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Learning the right lessons from Afghanistan

President Biden’s speech in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Kabul was intended to put the seal on a painful chapter in our nation’s history. In it, the president attributed the debacle in Kabul and the two decades of war that preceded it as an inevitable result of “nation building” — a pithy epithet that seemed to resonate with his audience. 

In truth, the United States has had great success at nation building in the not-so-distant past. It was the same nation, after all, that devised the Marshall Plan, ensuring that a Europe devastated in the aftermath of World War II would experience an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. 

More recently, though on a much lesser scale, it was the U.S. that implemented Plan Colombia, which ended a 50-year civil war, led to a drastic drop in illicit drug production and enabled the Colombian government to exercise rule of law throughout the country.   The real distinguishing features of both these successful attempts at nation building (though that was not the term used in either case at the time) was that they were both – as their titles suggest – actual plans.

It is important to make this distinction lest policymakers draw the wrong lessons from Afghanistan. A common understanding about what went wrong will – one hopes – help the administration design more coherent policy going ahead.

Sadly, the prospect of reaching such an understanding seems a long way off. Weeks of congressional hearings on the war have ended with no such consensus. Instead of making a determined effort to reveal underlying causes, all questions have followed a partisan narrative, while the answers, in an effort to avoid blame, have dissolved into an unseemly spectacle of mutual finger pointing between the Pentagon and the State Department. “I would try to take the politics out of it,” commented one frustrated representative to The Hill, a suggestion as sensible as it is utterly implausible. 

But if this were to happen – if the hearings did come up with a sense-making narrative about what went wrong with U.S. policy in Afghanistan – I imagine that it would look something like this:

The problem in Afghanistan wasn’t that the U.S. embarked on a campaign of nation building. If only that had been the case. In reality, there was no discernible campaign at all, but instead a patchwork of disjointed efforts across the coalition and various departments and agencies of the U.S. government. An absence of clear objectives, a failure to use leverage to drive towards political reform and an over-reliance on a behemoth but futile military effort created the conditions that allowed the Taliban to flourish. An endless discussion about troop levels distracted policymakers from ensuring that they answered the most important question: “To what end?”

Instead of a clear answer to that question, there was much vague talk about maintaining pressure on the Taliban to give Afghan political leaders breathing space — without anyone noticing that the air in that space was too noxious to support real progress.

U.S. military leadership was not without responsibility for the lack of direction. A succession of commanders, for whom Afghan command was a strong resume builder, implemented plans that failed to add up to a sustained strategy, all the while offering repeated assurances of success

Meanwhile, military units on the ground fought the war in 12-month increments, at the end of which they would invariably congratulate themselves for leaving their part of the country in so much better shape than they had found it. And who could blame them for wanting to derive some meaning from the grinding effort and steady stream of casualties?

But no one appears to have been keeping a close watch on the Taliban — or trying to answer the question of why an organization that should have been feared and disliked by the rural population was instead steadily gaining their support.

By 2017, the two sides in Afghanistan had fought each other to a standstill: The Taliban held the countryside while the government held the cities — a situation that remained fairly stable until a few months ago. From the perspective of the United States, it was a sustainable stalemate, a light footprint at a cost of relatively few casualties.

This wasn’t the situation, however, presented to the American public by two successive presidents who, choosing political expediency over strategic patience, had turned the meaningless phrase “No more Forever Wars” into a campaign slogan. The result was the greatest single loss of American and Afghan life in Afghanistan in over a decade, and perhaps irrevocable damage to America’s standing in the world.  Not to mention the intangible but profound sense of loss felt by many Afghan veterans who have seen their former allies deserted, and the cause for which they fought abandoned in such haste.

These were the mistakes of Afghanistan — none of which highlight an inherent flaw with the concept of “nation building,” but provide instead an implicit admonition to the United States to simply be more competent. To take the time to frame foreign policy problems in their wider context, and to design and implement policies with unambiguous objectives, discernible milestones and a clearly defined allocation of effort and resources.  To understand the real meaning of terms such as risk and strategic patience. To take an approach that involves all components of national power, not just a massive and directionless military effort; an approach that learns from the lessons of the past, rather than the parochial slogans of the present.

Andrew Milburn, a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, is the author of “When the Tempest Gathers.” He is on the adjunct faculty of Joint Special Operations University, where he teaches classes on leadership, planning, ethics, mission command, risk, special operations, irregular warfare and command and control at U.S., Canadian and UK military schools. He is also a director of the Irregular Warfare Initiative, run by the Modern War Institute.

Tags Afghan Taliban Afghanistan Afghanistan conflict Afghanistan troop withdrawal Afghanistan–United States relations Colombia Joe Biden nation building The Marshall Plan War in Afghanistan

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