Two decades of delusion and confusion about America’s endgame in Afghanistan don’t make the Taliban takeover any less of a catastrophe. Just don’t call it a surprise.
Even for those who have long recognized the certainty of America’s ultimate defeat in Afghanistan, the speed with which the regime and its army collapsed is shocking. The US-backed government was rotted from corruption and despised by most Afghans. Its army was commanded by larcenous thugs and made up largely of recruits who did not want to fight. President Biden deserves credit for implicitly accepting the fact that a Taliban victory was inevitable. On Monday he strongly defended his decision to end the war, rejecting the laments of generals, senators, think-tank talking heads, and others who have spent two decades mindlessly cheerleading for a war the United States could never win.
“I stand squarely behind my decision,” Biden said. “After 20 years, I’ve learned the hard way that there was never a good time to withdraw US forces.”
Yet the sight of mass surrenders across the country and the Taliban entering Kabul even before US diplomats could be withdrawn stuns us all. The scope of the mendacity with which this war was sold to the American people is only now clear.
Consider, as one of countless examples, a hearing held by the Senate Armed Service Committee 10 years ago. Senator Carl Levin, fresh from meeting with US commanders in Afghanistan, said he was impressed by “the growth in the size and capability of Afghan security forces.” Senator John McCain agreed: “Afghan security forces are growing in quantity and improving in quality even faster than planned,” which meant, he said,that “we are turning around the war in Afghanistan.” Undersecretary of Defense Michelle Flournoy talked of “significant progress,” “positive momentum,” and “putting relentless pressure on the insurgents.” General David Petraeus assured the committee that “the momentum achieved by the Taliban in Afghanistan since 2005 has been arrested in much of the country and reversed in a number of important areas.”
The cascade of lies and delusions continued for another decade. In 2012 General John Allen asserted that “Afghan security forces are increasing in number and quality every day.” Three years later, General John Campbell marveled that “the Afghan security forces keep getting better and better.” In 2017 General John Nicholson reported that “the special forces, the special police . . . have all continued to grow in capability.” Just last month the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, insisted at a press conference that “the Afghan security forces have the capability to sufficiently fight and defend their country.” Today it is painfully clear that what those generals were saying was untrue. Given deep traditions in Washington, however, none of those who were so wrong about the war in Afghanistan will be held to account. Expect to see them taking lucrative jobs as TV commentators, think-tank analysts, or advisors to the weapons industry.
The US official who has most consistently told the truth about Afghanistan, John Sopko, who holds the tongue-twisting title Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, has for years been filing explicit reports about the true state of the Afghan army. He has been largely ignored. This summer he issued yet another report — and added some biting comments about US commanders. “They knew how bad the Afghan military was,” Sopko said. “And if you had a clearance, you could find out. But the average American, the average taxpayer, the average congressman, the average person working in the embassy wouldn’t know how bad it was.” Then he added this somber prediction: “Don’t believe what you’re told by the generals or the ambassadors or people in the administration saying we’re never going to do this again. That’s exactly what we said after Vietnam: ‘We’re never going to do this again.’ Lo and behold, we did Iraq. And we did Afghanistan. We will do this again.”
American forces invaded Afghanistan at the end of 2001. Within six months they and their local allies had the Taliban on the run. That was the moment to leave. We stayed because we had a mission to complete — but we could never figure out what the mission was. Was it to capture Osama bin Laden, topple the Taliban, and chase al Qaeda out of Afghanistan? Or was it to transform Afghanistan’s thousand-year-old social and political system into one resembling that ofthe United States? To fight drug smugglers? To crush insurgent networks based in Pakistan? To control a country that borders Iran and China? To force Afghans to adopt Western views of gender relations? In fact, for most of the last 20 years, no one has been able to explain what our mission was or what would constitute victory.
Why did the American project in Afghanistan fail so utterly, and why did the Afghan army collapse so quickly? On paper it seemed unlikely. The army claimed to have more than 300,000 men under arms, four times the Taliban’s strength, and itwas trained and equipped at colossal cost by the most powerful military on earth. The Taliban had little money, few trained fighters, no general staff, no air force, and no high-tech weaponry. It won in obedience to an ancient principle of war: The side with more soldiers willing to die always triumphs. Few in the army wanted to give their lives for the cosmically corrupt gang of warlords and drug kingpins known as “the Afghan government.” Taliban fighters, by contrast, believe fiercely in their cause and go into battle ready for martyrdom.
Hard times lie ahead for Afghanistan. The Taliban is a vicious and brutal force that is impressively successful in fighting but has little experience with governing. Afghan women will now face new restrictions, some of them truly oppressive and repugnant. An even worse fate may await the Hazara, an ethnic group that constitutes about one-fifth of the population and is hated by the Taliban with almost genocidal intensity because the Hazaraare Shia rather than Sunni Muslims. Over the coming months and years, we will undoubtedly read accounts of Taliban atrocities. They will sound especially horrifying because we never focused on atrocities committed by American forces, like the 2015 bombing of the Doctors Without Borders hospital in Kunduz or the 2019 drone attack that killed 30 pinenut farmers in Nangarhar. Violence that lies ahead in Afghanistan is not the result of our withdrawal but of our 20 years of self-deluding war.
According to opinion surveys taken in recent years, most Americans are tired of foreign wars and want our government to focus on nation-building at home. This shift away from militarism, however, is not echoed in Washington. Inside the beltway, there is little payoff for supporting a lowering of America’s global ambition. In Congress and the suborned think tanks that nourish its imperial fantasies, the view that the United States must shape world events remains powerful. Biden deserves much credit for his apparent determination to withdraw from the Afghan quagmire. This trauma, however, will have a positive outcome only if we learn from it. History suggests that we will not.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.