The United States Lost the War in Afghanistan
President Biden gave a speech announcing the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. Neither Biden nor the media have portrayed this as defeat, but it is.
What does it mean to “lose”?
If what you mean by lose is to sign conditions of one’s surrender, then the US has not lost per your definition. If you are content with that, then the war was a tie since neither side surrendered. I do not find this interpretation convincing. By this measure of “lose”, the Vietnam war was also a tie despite the United States evacuating its personnel and precipitating the Fall of Saigon. That the US did not officially offer surrender does not fool anyone. The US entered with the sole aim of helping the Saigon government establish democratic control of the country and left once it realized it was unable to accomplish this marking the war as a loss.
One could instead judge winners and losers by looking at what violence was meted out on whom. Osama bin Laden, damn his soul, is dead. All US presidents who served since 2001 remain alive. A bunch of bombs have dropped on Afghans. Violence imposed on Americans by the Taliban and Al-Qaeda have mostly been on US soldiers we ourselves placed in harm’s way. By this interpretation, of course the US won the war.
I do not find this interpretation convincing. The US accomplished this quite early on. They could have killed a few thousand people in the first few dozen or hundred strikes, declared victory, and left. Nevertheless, she persisted. We stayed another twenty years. Why? Because all of us knew we had not yet won.
We had specific aims. Without accomplishing them, we could not leave. Though I am not privy to any non-public information, I think these aims are pretty easily deducible. They included.
- Obliterating Al-Qaeda.
- Obliterating the Taliban.
- Making Afghanistan a functioning liberal-ish democracy that would not even want to attack the United States even if it could.
I am sure you can quibble with these, but if you interviewed me on November 11, 2001, I would have definitely come up with the first two items. The third became apparent from US actions in later years both in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Was Al-Qaeda obliterated?
The senior leadership of Al-Qaida (QDe.004) remains present in Afghanistan, as well as hundreds of armed operatives, Al-Qaida in the Indian Subcontinent, and groups of foreign terrorist fighters aligned with the Taliban. [snip]
The Taliban regularly consulted with Al-Qaida during negotiations with the United States and offered guarantees that it would honor their historical ties. Al-Qaida has reacted positively to the agreement, with statements from its acolytes celebrating it as a victory for the Taliban’s cause and thus for global militancy.
Another report submitted to the UN Security Council notes that Al Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan were
“between 400 and 600 and that the leadership maintains close contact with the Haqqani Network.”
Even if it were the case that Al-Qaeda had been obliterated, I do not think anyone in 2001 would have been content that the new set of fighters considered themselves ISIL or ISIS. The correct number of extremist fighters seeking to use violence to kill Americans is zero. That there are multiple organizations of such people seeking to do this in Afghanistan to this day means we failed in this aim.
Was the Taliban obliterated?
No. The Taliban is doing just fine. President Donald Trump invited them to Camp David for peace talks, which were scuttled when the Taliban killed 12 people including a US service member. Trump tweeted the following. (Unthreaded since his Twitter privileges were eventually revoked):
Unbeknownst to almost everyone, the major Taliban leaders and, separately, the President of Afghanistan, were going to secretly meet with me at Camp David on Sunday. They were coming to the United States tonight. Unfortunately, in order to build false leverage, they admitted to an attack in Kabul that killed one of our great great soldiers, and 11 other people. I immediately cancelled the meeting and called off peace negotiations…What kind of people would kill so many in order to seemingly strengthen their bargaining position? They didn’t, they only made it worse! If they cannot agree to a ceasefire during these very important peace talks…and would even kill 12 innocent people, then they probably don’t have the power to negotiate a meaningful agreement anyway. How many more decades are they willing to fight?
I think President Trump’s exasperation at the end there is sincere, but the Soviet-Afghan war started in 1979. They are willing to fight indefinitely. Their patience exceeded ours.
Let’s follow the sequence more explicitly.
- The Taliban plotted the 9/11 attacks.
- After a lengthy war wherein the United States was not able to eliminate the Taliban, they invited them to Camp David.
- Uninterested in what the US might offer, the Taliban continued its attacks killing another American.
- The Trump administration announced they would withdraw all their troops anyway even without an agreement.
- The Biden administration in agreement with the prior administration asserted that they will withdraw all troops.
This is not a defeated Taliban. It is one that remains in the country when its primary antagonist leaves despite having extracted no concessions whatsoever.
