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The Last Crusade

Virtually nothing about the Afghanistan War was inadvertent.

Aircrew assigned to Al Udeid Air Base, Qatar, carry their gear into a C-17 Globemaster III assigned to Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kylee Gardner)

The American War in Afghanistan: A History, by Carter Malkasian (Oxford University Press, 2021), 561 pages.

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War, by Craig Whitlock (Simon & Schuster, 2021), 346 pages. 

August 26, 2021, was not a good day for America. On that date in Kabul, a suicide bomber killed thirteen U.S. troops supporting hastily arranged evacuation operations from Hamid Karzai International Airport. An estimated 170 Afghans also died. 

August 26 was also not a good day for foreign policy analyst Robert Kagan. On that date, Kagan published a column in the Washington Post in which he offered an upbeat assessment of the ongoing Global War on Terrorism. Disregarding the torrent of bad news pouring in from Afghanistan, Kagan wrote that despite “inevitably mixed and uncertain results,” the overall enterprise “has been successful—astoundingly so.” 

Kagan was perplexed that others might entertain a different view. “Why does every American setback have to be a morality tale,” he wondered, “a search for scapegoats and an indictment of American foreign policy in general?” Why, he asked, had disappointments in Afghanistan “been treated by so many as a tale of sin and hubris?” That the war on terror had “come to be viewed as a symptom and for some the source of much of America’s troubles today” was altogether mystifying. 

That same day, retired Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster, a distinguished army officer who served a brief, unhappy term as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, appeared on MSNBC to offer his own assessment of the Afghanistan War. Unlike Kagan, McMaster was not going to pretend that the war’s outcome was anything other than a humiliating defeat. 

Moreover, McMaster knew precisely who was to blame. Responsibility for the dismal outcome did not rest with either the political leaders or military commanders who presided over America’s longest war. Instead, McMaster fingered “the neo-isolationist far right” and “the self-loathing far left.” The United States had suffered defeat because the American people had failed, given up, quit. Perseverance would have yielded a different outcome. 

Interviewed by the New Yorker, retired General David Petraeus concurred. “Somebody asked me if we lost the Afghan war. I said I don’t think we lost it. I think we withdrew from it.”Sure, mistakes were made, Petraeus acknowledged. But the outcome turned on the question of time. “You don’t take a seventh-century, ultra-fundamentalist, theocratic Islamist regime…and turn it into a modern military power” overnight. Undercutting U.S. efforts in Afghanistan “was all this impatience that it was our longest war and all the rest of that.” Twenty years weren’t enough.

The temptation to weigh in proved too much for former deputy defense secretary Paul Wolfowitz to resist. Writing in the Wall Street Journal, he seconded the call for persistence. Wolfowitz looked forward to the twentieth anniversary of 9/11 as “an occasion for defiance, and for pride in the Americans who fought, sacrificed and successfully protected our country for two decades from further mass-casualty attacks,” something that twenty years ago had “seemed impossible.” Viewed from this perspective, the Afghanistan War had contributed to a larger strategic success.  

Even so, there is more armed conflict to come. The war on terrorism will continue, Wolfowitz believes, and it “is going to be very long.” As an incident in that long war, Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan compared with Neville Chamberlain’s betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich in 1938. To drive home the point, Wolfowitz quoted Winston Churchill, implicitly suggesting that with a dose of Churchillian leadership from the White House, all would be well.  

What Kagan, McMaster, Petraeus, and Wolfowitz share in common is an aversion to data. The costs incurred by the United States in its Global War on Terrorism—upwards of $8 trillion expended, thousands of U.S. troops dead, tens of thousands more wounded—go simply unmentioned, as does the fact that those costs will continue to accumulate.According to one authoritative estimate, by 2050, the expense of caring for post-9/11 U.S. veterans will reach between $2.2 and $2.5 trillion.

Any tally of the burdens borne by Americans pales in comparison with the far greater toll of death and destruction visited upon civilian populations in places where superior U.S. firepower has pulverized adversaries along with anyone with the misfortune to get caught in the crossfire. Just days after the August 26 incident at the Kabul airport, a U.S. drone strike intended to preempt another such attack killed ten Afghan bystanders, including seven children. This was hardly the first time that an American missile went astray. 

Also absent from the analyses offered by Kagan, McMaster, Petraeus, and Wolfowitz were any references to the factors cited to justify a “global war” in the first place. Washington’s once-upon-a-time nemesis Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s imaginary weapons of mass destruction, all the promises to spread freedom and democracy to the far corners of the planet—none received mention. 

Most significantly, none of the four offered an adequate explanation for why actual victory—the enemy vanquished, tickertape parades to follow—has proven so elusive. Back in 2001, at the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom, the war’s purpose included providing Afghans with enduring freedom, not delivering them back into the clutches of the Taliban.  

