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Learning the Lessons of Afghanistan

Hubristic disregard for Afghan identity abetted two decades of failed foreign policy.

First Anniversary of Taliban Retaking Control of Afghanistan
(Photo by Paula Bronstein /Getty Images)

The American War in Afghanistan: A History, by Carter Malkasian, Oxford University Press, 576 pages.

With the last military planes taking off from Kabul airport at 11:59 P.M. on August 30, 2021, the nearly twenty-two year American war in Afghanistan came to an end. The television scenes of Afghans falling off the wheels of C-17’s as they sought to escape the country symbolized the chaos and panic of this long and bloody chapter in Afghanistan’s history—and an ignominious end to the two decade long Global War on Terror that spanned four U.S. presidencies.


American troops began withdrawing from the field of battle in May 2021, and the Taliban ramped up attacks on the American-trained and supported Afghan army. By August the army had completely crumbled, and the Afghan national government, including President Ashraf Ghani, had fled the country. The Taliban controlled the capital, Kabul, and the twenty years of American nation building were lost in a span of weeks.

With a little over 2,000 American soldiers killed and many thousands more maimed and permanently disabled by the conflict, much of the public would like to turn the page and forget the longest war in American history. The American people stopped paying attention to the war long ago and the defense establishment shifted to great power competition with China. No small portion of our political class would like to forget the war because it happened on their watch. Much like the colossal failures of our Covid policy, leaders are hoping that the American penchant for forgetting will allow them to escape accountability. But we should not let them.

Carter Malkasian, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and former civilian advisor to the then chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Joseph Dunford, has written a well-researched and comprehensive account of the American war in Afghanistan that begins to help us make sense of this long conflict. Why were we there for two decades? How did the 9/11 attacks trigger this herculean and protracted effort on behalf of the American people? How did a once promising and popular invasion end up an unpopular failure? The answers are not easy, but Malkasian provides a more than adequate first pass at a comprehensive interpretation of the history.

The question of how the war was won, and then lost, carries a deeper question within: Was it ever really winnable? Malkasian, pressing against an overly deterministic reading of the history, concludes that it was hard to see how, even with a pacified Taliban, the Western-backed government could have ever succeeded long term. Perhaps with American support in perpetuity—a position Gen. David Petraeus believed was necessary—the Kabul-based government could have survived with nominal control of the country, but barring a prolonged American military, diplomatic, and economic presence, the prospects for the new regime’s survival were always dim.

Americans grew tired of the war. With the end of the Iraq war, the nation was anxious to turn the page on the Global War on Terror that consumed our nation in the post-9/11 epoch. Politically this is one of the biggest errors that American and Western leaders made in planning and prosecuting the Afghan conflict. Unlike Korea, Japan, and Germany, where there was broad bipartisan support for open-military presence, the American people never wanted to stay in Afghanistan. Malkasian adeptly points out this mismatch between Western ambitions and the will of the Western nations to make the long-term commitments and sacrifices necessary to build a Western-style nation state where one had never existed.


One can appreciate President George W. Bush’s sense of duty to Afghanistan while still realizing it was this very sense of duty that caused Bush to “stay the course” when other policy options were available. Malkasian’s analysis of the early years of war brings to light the extent to which Bush’s refusal to negotiate with the Taliban after they were defeated, against the urgings of Hamid Karzai, scuttled any possibility of a lasting peace that would have allowed the U.S. to leave. The instincts of Donald Rumsfeld for a limited and short operation appear to have been the right ones in hindsight.

Blaming Bush, however, is too convenient. The roadmap laid out for Afghanistan at the Bonn Conference in December 2001 was a complete mismatch for Afghanistan. Turning a country that had been torn apart by civil war for forty years into a functioning democracy was never going to be easy. Perhaps nothing symbolized our hubris better than our commitment to women’s rights. That judgment may appear harsh, but it is the reality that Afghans did not welcome this American imposition upon their own way of life. A bipartisan group of women senators sponsored the Afghan Women and Children Relief Act of 2001 in the aftermath of the Taliban’s initial defeat. Both Republicans and Democrats were committed to the idea of transforming Afghan society to be more egalitarian. The Western conception of women’s rights were conceptually and culturally alien to an Afghan culture that was deeply patriarchal, traditional, and Islamic.

The most surprising, and important, contribution of Malkasian’s book is his sensitive and rich picture of the role Islam played in the conflict, especially in a sympathetic portrait of the Taliban. American policymakers and military leaders never quite appreciated how powerful an effect the peculiar Afghan identity—a mixture of fierce independence, tribal loyalty, deep sense of honor, and strict interpretation of Islam—would have on the outcome of the war. Despite the good that the U.S. did in Afghanistan, and there are real success stories, Americans would always be seen as an occupying force that had to be expelled. And a government with U.S.-backing, likewise, would always be viewed suspiciously by the majority of Afghans.

The real story, however, is not that of American defeat, but the resilience, resistance, and triumph of the Taliban. In 2014, then U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan, Michael McKinley, put his finger on the Taliban’s source of strength: “Maybe I have read too much Hannah Arendt,” he interjected during a closed group meeting at the State Department, “but I do not think this is about money or jobs. The Taliban are fighting for something larger.” What American politicians never fully grasped, though maybe the American public intuitively understood, was that the Taliban was fighting for intangible spiritual goals that were essential for Afghan self-understanding. Unpacking this basic thesis, Malkasian writes:

The Taliban exemplified something that inspired, something that made them powerful in battle, something closely tied to what it meant to be Afghan. In simple terms, they fought for Islam and resistance to occupation, values enshrined in Afghan identity. Aligned with foreign occupiers, the government mustered no similar inspiration. It could not get its supporters, even if they outnumbered the Taliban, to go to the same lengths. Its claim to Islam was fraught. The very presence of Americans in Afghanistan trod on what it meant to be Afghan. It prodded at men and women to defend their honor, their religion, and their home. It dared young men to fight. It animated the Taliban. It sapped the will of Afghan soldiers and police. When they clashed, Taliban were more willing to kill and be killed than soldiers and police, or at least a good number of them.

American leaders remained painfully blind to this reality, though many veterans I have talked to experienced it palpably. In a discussion with one, his assessment was simple, “They did not want us there.”

It is hard to not be cynical about the Afghanistan war. The wounds are still fresh. Much blood, treasure, and resources were spilled for what appears to have been an unwinnable conflict. So what are the lessons we should learn? There are many. Nation building is very hard work, and we are not very good at it. Not every nation wants what we have. I know this is hard for Americans to believe, but some countries see America and decide, “No, thanks.” Perhaps most importantly, the U.S. must learn to accept the limitations of what it can and cannot do. It is a hard lesson to learn, and we do not seem to learn it well. What we must not do is bury our heads in the sand. If we are to honor the lives of those lost in this war and the trillions we poured into this failed endeavor, we must learn from these failures so that we do not repeat them again.


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