Afghanistan’s collapse was swift, but it was a long time in the making
The evacuation of U.S. personnel from the embassy in Kabul is eerily reminiscent of Saigon in 1975. In both cases, the U.S. spent decades training and equipping a military that seemed quite formidable only to watch it collapse in the face of attack by a determined enemy. Once again, American helicopters swooped in to evacuate people from the U.S. embassy while Afghan government officials desperately tried to escape from the capital. Everyone from think tank pundits and TV talk show hosts to politicians is asking what went wrong and who is to blame?
Republicans have been quick to point the finger at President Biden, forgetting that he is implementing an agreement negotiated by former President Donald Trump. Once Trump announced his intention to quit Afghanistan, the Taliban began systematically capturing government outposts in the countryside and key border crossings as preparation for the conquest of the cities to begin as soon as American troops left. Less than six weeks after U.S. forces left Bagram Air Base, Kabul fell.
To a significant degree, however, failure was baked into the U.S. mission from the beginning and made more likely by decisions taken in succeeding years. President George W. Bush invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of 9/11 with the express purpose of removing an al Qaeda safe haven. Operation Enduring Freedom enjoyed widespread public and international support. Every NATO nation and many Euro-Atlantic Partnership countries contributed troops to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) deployed to secure Afghanistan after the U.S. ousted the Taliban. Between 2002 and 2004, ISAF stood a real chance of stabilizing the country.
Unfortunately, Bush was more interested in invading Iraq than in rebuilding Afghanistan. By 2003, the U.S. had just 10,400 personnel in ISAF. As a result, the administration missed an opportunity to consolidate its victory. ISAF had approximately 130,000 troops from 51 nations but most operated under very restrictive mandates. The Americans, the British and the Canadians did most of the actual fighting. By taking its foot off the gas pedal, the Bush administration allowed the Taliban to regroup. The insurgents also had safe havens across the border in neighboring Pakistan, which the government in Islamabad could not or would not dislodge.
By the time Barack Obama took office in 2009, the situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated. The new president decided to apply the strategy that had seemingly worked in Iraq: surge U.S. forces to recoup the situation. By 2011, approximately 110,000 military personnel had been deployed. The U.S. military also changed its strategy from counterterrorism to counterinsurgency. The emphasis went from killing Taliban and al-Qaeda leaders to clearing and holding territory. It was the right approach but rested on the dubious assumption that the Afghan leadership could win the hearts and minds of its own people by governing effectively in the countryside as well as the cities.
Gen. David Petraeus, who many credited with recouping the situation in Iraq, took command in 2010. “You don’t kill or capture your way out of an industrial-strength insurgency, which is what faces Afghanistan,” Petraeus warned. “It takes a comprehensive approach, and not just military but civil-military.” For a while, things improved. On May 2, 2011, U.S. Navy Seals raided Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, killing the al-Qaeda leader and capturing a treasure trove of documents. That would have been a good time to declare victory and bring the troops home.
Instead, the United States spent the next decade training and equipping a conventional Afghan Army heavily dependent on complex logistics and airpower, which the Afghan government could not sustain on its own. U.S. advisors noted that Afghan troops relied too much on U.S. helicopter gunships and ground attack aircraft to counter even limited Taliban resistance.
Contrary to popular belief, withdrawal was not as precipitous as it seems. U.S. troops’ strength had been reduced to 4,000-5,000 in November 2020 and to 2,500 by Jan. 15, 2021, before Biden took office. In its quarterly report to Congress, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction reported that in Kandahar province alone the Afghan Army had abandoned 200 checkpoints to the Taliban in December 2020. Under these circumstances, Biden had no good options. He could surge U.S. troops, spend more money and risk more American lives, or he could withdraw, which 73 percent of Americans support.
While many experts predicted either a Taliban takeover or protracted civil war, no one anticipated the speed of the Afghan collapse. The Pentagon had spent almost $900 billion dollars training and equipping Afghan security forces. On paper, those forces looked formidable, numbering approximately 300,000 military and police personnel. In reality, however, their fighting strength may have been as low as 50,000. Many were “ghost soldiers,” names listed on a roster so their commander could pocket their pay. In the face of such rampant corruption, it is not hard to understand the reluctance of Afghans to die for a government that failed to support them.
In what is now America’s longest war, 2,352 U.S. service personnel lost their lives, and another 20,149 suffered injuries, some of them life-altering. We have spent — with little public debate or Congressional oversight — $2 trillion on Afghanistan, twice the amount allocated in the hotly contested infrastructure bill wending its way through Congress. It is hard to see how this unwinnable war merits further expenditures in blood and treasure.
Afghanistan may again become a haven for terrorists plotting attacks against the west, but it is just as likely that the new Afghan regime will be content with ruling the country. The Taliban may well decide that it is not worth risking American wrath to let al Qaeda or ISIS set up shop on its territory. As for who is responsible for the debacle, there is plenty of blame to go around.
Tom Mockaitis is a professor of history at DePaul University and author of “Violent Extremists: Understanding the Domestic and International Terrorist Threat.”