How is it that the world’s strongest and most generously endowed armed force, taking on an adversary possessing neither an air force nor heavy weapons, failed to accomplish its assigned mission despite vast exertions and considerable sacrifice? In contrasting books, Carter Malkasian, a civilian Pentagon adviser with firsthand experience in Afghanistan, and Craig Whitlock, a seasoned journalist with the Washington Post, present preliminary answers to that question. 

Malkasian offers a conventional take on a decidedly unconventional conflict. His narrative centers on a series of nominally distinctive campaigns, which he describes in granular detail. In that regard, The American War in Afghanistan conforms to the predilections of professional soldiers and many orthodox military analysts. In place of, say, Ypres, the Somme, and Vimy Ridge, his chronology focuses on the Surge in Helmand, the Surge in Kandahar, the Andar Awakening, and the Taliban Offensives of 2015 and 2016.

This approach imparts to war a comforting semblance of order and rationality. It implicitly assumes that directives passed down from civilian policymakers to senior commanders in the field correlate with actual outcomes. This perspective emphasizes bureaucratic process at the expense of other factors such as history and culture. 

In Afghanistan, history and culture were determinative. The outcome of the war turned on Afghan memory and American illusions, the first infused with religion, the second tied to ideology.

For the Taliban, the memories that motivated fighters related to foreigners with the temerity to interfere with the Afghan way of life. That way of life centers on Islam, tribalism, and a deep hostility to interfering outsiders. Anyone deemed to disrespect Islam or the traditions to which Afghans are devoted becomes a sworn enemy. That came to include the United States and its coalition partners when they toppled the Taliban regime in the autumn of 2001 and then embarked upon a hastily improvised, massively ambitious, and inadequately resourced nation-building campaign. 

For the United States, the ideology that shaped policy in Afghanistan centered on Western-style freedom, American-style democracy, and a conviction that U.S. military supremacy offered the means to win over recalcitrants or bring them heel. This turned out to be a fantasy.

In 2002, George W. Bush briefly flirted with the idea of a “Marshall Plan” for Afghanistan, but the proposal never made the transition from presidential speech to actual program. In practice, as soon as the Taliban had been ousted from Kabul, Afghanistan became an afterthought, eclipsed by administration eagerness to target Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld in particular wanted nothing further to do with Afghanistan. In his view, the less attention devoted to the place the better. “There is no greater villain in America’s Afghan War than Donald Rumsfeld,” Malkasian believes.

Convinced that the Taliban had been decisively defeated, American political and military leaders deemed it unnecessary to negotiate with them on the terms of a political settlement. At “its moment of peak bargaining power,” Malkasian writes, the U.S.-led coalition “purposely scuttled a chance for peace” and thereby “set Afghanistan back down the road to war.”

Heavy-handed actions by the relatively small U.S.-led force that remained in Afghanistan made matters worse. Coalition efforts to clean up any “terrorist” residue did not distinguish between former Taliban fighters and active members of al Qaeda. As a consequence, “scores of Taliban who had tried to live peacefully until U.S. forces raided their homes, imprisoned them, or hurt a family member” once more picked up the gun. In effect, indiscriminate violence provoked renewed resistance. By 2005, a reconstituted Taliban had initiated a deliberate campaign to oust the infidels.

A parade of American generals (with British counterparts) rotated through Afghanistan, many serving multiple tours. They arrived bearing pithy maxims that briefed well but did not easily translate into a practical template for operations. Up at higher headquarters, for example, “clear, hold, build, and engage” might sound pretty good. Down where subalterns explain the day’s operations to a handful of noncoms, not so much. 

British participation did not rate as a plus. For Americans, the presence of Tommies on the battlefield alongside U.S. troops conjures up memories of earlier Anglo-American partnerships, conferring an extra dollop of legitimacy on the entire enterprise. Afghans entertain a different view, remembering and resenting Great Britain’s 19th century penchant for imperial meddling. “The degree to which that hatred persisted escaped just about every U.S. and British decisionmaker,” Malkasian observes. “Resistance to the British would be a powerful rallying cry.”  

Malkasian argues that President Barack Obama’s December 2009 decision to increase the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan “brought the United States back into the war” with credit going to successive American four-star commanders Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus.

The claim is unpersuasive. By his own estimation, McChrystal’s effort to implement a comprehensive counterinsurgency campaign failed. When McChrystal stepped down in disgrace, Petraeus replaced him in Kabul. A “great captain” in Malkasian’s estimation, Petraeus effectively abandoned COIN in favor of intensified bombing. That large numbers of Taliban were thereby killed is doubtless the case, but Afghan hearts and minds were not won.

By way of example, Malkasian describes the liberation of several villages in Kandahar Province in 2010. Rather than risk heavy casualties, the American commander in charge of the operation, “resorted to carpet bombing,” which Petraeus “personally approved.” Heavy airstrikes—twenty-five 2000-pound bombs and fifty 500-pound bombs—flattened the villages. “We obliterated those towns. They’re not there at all,” a pleased U.S. commander attested. All that remained were “just parking lots.”

