Why America couldn’t win its war in Afghanistan
The United States (US) and its allies’ nearly two-decade-long war in Afghanistan is finally drawing to a close after US President Biden announced that American troops will initiate their full withdrawal by May 1st and symbolically complete it before the twentieth anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Some residual forces will remain to protect diplomatic facilities and it can’t be discounted that some private military contracts might stay as well, but this announcement marks the end of an era and the beginning of a new future for the region. It’s therefore worthwhile to reflect on why the US failed to accomplish any of its goals apart from eliminating Al Qaeda’s reported capability to plan international attacks from Afghan territory and the superficial creation of a so-called “democratic” government in Kabul (even if the latter is only upheld by foreign forces and might soon fall).
The greatest reason behind the US’ defeat lies in its lack of political will to make the hard military choices needed to win. Former US President Trump infamously revealed in July 2019:
“If we wanted to fight a war in Afghanistan and win it, I could win that war in a week. I just don’t want to kill 10 million people. Does that make sense to you? I don’t want to kill 10 million people. I have plans on Afghanistan that, if I wanted to win that war, Afghanistan would be wiped off the face of the Earth. It would be gone. It would be over in — literally, in 10 days. And I don’t want to do — I don’t want to go that route...And, again, if we wanted to be soldiers, it would be over in 10 days. One week to 10 days, if we wanted to. But I have not chosen that. Why are we — why would we kill millions of people? It wouldn’t be fair. In terms of humanity, it wouldn’t be fair.”
The “inconvenient truth” is that the US could very well have done exactly what Trump talked about had it really wanted to, but its strategists calculated that the humanitarian and reputational costs would be much too great. There are also obvious ethical implications as well since such a policy would have indisputably been genocidal. Nevertheless, considering the fact that there are no credible enforcement mechanisms to uphold international law nor the political will for many countries to “go it alone” in punishing the US in that scenario (let alone when it was at the apex of its unipolar hegemony in the early 2000s), the only factor that stopped the US from doing this was its own self-restraint. Even so, it still carried out war crimes in Afghanistan and elsewhere since that time, but those actions pale in comparison to what it could have done had it really wanted to “win the war”.
Other paths to victory still remained open, though, but the country’s powerful military-industrial complex was so hopelessly corrupt that it was impossible in hindsight for any tangible success to occur. At least $19 billion worth of taxpayer-provided funds were lost to “waste, fraud, and abuse” according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction’s (SIGAR) October 2020 report though many observers suspect that the real sum is much higher. In any case, the point is that endemic systemic corruption within this institution, not to mention that of its Afghan counterparts, hamstrung the American leadership’s practical capabilities to execute their official policy of defeating the Taliban and building a so-called “democratic Afghanistan” in its wake. There was clearly a disconnect between intentions and implementation, which doomed the former to failure.
It’s also debatable whether these two official policies were ever realistic in the first place. The Taliban, for as controversial as their prior leadership over most of the nation used to be to put it mildly, objectively enjoys legitimate grassroots support among broad swaths of the population for various reasons. As surprisingly for some non-regional observers as the following explanations may be, these include its strict socio-political system as inspired by its leadership’s interpretation of Islam and the group’s largely successful rebranding as a “national liberation movement” fighting against foreign occupiers. Although Afghan society has always been divided, the external imposition of a completely foreign socio-political model upon the country’s largely traditional people arguably destabilised Afghanistan more than the indigenous Taliban itself ever did.
That’s not to say that there aren’t any Afghans who embrace the new system that the US and its allies brought to their country and have even in some cases thrived within it, but just that its militant imposition upon a largely traditional people in such a short span of time and upheld by foreign troops with a terrible record of human rights abuses against the locals couldn’t but inspire widespread grassroots resistance even if only for nationalist reasons. Add to it that the US lacked the political will to go all-out in its military drive to defeat the Taliban and that its corrupt military-industrial complex sabotaged its leadership’s stated intention to build a so-called “democratic Afghanistan”, and it’s crystal clear why there was never any way that America was going to win its war in Afghanistan.
