The times since Kabul fell into the arms of the Taliban have seen a gentle stream of postmortems on america’ involvement in Afghanistan. A few of these critiques cite flawed coverage and poor implementation. Others assert that U.S. involvement within the nation was doomed from the beginning, noting Afghanistan’s status as “the graveyard of empires.” Nonetheless others—together with U.S. President Joe Biden—go additional, arguing that each one postconflict stabilization and reconstruction efforts, also referred to as nation constructing, result in quagmires that U.S. forces ought to comprehensively keep away from. The reality is that america’ failure in Afghanistan was not preordained, however Washington severely hobbled its personal stabilization efforts early on.
Traditionally, america has launched navy interventions with the intention of placing a cease to one thing, akin to navy aggression, genocide, nuclear proliferation—and, within the case of Afghanistan in 2001, ongoing terrorist operations. When the target is achieved, as occurred in Afghanistan as soon as the instant menace from al Qaeda was eradicated, the intervening pressure reaches a crossroads. In search of to preempt any repeat episodes, it should select between occupying completely, reinvading periodically, or committing to assist construct a minimally competent successor regime, ideally permitting it to go away behind a society at peace with itself and its neighbors. The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, unwilling to control Afghanistan and confronted with the specter of an al Qaeda resurgence, selected the third possibility—however failed to know the total dimensions of the problem it was taking up.
Essentially the most strident critics of postconflict stabilization and reconstruction missions are likely to give attention to previous failures, akin to Vietnam and Iraq, with out mentioning previous success tales, together with Germany, Japan, South Korea—and, extra just lately, Bosnia and Kosovo, the place U.S.-led NATO interventions efficiently ended the primary armed conflicts in Europe since 1945. An vital lesson emerges from contemplating the success of these comparatively current U.S. interventions alongside the failure in Afghanistan: essentially the most essential decision-making and planning happen within the early levels—and if they’re flawed, it’ll severely diminish the possibilities of success, regardless of the time and assets Washington is in the end prepared to spend. The U.S. mission in Afghanistan was not doomed from the beginning—however the seeds of its eventual failure had been planted as early as 2002.
Within the aftermath of 9/11, intervention in Afghanistan took on huge significance for the Bush administration, which was decided to stop one other catastrophic assault on American soil. However the administration had no need to garrison Afghanistan indefinitely, so it selected to assist construct a successor regime to the Taliban that might presumably govern the nation by itself at some point—and make sure that it didn’t once more change into a protected haven for terrorists. The invasion of Afghanistan and the ousting of the Taliban went surprisingly easily, producing a fast, low-cost victory. Within the flush of this preliminary success, the Bush administration was led to consider that the follow-up nation-building mission could possibly be equally simple.
The Bush administration’s first mistake was a failure to completely admire the geographic obstacles in the way in which of an Afghan reconstruction effort. Afghanistan is on the opposite aspect of the world from america, and along with being landlocked and inaccessible, it’s surrounded by a number of highly effective and predatory neighbors, together with Iran, Pakistan, and close by Russia. The one means america may get most of its forces and their provides into or out of Afghanistan was by way of or over Pakistan—a rustic that didn’t share American aims there and actively sought to subvert them.
The seeds of america’ eventual failure in Afghanistan had been planted as early as 2002.
Furthermore, the inhabitants of Afghanistan was significantly bigger than that of another nation concerned in a submit–World Battle II U.S. intervention: in 2001, Afghanistan had nearly twice as many individuals as wartime South Vietnam. Sometimes, the troop-to-population ratio is a crucial determinant of the success of a stabilization operation. Two years earlier than the invasion of Afghanistan, in 1999, america and its NATO allies had deployed 50,000 troops to stabilize Kosovo, a rustic of 1.9 million. Afghanistan’s inhabitants in 2001 was 21.6 million—but by the top of 2002, there have been solely round 8,000 U.S. troops in a rustic that was greater than ten occasions Kosovo’s measurement and had no military or police pressure of its personal. There merely weren’t sufficient U.S. boots on the bottom to safe the nation america had captured.
One cause for the comparatively small deployment was that the Bush administration didn’t intend for U.S. forces to imagine peacekeeping or public safety obligations—slightly, they centered solely on monitoring down residual al Qaeda parts, on the expense of the foundational safety required to construct a functioning state. The Bush administration additionally uncared for to commit the mandatory monetary assets to the Afghan stabilization effort. In Bosnia, america and different donors had supplied financial help amounting to $1,600 per inhabitant per 12 months for the primary a number of years after that battle. The comparable determine in Afghanistan amounted to $50 per particular person—a paltry sum.
The Bush administration made different essential errors that restricted the opportunity of a profitable stabilization. There have been no substantial early efforts to construct a nationwide Afghan military or police pressure, which left safety within the arms of predatory native warlords and made confronting returning Taliban fighters tougher. There was no single level of management for the worldwide reconstruction effort, which consequently lacked coherence. And maybe most vital, it took U.S. officers a number of years to understand that though Pakistan had withdrawn its help for the Taliban authorities, it hadn’t deserted the Taliban as a corporation. After they had been routed from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s management and the group’s remaining members got sanctuary in Pakistan, the place they recuperated, retrained, resupplied, and later restarted an insurgency in Afghanistan.
Given these miscalculations, the prospects for achievement in Afghanistan had diminished considerably by early 2003. After which, in fact, the Bush administration invaded Iraq, a rustic as massive as Afghanistan, with much more inner conflicts and with much more hostile neighbors, and the place Bush and his officers equally underestimated the dimensions of the postconflict stabilization and reconstruction effort they’d be taking up. Violent resistance to the U.S. invasion materialized a lot quicker in Iraq, and U.S. forces had been underneath extreme strain there by the point the Taliban reemerged as a severe menace in Afghanistan. This remained the case all through Bush’s time in workplace, hamstringing america’ skill to stabilize Afghanistan and permitting the Taliban to regain footholds there.
Failure to restrict the resurgence of the Taliban and to construct institutional capability in Afghanistan was on no account inevitable. Had america devoted the assets required for a stabilization and reconstruction effort in a rustic of Afghanistan’s measurement and placement, it could have stood a greater probability of leaving the nation gracefully, with a functioning state in place. However ultimately, Washington’s early unforced errors created a scenario during which it confronted a alternative not between successful or shedding however between shedding or not shedding. Washington may cling on at a modest value as a way to hold the Taliban at bay, retain a reliable counterterrorism accomplice within the Afghan authorities, and safeguard the political and social advances that many Afghans loved, or it may depart and acknowledge its failure to assist construct a long-lasting state—and a long-lasting future for the Afghan folks. Three presidents successively wrestled with the dilemma that Bush left behind. Barack Obama and Donald Trump gestured towards ending the battle however in the end determined to not lose on their watch. Biden lastly reduce the twine and selected to lose.