Once the dust settled, the priority shifted to rebuilding, with U.S. authorities quickly “constructing a new bazaar and new concrete homes. Supposedly, the people were not upset,” Malkasian writes. Even so, “few ever returned” and the “strange concrete homes built with American dollars sat empty.” All in all, it was a fresh take on the infamous Vietnam-era incident that found U.S. troops “destroying a village in order to save it.”

In May 2011, when Navy Seals swooped into Pakistan to kill Osama bin Laden, Americans celebrated. The success had no impact on the ongoing war. In truth, by this time, the final outcome, although still a decade in the future, was all but foreordained. Obama wanted out. His successor Donald Trump was even more insistent on ending the endless war. By agreeing to “peace talks” with the Taliban in February 2020, while excluding authorities in Kabul from any ensuing negotiations, the United States effectively signed the Afghan government’s death warrant. All that remained was to settle on the terms of the “decent interval” that would enable the United States to leave without having to admit outright defeat.

Interspersed throughout Malkasian’s narrative are allusions to the myriad factors that doomed coalition efforts in Afghanistan. Few of the items on this long litany are unfamiliar. They include Pakistani double-dealing; vast corruption pervading every corner of Afghan life; the drug trade; tribal disunity; hypocritical coalition collaboration with brutal warlords; the ineptitude of development efforts, exacerbated by the U.S. government’s reliance on rapacious private contractors; the difficulty of motivating of Afghan security forces to fight, given the Taliban’s advantage in standing for “what it meant to be Afghan.” Not least was the problem of Hamid Karzai, chosen by the United States to be the George Washington of modern Afghanistan. Karzai “did not define the Taliban as his enemy,” Malkasian writes. “His enemies were outsiders who harmed the Afghan people.” U.S. forces conducting raids and airstrikes that killed Afghans figured prominently among the outsiders raising Karzai’s ire. 

Yet if the items comprising that litany are familiar, why did Afghanistan’s abrupt collapse in August 2021 come as such a shock? In The Afghanistan Papers, Craig Whitlock offers a persuasive answer: because U.S. political leaders and coalition commanders routinely lied about the war’s actual trajectory. It’s not that American and British leaders erred in thinking that things were headed in a positive direction. They fully recognized that the war was going badly but engaged in “an unspoken conspiracy to mask the truth.”

The evidence that Whitlock offers to document that claim is abundant, authoritative, and utterly damning. It is also drawn from unimpeachable sources, primarily U.S. government records such as interviews conducted with U.S. troops after their return from the war zone. Speaking to Congress or the press, their superiors spun, dissembled, deceived, told bald-face lies. Speaking for posterity, the troops told the truth: The war was a massive cock-up.

By way of an example, consider General Mark Milley, who currently chairs the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is therefore the senior U.S. military officer on active duty. As a three-star general serving in Afghanistan in 2013, Milley assured reporters that “the conditions are set for winning this war,” with Afghan security forces “very, very effective in combat against the insurgents every single day.” Coalition and Afghan forces were “on the road to victory, on the road to winning, on the road to creating a stable Afghanistan.” As Whitlock makes clear, Milley was by no means the only senior officer peddling this fraudulent line.

The Afghanistan Papers raises troubling questions about the competence of the American officer corps. No amount of buck-passing will absolve the U.S. military of substantial responsibility for the dismal outcome of the Afghanistan War. Hardly less troubling are questions about the standards of integrity that prevail in the upper ranks of the American military profession. 

Defeat does sometimes prompt introspection, which is a precondition for reform. Whether the senior officers of General Milley’s generation have the capacity and willingness to engage in honest introspection appears doubtful, especially if Congress keeps doling out the money as it appears inclined to do. So let the purges begin.

Writing in the New York Times, Ross Douthat described the outcome of the Afghanistan War as “a failure so broad that it should demand purges in the Pentagon, the shamed retirement of innumerable hawkish talking heads, the razing of various NGOs and international-studies programs and the dissolution of countless consultancies and military contractors.” Douthat’s list of targets strike me as about right.   

“The moral question for Afghanistan boils down to whether intervention is just,” Carter Malkasian writes in concluding his history. In this particular intervention, “We resuscitated a state of civil war so that we could sleep a little sounder at home. Villages were destroyed. Families disappeared. It was inadvertent.”

That last assertion cannot be allowed to stand.

Virtually nothing about the Afghanistan War was inadvertent. The war’s conduct offered a vivid example of conspicuous military malpractice, stemming from a poisonous blend of hubris, incompetence, and moral indifference. In combination with its infernal twin in Iraq, the Afghanistan War represented a last desperate effort to sustain the global primacy to which Washington had laid claim following the Cold War. 

The outcome of America’s post-9/11 military misadventures, coupled with the sundry afflictions that the United States has recently sustained on the home front, has definitively discredited any such claim to primacy. With the end of the Afghanistan War, Americans ought to have had their fill of distant crusades. A long list of issues far closer to home and possessing greater immediacy are demanding attention. 

Andrew Bacevich is president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. His most recent book is After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed. 

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