Issue Briefs

Afghanistan Was Lost Long Ago

Afghanistan Was Lost Long Ago

Paolo von Schirach

August 23rd, 2021

WASHINGTON – If we go beyond the hysterics, accusations and posturing that followed the sudden, messy fall of Kabul into the hands of the Taliban on August 15, it should be pretty obvious that the US effort to prop up the pro-western government in Afghanistan failed long ago. Kabul did not fall because of something that Washington did or did not do in the last few months. The root of this sudden collapse is old. It is to be found in the systemic weakness, maladministration and endemic corruption of the supposedly democratic government in Kabul that we tried to help and support for 20 years –yes, 20 years!

Bad intelligence

In hindsight we must blame the Biden administration not for having reached the right conclusion that the whole Afghanistan enterprise was a gigantic failure but for having failed to predict with better accuracy when the whole thing would fall apart, including the fall of Kabul. Unfortunately, this is no small detail. The optimistic but totally wrong assumption that the Ghani government would have been able to hang in there for a few more months, or at least a few more weeks, allowed Washington to believe the US had enough time to organize a relatively orderly retreat and evacuation of all US Embassy personnel, other officials, contractors, thousands of ordinary Americans, and all or most of the Afghans who would be targeted by the Taliban on account of their work with the US.

Because of this tragically wrong timing estimate, when Kabul suddenly fell on August 15 the US authorities were caught by surprise and therefore totally unprepared. Panic ensued In Kabul. Panic fueled a mad and disorderly race to the Kabul Airport. Videos of utter chaos, mad crowds and a few desperate people clinging onto the fuselage of US cargo planes about to take off created the impression of complete mismanagement and utter incompetence on the part of the US government. Even though the situation at the airport was stabilized relatively quickly, these horrible images will stay, and they will be used as evidence of Biden’s amateurish approach to this critical disengagement from a 20 year war, if not of his outright criminal incompetence.

A hostage crisis?

Furthermore, as of this writing it is not all clear when and how thousands of Americans still in Afghanistan –in Kabul and elsewhere in the provinces– will be able to make their way to Kabul Airport, unharmed. While the Taliban promised safe passage to all Americans and others who wish to leave, we know that anything can happen. The worst case scenario is a hostage situation: thousands of Americans trapped in Afghanistan, held there until the Taliban obtain whatever concessions they may try to extract from the Biden administration. This is a pretty horrible but unfortunately realistic scenario. If this happens, it would cause unspeakable –probably irreparable– harm to President Biden’s authority and credibility.

Right decision

That said, when we look at the full picture, Biden was right to pull out. Yes, the end of our engagement in Afghanistan could and should have been planned and executed a lot better. Still, a continuing American presence –whatever the number of US troops– in this doomed country would have not changed the ultimate outcome of this unfortunate Afghanistan adventure: that is the ultimate Taliban victory. Indeed, the speed of the Ghani government total meltdown, with tens of thousands of US-trained troops running away when engaged by Taliban fighters, very often without firing a shot, while the president of Afghanistan flew away as the Taliban were approaching Kabul, reconfirms that Afghanistan was rotten to the core, and therefore not salvageable. The notion that keeping there a residual US force of about 2,500, (plus a few small contingents provided by some NATO countries), would have been enough to keep the country stable and running is completely flawed. If removing a small band aid causes the patient to have a seizure and die, this means that the patient was doomed in the first place, and could not be brought back to health.

I wrote back in April of 2021 that it was possible for the US to muddle through a bit longer by keeping the small US force in Afghanistan as both a tangible and symbolic support for the Ghani government. Obviously, I was totally mistaken. At the time, I did not know how fast the Taliban would advance, and I did not take into account that the small US contingent was not targeted by the Taliban insurgents because the Trump administration had made a deal: “We promise to withdraw all US troops; and you, (the Taliban), do not attack us”. If under Biden we had decided to change course and affirmed our intention to stay in Afghanistan indefinitely, or at least for a longer period of time, the Taliban would have resumed the attacks against this small and militarily almost insignificant US contingent. There would have been fresh US casualties. At that point Washington would have been confronted with this choice: either add more US troops in order to face the resurgent threat, or cut and run. The doubling down option would have made sense only if, at any point, our US National Security Team could have created a credible plan for victory, that is a plan leading to the ultimate defeat of the Taliban. But there was no such plan.

Pass the buck

Years ago it seemed that the US could get out of this mess by passing the buck: transfer the burden of fighting the revived Taliban insurgency to a US-trained, modernized Afghan military and police. Provide proper instruction to Afghan soldiers and police, give them state of the art weapons, and then transfer the responsibility to fight the Taliban insurgency to them. Let them do the heavy lifting, while the US would progressively disengage.

But this proved to be wishful thinking. In the end, notwithstanding billions of dollars poured into this multi-year training and equipping effort, most Afghans demonstrated that they could not or would not be good fighters. Indeed, the very fact that when the US announced the withdrawal of the last, small residual force the Taliban scaled up their offensive and the whole Afghan national defense apparatus fell apart, in a matter of just a few weeks, tells you the essence of the story. The entire US Afghanistan strategy, supported by hundreds of billions of dollars invested in this unfortunate country over almost 20 years, was a castle of cards, a mirage, a dream. Afghanistan is not fixable, at least not within any realistic timeframe. This misguided effort is a US failure of gigantic proportions.

Right choice

Bottom line, Biden took the right strategic decision: admit failure, pull out, and cut our losses. It was about time to admit that the Afghanistan we wanted to support was in the hands of an incompetent, corrupt bunch. It was clearly beyond our powers and skills to make them smart, honest, capable and motivated. We could and did train them. We gave them modern equipment. But we could not give them the will to fight for their own country. We tried, and tried, almost everything, spending hundreds of billions of tax-payers dollars in this effort, and failed –miserably. President Biden has had the political courage to admit failure. Granted, as noted above, the whole exit operation was poorly planned, and this is a most egregious shortcoming that may lead to a hostage crisis with potentially humiliating ramifications.

Yet the strategic decision to get out of an impossible, unwinnable 20 year fight was wise.

The views and opinions expressed in this issue brief are those of the author.

Paolo von Schirach is the President of the Global Policy Institute, a Washington DC think tank, and Chair of Political Science and International Relations at Bay Atlantic University, also in Washington, DC. He is also the Editor of the Schirach Report.