Some have speculated, and not without reason, that the US was also clandestinely pursuing ulterior strategic goals through this war related to its desire to destabilise the Central-South-West Asian region surrounding Afghanistan. These concerns are based on the well-known work of the US’ late National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski from 1997 titled “The Grand Chessboard” where this geopolitical mastermind proposed doing everything in America’s power to divide and rule the Eurasian supercontinent, particularly through the externally provoked “Balkanisation” of what many American strategists subsequently described as the so-called “Greater Middle East” (North Africa-West Asia-Central Asia). Official statements from some of the reportedly targeted governments and their countries’ analytical community over the years added credence to these fears.
This speculative scheme spectacularly failed for several reasons, the first of which was Pakistan’s success in being the first nation to defeat proto-ISIS-like territorial-terrorist threats, which it accomplished without any foreign support whatsoever and in the midst of what was then an unprecedentedly intense information war against it. This was followed by the Central Asian Republics more seriously preparing themselves to deal with similar such threats according to a wide array of credible scenarios, which they planned for in close coordination with their historic Russian partner, including through the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (CSTO) mutual defence pact between some of them and Moscow. This proved to be extremely prescient considering what Central Asia would soon face.
The region was at the risk of all-out destabilisation during the tense 2010 Kyrgyzstan unrest which threatened to catalyse a chain reaction of Hybrid Wars. In hindsight, it would have functioned as a proto-”Arab Spring” series of Colour Revolutions that might have replicated the Syrian scenario and perhaps even surpassed it in destruction. Knowing what’s known now about what would shortly thereafter follow in North Africa and West Asia half a year later, one would be forgiven for suspecting that the 2010 Kyrgyzstan unrest and subsequent “Arab Spring” might have at the very least been guided by an unseen American intelligence hand to advance Brzezinski’s envisioned “Balkanisation” of the “Greater Middle East”. Furthermore, regional leader Uzbekistan’s successful political transition in 2016 thankfully went off without a hitch despite prior Hybrid War fears.
The region’s resilience to Hybrid War threats, both those that are naturally occurring as well as speculatively exacerbated if not clandestinely guided by the US, created a new strategic reality which impeded what some were worried might have been America’s ulterior Brzezinski-inspired motives in Afghanistan. ISIS’ entrance to the theatre in 2014 inadvertently led to the game-changing Russian-Pakistani rapprochement that in turn resulted in Islamabad facilitating Moscow’s diplomatic outreaches to the Taliban, which is also Afghanistan’s most capable anti-ISIS fighting force. The subsequent role that Russia played in the Afghan peace process helped create the political conditions for Biden’s announced withdrawal, but unlike what some American strategists feared, the US won’t be leaving a strategic vacuum in its wake.
The incipient Russian-Pakistani geostrategic convergence creates the potential for pioneering a Central Eurasian Corridor cantered on the planned Pakistan-Afghanistan-Uzbekistan (PAKAFUZ) railway, which will unlock a multitude of promising opportunities for the Afghan people upon its completion once their country’s war finally ends. Pakistan’s new multipolar grand strategy that it unveiled during last month’s inaugural Islamabad Security Dialogue is also in harmony with Russia’s Greater Eurasian Partnership (GEP) and China’s Belt & Road Initiative (BRI), thereby enabling promising synergy between them. The emerging multipolar alternative to the US’ discredited plans for Afghanistan not only won more hearts and minds in the country, but also presents a more credible and mutually beneficial future for its compatriots regardless of their ultimate socio-political system.
Taken together, it can be concluded that the US couldn’t win its war in Afghanistan for three primary reasons: its lack of political will to accomplish its objectives in full; the Central-South-West Asian region’s resilience to Afghan-emanating Hybrid War threats; and the emergence of a multipolar alternative to the US’ plans led by Pakistan, Russia, and China. These factors combined in such a way as to make it impossible for the US to accomplish anything of significance in Afghanistan related to its official and speculative goals. The end result is that America will withdraw from the country after losing to the Taliban and failing to transform Afghanistan into a springboard for catalysing transregional Hybrid War scenarios. Afghanistan’s future still remains uncertain, but it’s arguably more promising than it’s ever been in over four decades.