OToday is one year since the Taliban succeeded in evicting the U.S.-backed Afghan government. They walked unopposed into Kabul with U.S. troops on their way out, and Afghan soldiers struggling to stop a quick Taliban advance. President Ashraf Ghani went into exile the same day, and tens of thousands of Afghans who didn’t have the luxury of their own personal aircraft would rush toward Kabul international airport in a desperate attempt to flee.
Unsurprisingly, the anniversary of the Taliban’s first year in power has generated a fair share of reflection. Multiple inter-agency reviews are being conducted by the U.S. government to determine what went wrong. The comments of former U.S. war commanders are worth special scrutiny as some believe that the only alternative is to remain.
Ret. Ret. The same view was held by Gen. Kenneth McKenzie who led U.S. forces to the Middle East in the Taliban takeover. Asked what his recommendation to the President was in those tension-filled weeks, McKenzie said he advised approximately 2,500 U.S. troops should stay in Afghanistan “indefinitely” to stave off a collapse.
Neither of these recommendations were sound policy then—or today. No matter if it was General William Westmoreland or Gen. David Petraeus from Iraq, the commanders who are charged with winning a war believe they can rescue the situation if given more resources. However, policymakers have to look at the larger picture and weigh the benefits and costs of any proposed actions before deciding if they are in the national security interests.
Before the Taliban took Kabul, about three quarters (75%) of the budget for the Afghan state was funded by foreign donors. Everything, including ammunition and weapons as well as air support and logistics, was provided by the U.S. to Afghanistan’s army. Afghanistan veteran Elliot Ackerman referred to it as a “plywood army,” a force with massive systemic problems the U.S. simply couldn’t resolve. Although many Afghan troops have shown courage and sacrifice for their country’s cause, they were often being removed from the battlefield. Some 69,000 Afghan security forces died in the 20-year conflict, according to estimates by Brown University’s Cost of War project, and thousands more were wounded. This does not account for the Afghan army’s last day of struggle against desertions.
Afghan troops on the frontlines eventually concluded that risking their lives on behalf of a corrupt, ineffectual and detached political elite in Kabul didn’t make sense. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, given that the government was even failing to pay them. It’s difficult to envision how delaying the U.S. withdrawal further would have solved any of these problems—even if it has come with steep costs, including the crushing of women’s rights and a worsening humanitarian crisis.
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If critics were to have their way, August 2021 would have seen the withdrawal pushed back to an indeterminate date. But “undetermined” likely meant “forever” because the objectives of building a modern Afghan state or pressuring the Taliban to join the Afghan political system were unachievable. This is because U.S. policymakers, military personnel, and international aid workers have failed to achieve both these goals.
Although the Taliban might have agreed to release prisoners with the Afghan government in exchange for their freedom, they still considered the U.S.-supported Afghan system as a illegitimate invention at the hands foreigners. More firepower would not have convinced the insurgents to join a system they spent two decades seeking to overthrow—especially when the Taliban had the luxury of a safe haven in next-door Pakistan.
Many commentators focused their attention on U.S. officials’ poor execution of two-week-long evacuations. U.S. forces, under the command of President Biden, failed to anticipate the speed of the Taliban’s takeover, as did the U.S. intelligence community. These were embarrassing mistakes covered round-the-clock on news bulletins, and it took a toll on the administration’s claims of experience and competency.
At the same time, the chaotic exit also underscored that the war was a hopeless exercise—one the U.S. spent more than $2 trillion on, including $146 billion in reconstruction costs. Not to mention the human toll of the conflict—mostly Afghan but thousands of American troops and contractors as well.
A plurality of Americans continue to support Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan. Although it was difficult to reach this decision, the president does not want to be associated with losing wars. Yet Americans—and Biden—saw what commanders did not: throwing more resources into Afghanistan was a losing proposition.
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