Is Afghanistan a functioning democracy?
No, Afghanistan is not a democracy. It’s not even a country.
Countries have singular governments that assert a monopoly on violence acknowledged within its own claimed borders. The organization that we currently call the Afghan government does not do this. Their failure to do so is why the war has been ongoing. They have admitted that they are highly dependent on the US for security. Their forces do not have freedom to travel. They will be left to compete with the Taliban and various other groups for control of the area that we mistakenly paint a single color on the political map.
The earlier cited UN’s Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team reported about Afghanistan:
Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant-Khorasan (ISIL-K) (QDe.161) suffered severe setbacks during the reporting period, being nearly eradicated from its main Afghan base in Nangarhar Province in November 2019 and then incurring further losses in its new refuge in neighboring Kunar in early 2020. Taliban forces played a significant part in inflicting those defeats, as did the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces and their international allies.
Count the number of groups cited in the second report I linked above:
The report also claimed that 6,000 to 6,500 terrorists of Pakistani origin are still operating in Afghanistan and most of them are affiliated with Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP).
It said the TTP fighters in Afghanistan are led by Amir Noor Wali Mehsud, supported by his deputy Qari Amjad and TTP spokesperson Mohammad Khorasani.
Another outlawed group, the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement (ETIM), is reported to be active in the provinces of Badakhshan, Kunduz and Takhar, according to the report.
Regarding the Islamic State (IS) terror group, the report said that it has suffered further severe reverses in its former Afghan strongholds of Nangarhar and Kunar provinces, but it was too soon to discount it as a threat, reports TOLO News.
Although in territorial retreat, IS remains capable of carrying out high-profile attacks in various parts of the country, including Kabul, it added.
Meanwhile, Al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) operates under the Taliban umbrella from Nimruz, Helmand and Kandahar provinces, the report said, adding that the group reportedly has between 150 and 200 members from Bangladesh, India, Myanmar and Pakistan.
“The Afghan government” is just one of many players Afghanistan, which wasn’t a nation state in 2001 either. It did not have a president or dictator to topple, just a variety of groups exerting power over land and people. The US is merely another party added to the mix, and the Taliban fights us only when it isn’t busy fighting other competing groups.
The United States has not established a form of government that might dissuade future terrorist attacks. The government it did establish never took complete control of the country despite a number of military successes along the way. This aim of the war in Afghanistan remains unfulfilled because Afghanistan itself remains a failed state. Kabul might fall when the US leaves as Saigon once did.
Bonus: No more terror attacks on US soil?
Some of you might object that the main goal of the war was to eliminate terror. This is understandable. We branded it the War on Terror!
I do not accept this as one of the aims of the Afghan War. The main action we took to prevent terror attacks was fully implemented before the fourth plane crashed. It was for people to know not to let terrorists into the cockpit. The prior belief was that terrorists in the cockpit would fly you to vacation in Cuba and the United States government would negotiate your release. That morning, occupants of the fourth hijacked flight realized that this was not to be their fate and they instead stormed the cockpit. This sealed their own deaths, but saved others in whatever other high-profile buildings might have been targeted.
For twenty years, the US has bombed various countries including Afghanistan. Hopefully, many of these bombs have fallen on would-be terrorists. We know from on-the-ground reporting, however, that bombs have many have not. The people left behind are understandably angry at America.
It would not be surprising if the result of bombing a country for twenty years is to increase the net number of individuals willing to commit acts of terror against us. There have been many lost relatives and lost property and lost limbs. If the aim of the Afghan War was to reduce the number of would-be terrorists, it was a poorly conceived one, and at any rate we have empirical proof that it was unsuccessful given that there are ongoing attacks on Americans in Afghanistan. Such attacks are the reason we are leaving after all.
Does this mean we should stay to try to “win”?
I supported the war in Afghanistan. I thought the Iraq War was a mistake that distracted the United States. The US underestimated how difficult it would be to secure Afghanistan’s future. It continues to treat Pakistan as a necessary ally even though they literally harbored Osama Bin Laden next to a military base, an inconvenient fact that everyone seems to have memory-holed.
This isn’t to say there are better options for what to do or that they are known to me. I would love to have a solution to present that says, “here’s how to win,” but I don’t think the US military has failed for a lack of trying or a lack of intelligence applied to solving the problem. Nevertheless, we have failed. Thus ends the Afghan-US War.