Afghanistan fiasco proves we didn't leave soon enough

Afghanistan fiasco proves we didn't leave soon enough

As this was being written, Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani and his senior advisors have fled the country and Taliban forces have overtaken Kabul. It appears the insurgents were able to take the capital with minimal resistance from the Afghan National Defense and Security Force (ANDSF), like their capture of other provinces earlier this week.

The quick Taliban victories and failure of the ANDSF have caught many western analysts off guard. Only days ago, U.S. intelligence analysts estimated it would take 90 days for Kabul to fall to the Taliban, which is cynically laughable in highsight. Then again, U.S. military and intelligence analysts have been painting highly optimistic pictures of the Afghanistan military for years despite glaring evidence to the contrary.

Given the speed at which the Afghan government has disintegrated, it’s no surprise to hear the cacophony of criticism about President BidenJoe BidenFighter jet escorts aircraft that entered restricted airspace during UN gathering Julian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp MORE’s withdrawal of U.S. troops — one of the few policies continued from his predecessor.

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But the fiasco in Afghanistan only proves the opposite — that the concept of building a westernized nation in a place without the historical, cultural or economic foundations to sustain it was a poorly-reasoned pipedream fueled by hubris and unyielding ideology. The U.S. could have saved a significant amount of blood, funding and credibility if we had ended our mission there much earlier.

For nearly two decades, the advertised goal of U.S. strategy in Afghanistan was to protect Americans through anti-terrorism operations against al Qaeda and installing a friendly, democratic government that would prevent the country from becoming a terrorist safe haven in the future. The counterterrorism operations were warranted after the Sept. 11 attacks and though there were some failures in execution, Osama bin Laden is long dead and the organization he ran is dispersed.  

But behind the closed doors of policymakers and military planners, it seems the driving goal has been to avoid admitting defeat on the nation-building after thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars lost towards that end.

Nothing has been more evident of this farce, nor as predictable, than the conduct of the ANDSF in the face of Taliban resistance once NATO forces started to withdraw. Created shortly after the fall of the Taliban government in the earliest days of the invasion, the promise had always been to turn security over to the Afghan government and their security forces that were trained, armed and funded primarily by the U.S.

But getting to that day always proved elusive. Whether it was a distraction with the war in Iraq, the destabilizing influence of the neighboring Pakistani government, rampant corruption in the Afghan civil service, the persistence of the Taliban, or something else, there was always a multitude of excuses as to why it hadn’t happened — yet.

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So, western leaders would ask for more time, more troops, more funding — and when that didn’t work out, it was because they needed even more. While at the same time, thorough reports over years from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) and documents revealed in the Afghanistan Papers showed that U.S. leaders were aware of systemic, enduring problems within the Afghan government and armed forces that made the catastrophes of this month inevitable.  

Despite outnumbering and out-gunning the Taliban forces while being supported by the latest western technology and logistics, the ANDSF was a paper tiger that folded at the first sign of trouble, leaving the U.S.-provided weaponry and supplies behind for the picking. It is embarrassingly like the conduct of American-trained and funded Iraqi security forces in the face of ISIS insurgents in 2014.  

It’s not that the ANDSF was inexperienced; on the contrary, they had years of training and challenging combat seasons alongside NATO forces. But when they were forced to stand alone, they just didn’t have the fight in them.

Counterinsurgency doctrine, which largely informed NATO strategy in Afghanistan for many years, puts a premium on “winning the hearts and minds” of the domestic population. T.E. Lawrence famously described fighting against an insurgency as slow and messy, like “eating soup with a knife.” It requires the population to buy into what the counterinsurgency represents and be willing to fight for it.

Simply stated, the Afghan government and military were bought by the United States and our allies, but they never bought into our program. And a clear-sighted, realistic assessment of the country and its culture, history and society suggests that they probably never would.

Critics of pulling U.S. forces out of the conflict now point to the plight of many Afghans under the new Taliban government, especially women, children and those who assisted NATO forces. It is as disheartening to witness that tragedy as it is for the military veterans and families this week who fought and lost loved ones in that country over the past 20 years.

But those are not reasons to continue following the very failed strategy that led to this moment. We can only hope that we learn from these mistakes going forward.

Robert Moore is a public policy advisor for Defense Priorities. He previously worked as a staff member on Capitol Hill for nearly a decade, most recently for Sen. Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Officials want action on cyberattacks Senate panel advances antitrust bill that eyes Google, Facebook Trump pushes back on book claims, says he spent 'virtually no time' discussing election with Lee, Graham MORE (R-Utah) on the Senate Armed Services Committee.