Learning from the War: “Who Lost Afghanistan?” versus Learning “Why We Lost”

It does not take much vision to predict that the collapse of the present Afghan government is now all too likely, and that if the current Afghan central government collapses, a partisan U.S. political battle over who lost Afghanistan will follow. It is also nearly certain that any such partisan battle will become part of a bitter mid-term 2022 election. It takes equally little vision to foresee that any such partisan political debate will be largely dishonest and focus on blaming the opposing party. “Dishonesty” seems to be the growing definition of American political dialogue.

It is possible that neither party will really want to debate the collapse and the loss of the war. However, it seems all too likely that the debate will focus on Democrats blaming President Trump and Republicans blaming President Biden.

The Democratic Party argument will be that the Trump administration mismanaged the initial peace agreement it signed on February 22, 2020. The argument will be that the February 2020 peace agreement traded withdrawal for negotiations, but that it never defined a possible peace and never created an effective peace process, and that – in doing so, – it effectively “lost” Afghanistan by defining the following conditions for what amounted to complete U.S. withdrawal:1

The United States is committed to withdraw from Afghanistan all military forces of the United States, its allies, and Coalition partners, including all non-diplomatic civilian personnel, private security contractors, trainers, advisors, and supporting services personnel within fourteen (14) months following announcement of this agreement, and will take the following measures in this regard:

  1. The United States, its allies, and the Coalition will take the following measures in the first one hundred thirty-five (135) days:
    • They will reduce the number of U.S. forces in Afghanistan to eight thousand six hundred (8,600) and proportionally bring reduction in the number of its allies and Coalition forces.
    • The United States, its allies, and the Coalition will withdraw all their forces from five (5) military bases.
  1. With the commitment and actionon the obligations of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban in Part Two of this agreement, the United States, its allies, and the Coalition will execute the following:
    • The United States, its allies, and the Coalition will complete withdrawal of all remaining forces from Afghanistan within the remaining nine and a half (9.5) months.
    • The United States, its allies, and the Coalition will withdraw all their forces from remaining bases.

Democrats will claim this agreement led to major U.S. withdrawals and Afghan political turmoil before the Biden Administration took office, making the “loss” of Afghanistan inevitable.

The Republican Party argument will reference the troop withdrawals that took place under the Obama Administration, skip over the withdrawal deadlines and actions of the Trump Administration, and focus on the withdrawals and closings that began after Biden’s inauguration on January 20, 2020. It will focus on President Biden’s statement on April 14, 2021 that the U.S. would withdraw from Afghanistan in September 2021:2

With the terror threat now in many places, keeping thousands of troops grounded and concentrated in just one country at a cost of billions each year makes little sense to me and to our leaders.  We cannot continue the cycle of extending or expanding our military presence in Afghanistan, hoping to create ideal conditions for the withdrawal, and expecting a different result…I’m now the fourth United States President to preside over American troop presence in Afghanistan: two Republicans, two Democrats.  I will not pass this responsibility on to a fifth.

After consulting closely with our allies and partners, with our military leaders and intelligence personnel, with our diplomats and our development experts, with the Congress and the Vice President, as well as with Mr. Ghani and many others around the world, I have concluded that it’s time to end America’s longest war.  It’s time for American troops to come home. 

When I came to office, I inherited a diplomatic agreement, duly negotiated between the government of the United States and the Taliban, that all U.S. forces would be out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021, just three months after my inauguration.  That’s what we inherited — that commitment.

It is perhaps not what I would have negotiated myself, but it was an agreement made by the United States government, and that means something.  So, in keeping with that agreement and with our national interests, the United States will begin our final withdrawal — begin it on May 1 of this year.

We will not conduct a hasty rush to the exit.  We’ll do it — we’ll do it responsibly, deliberately, and safely.  And we will do it in full coordination with our allies and partners, who now have more forces in Afghanistan than we do. And the Taliban should know that if they attack us as we draw down, we will defend ourselves and our partners with all the tools at our disposal. 

Our allies and partners have stood beside us shoulder-to-shoulder in Afghanistan for almost 20 years, and we’re deeply grateful for the contributions they have made to our shared mission and for the sacrifices they have borne…The plan has long been “in together, out together.”  U.S. troops, as well as forces deployed by our NATO Allies and operational partners, will be out of Afghanistan before we mark the 20th anniversary of that heinous attack on September 11th.  

It will also focus on President Biden’s other announcement on April 14, 2021 that, “We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead and al-Qaida is degraded in Afghanistan, and it's time to end this forever war,” as well as his announcement on July 8, 2021 that:3

Our military mission in Afghanistan will conclude on August 31st.  The drawdown is proceeding in a secure and orderly way, prioritizing the safety of our troops as they depart.…Our military commanders advised me that once I made the decision to end the war, we needed to move swiftly to conduct the main elements of the drawdown.  And in this context, speed is safety. 

