonn Conference that laid out the West’s plan (which meant Washington’s plan) for a post-Taliban Afghanistan. The agreed-upon goals were nothing if not ambitious. Prominent among them were ‘national reconciliation, lasting peace, [and] stability and respect for human rights’ throughout the country. The Bonn conferees also vowed to guarantee ‘the right of the people of Afghanistan to freely determine their own political future in accordance with the principles of Islam, democracy, pluralism and social justice’. Implicit in this grandiose vision of supervised self-determination was the image of an Afghan nation populated by people defined by a common national identity, more or less like Norwegians, say, or Finns.
That same month, Gen. Tommy Franks, overall commander of the coalition forces engaged in Operation Enduring Freedom, visited Kabul to attend ceremonies installing Hamid Karzai as the US-preferred interim president of Afghanistan. The occasion, Franks later recalled, evoked images of himself decked out in ‘a purple-trimmed toga and a laurel wreath’. The American war in Afghanistan had seemingly reached its conclusion.
In his own estimation at least, Franks had presided over one of history’s greatest military victories. In a matter of weeks, he subsequently wrote, forces under his command had ‘destroyed an army the Soviets had failed to dislodge with more than a half million men’ and had thereby ‘liberated 25 million people and unified the country’. The aim of Operation Enduring Freedom had been to ‘squeeze into extinction’ any terrorists and terrorist-sympathizers present in Afghanistan. By the end of 2001, Franks persuaded himself, ‘we had accomplished our mission’.
Alas, he had not and neither had the forces under his command. Nor would the forces under the command of the numberless three- and four-star generals destined to succeed him. None would succeed in accomplishing the mission, even while political authorities back in Washington distanced themselves from the ambitious goals articulated in Bonn. In the end, the mission had shrunk to this: Avoid outright defeat. As I write this, with Taliban forces winning a string of lightning victories and now entering Kabul itself, defeat is at hand. The American war in Afghanistan has ended in abject failure.
What explains this disparity between expectations and outcomes, between promises made and now promises abandoned? With all apologies to Haji Sakhi, a principal explanation is that an insufficient number of his fellow citizens were willing to fight (and potentially die) for the political order that the United States and its partners had installed in Kabul. Even with Karzai as its nominal leader, the notoriously corrupt regime never acquired legitimacy in the eyes of ordinary Afghans. Meanwhile, the Afghan security forces created at enormous cost by the United States and its partners never achieved any real effectiveness. While certain elite formations demonstrated competence and fighting spirit, ordinary units possess neither. Again, corruption has flourished.
Yet other factors contributed to Tommy Franks’s being stripped of his purple toga. Not least among them was George W. Bush’s decision to embark upon a needless and pointless wild-goose chase in Iraq when the fate of Afghanistan still hung very much in the balance. We cannot say for certain that focusing on one war before beginning a second would ultimately have produced a more favorable outcome in the first. But there can be no doubt that diverting attention and resources to support Operation Iraqi Freedom had a crippling effect on efforts to stabilize and reconstruct Afghanistan.
Allow me to suggest another contributing factor. I recently had occasion to read Jeff Danziger’s memoir of his Vietnam-era military service. Danziger is best known as a highly regarded political cartoonist whose works appear in the Washington Post and elsewhere. Lieutenant Dangerous shows that he is also a talented and insightful writer.
Danziger’s tour of duty in Vietnam occurred in 1970-71, coinciding with my own, although we did not serve together and have never met. After Vietnam, Danziger got out of the army, whereas I stayed in. Yet his droll and darkly comic memoir conveys a clearer grasp of what makes armies tick than I ever acquired. More to the point, his impressions from half a century ago have pronounced relevance for Afghanistan today.
What Danziger took from his time inside the Big Green Machine (as it was commonly called back then) was this: armies prize order, predictability, routine and the preservation of hierarchy over all other attributes. Appearances matter more than outcomes.
Even in 1971, the US Army in Vietnam was still going through the motions of waging a war that had manifestly gone off the rails. From Washington, high-ranking officials arrived to assess the war’s status and saw what they were looking for. In Saigon, public affairs officers offered progress reports to increasingly skeptical reporters. At Tan Son Nhut and Cam Ranh Bay, chartered airliners arrived with planeloads of newbies and returned to ‘the world’ those who had completed their tours of duty. Other aircraft, laden with flag-draped coffins, carried the remains of the fallen back stateside.
In the field, ordinary GIs defended their firebases and ventured forth on patrols. From the skies, aircraft rained down fragmentation bombs, incendiaries, and poisons like Agent Orange. In mess halls, soldiers consumed their daily rations of beef, chicken or pork. In PXs, shelves were routinely restocked with cigarettes and booze. On the fringes of US Army bases, smoke rose from burning 55-gallon drums of gasoline-doused human waste.
All the pieces of an immensely complex mechanism seamlessly meshed, giving every indication of being able to continue until the end of time. By all outward appearances, US troops were engaging in purposeful activity, even as the war was being definitively lost.
None of what we were doing actually made any sense, as Lt. Danziger (but not Lt. Bacevich) was quick to perceive. More importantly, the absurdity of the undertaking seemingly escaped the attention of the senior civilians and military officers in charge. Or, if they grasped the futility of the enterprise, they lacked the moral courage to say so aloud. And so the Vietnam war trundled along year after year toward its tragic and dismal outcome.
Something of the same phenomenon has unfolded in Afghanistan over the past two decades. There too, sustaining the pretense of purposefulness has taken precedence over any serious consideration of the actual conduct of the war. On the surface, events appeared to possess a certain logic. Beneath the surface mindlessness prevailed, as even President Karzai soon enough figured out. Go, he told the Americans. We refused, preferring to prolong a pointless undertaking.
Like the Vietnam war, the Afghanistan war stands as a judgment of the American national security elite and of the military profession. The essence of that judgment is this: given an accommodating adversary — Iraq’s Saddam Hussein is a perfect example — the armed forces of the United States are capable of delivering an impressive performance. If the punching bag stands still, we can deliver a helluva wallop.
But against an adversary that refuses to cooperate, that demonstrates even a modicum of resilience, US forces fare less well. As wars drag on, US military effectiveness diminishes, duration exposing our inability to adjust — put simply, to learn.
An enemy that refuses to fight on our terms baffles us. Yes, the bombs continue to fall and the barrels of shit keep burning, but to little avail. Our side appears to adapt but actually stands still. Eventually, advantage accrues to the enemy.
At that point, defeat is just a matter of time. This is what happened in Vietnam and what is happening again in Afghanistan today. But don’t expect the leaders of the Big Green Machine to learn any more from this failure than they did from the one we suffered a half-century ago.
Andrew Bacevich is author of America’s War For The Greater Middle East, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and a contributing editor to The Spectator World. This article was originally published in The Spectator’s September 2021 World edition.