Learning from the War: “Who Lost Afghanistan?” versus Learning “Why We Lost”
July 29, 2021
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 horribly mismanaged the initial peace agreement it signed on February 22, 2020. The argument will be that the February agreement traded withdrawal for negotiations, but that it never defined a possible peace and never created an effective peace process, and in doing so, effectively “lost” Afghanistan by defining a date for U.S. withdrawal in 14 months: May 1, 2020. 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 new deadline of September 11, 2021, and on his statement 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.”
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.