It is difficult to impossible to believe that the Trump administration did not realize that announcing a deadline for a complete U.S. withdrawal as part of a peace agreement that had no peace plan and that would be executing major cuts in the U.S. role and presence in Afghanistan – like reducing the official total of U.S. troops from 4,500 to 2,500 – could be more than a prelude to full withdrawal. These cuts were coupled to reductions in basing facilities, contractors, intelligence personnel, and elite forces. They took place without any real progress towards peace, with only marginal cooperation of a hopelessly divided Afghan government whose term of office had expired, and in spite of all the problems in the Afghan forces and government described in detail in this report. The administration should have realized that its actions would most probably lead to a full U.S. withdrawal without peace and with the collapse of the Afghan central government.

The Biden administration may not have “inherited the wind,” but the Trump Administration’s legacy came so close that debating the details seems pointless. At the same time, it seems equally doubtful that a Biden administration that inherited the fully classified intelligence assessments of the Taliban’s progress – as well as all of the public data on the Afghan government’s weaknesses and the Taliban’s gains described later in this analysis – also could not have realized that its withdrawal announcement would likely catalyze the sudden collapse of much of the central government’s defense efforts.

Both the Trump and Biden administrations seem to have used peace negotiations as a political cover for withdrawal, and they did so without ever advancing any credible peace plan and with no real peace negotiations taking place. Both administrations should clearly have seen the probable consequences and the likelihood of a “worst case” contingency. One can argue the wisdom of their choices to withdraw, but scarcely on a partisan basis.

Fortunately, it seems unlikely that any such “who lost the war” debate will go on much longer than the mid-term election or that it will come close to the low-level debate over “who lost Vietnam” that went on until Henry Kissinger suddenly found “red” China was a convenient strategic partner. Like Vietnam, it will be easier to forget, move on to other issues and potential successes, and quietly write the war off.

There should, however, be a far more serious effort to examine the history of the war and the lessons the U.S. and its allies should learn. This effort should examine the full range of civil lessons as well as the military lessons that emerged from the entire history of the war – and not simply focus on its end. It should address the fact that the losses in the war were driven as much by failures in nation building and the civil sectors as from the failures in combat. It should acknowledge that the Afghan War – like Vietnam and the two sequential wars the U.S. fought after 2003 in Iraq – were counterinsurgency campaigns and not wars against international terrorism.

And, it should consider the war’s costs, and whether its strategic cost at any given point was worth prolonging it – and the lack of effective strategic triage that took two decades to cause the full U.S. withdrawal from the fighting.

This analysis explores these issues in depth, and it attempts to highlight the issues that must be addressed to learn the full range of lessons from the war. It is a thought piece, deliberately controversial, and written with the full understanding that many key aspects of the war remain classified or have not been addressed in open source reporting. It is also written with the understanding that “war fatigue” has set in at every level in the United States. At the same time, it does not take much vision to see how many troubled states – and fragile or failed governments – will shape America’s strategic interests in the near future, and that much of the competition with China, Russia, and regional threats like Iran will occur in gray area conflicts and power struggles that are all too similar to the problems the U.S. has faced in Afghanistan.

It concludes by raising a different issue that may in many ways be more important than learning the lessons of the war. If one examines the cost of the war and the lack of any clear or consistent strategic rationale for continuing it, then it is far from clear that the U.S. should ever have committed the resources to the conflict that it did or that it had the grand strategic priority to justify two decades of conflict.  

The key issue is not why the war was lost, it is whether letting it escalate and prolonging it was worth its cost. The examination of the civil and military challenges as well as the mistakes is the central focus of this analysis and, to some extent, a warning that the United States needs a far more realistic approach to “strategic triage.” Like the Iraq War, the U.S. needs to be far more careful in deciding if a conflict is worth fighting, escalating, and continuing.

The report includes the following Table of Contents:

This report entitled, Learning from the War: “Who Lost Afghanistan?” versus Learning “Why We Lost”, is available for download at https://csis-website-prod.s3.amazonaws.com/s3fs-public/publication/210719_Cordesman_Learning_War.pdf?wtdfMLGnQFrj7m3gykTuAWz4ox5Lr.Xa

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the United States Department of Defense and the United States Department of State.

1 U.S. Department of State, “Agreement for Bringing Peace to Afghanistan between the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan which is not recognized by the United States as a state and is known as the Taliban and the United States of America,” February 29, 2020, https://www.state.gov/wp-content/uploads/2020/02/Agreement-For-Bringing-Peace-to-Afghanistan-02.29.20.pdf.
2 White House, “Remarks by President Biden on the Way Forward in Afghanistan,” April 14, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/04/14/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-way-forward-in-afghanistan/.
3White House, “Remarks by President Biden on the Drawdown of U.S. Forces in Afghanistan,” July 8, 2021, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/speeches-remarks/2021/07/08/remarks-by-president-biden-on-the-drawdown-of-u-s-forces-in-afghanistan/.

Anthony H. Cordesman

Anthony H. Cordesman

Former Emeritus Chair in Strategy