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Why Did the US Fail in Afghanistan?

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U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and President George W. Bush at the NATO summit.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, U.S. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, and President George W. Bush at the NATO summit.

There are jubilant scenes in Kabul for Taliban supporters as they celebrate their victory while the US is wrapping up its evacuation process. As the last US servicemen leave the worn-torn region, Joe Biden and his administration are under severe criticism regarding the collapse of the Afghan setup that was nurtured for 20 years by the US and its allies.

The question remains; why did the US with all its military and economic might fail so badly in Afghanistan? The answer requires an in-depth study of Afghan culture, history, geography and politics. Below I have compiled the reasons and series of events that culminated in an embarrassing withdrawal of US and NATO forces. But before going into details, it is important to give the context of this war.

The US invasion of Afghanistan

The USA invaded Afghanistan in the aftermath of the event of 9/11. Osama Bin Ladin (OBL), the chief of Al-Qaeda, was considered the mastermind of this terrorist act. At that time Taliban governed Afghanistan. US demanded to hand over OBL, but the Taliban refused and asked the US to present evidence of OBL's involvement in the terrorist incident. The US also accused the Taliban of organizing and funding terrorist camps and gave the Taliban an ultimatum to extinguish the terror network and extradite OBL. Taliban denied the claim vehemently and refused to banish the Al-Qaeda chief.

This refusal by the Taliban, and intelligence information regarding the presence of terror camps, were sufficient to convince US President George Bush and his administration to attack Afghanistan and overthrow the Taliban government. This step initiated the longest war in US history which spanned over 20 years and witnessed a succession of four chief executives in the Oval Office. It was probably the costliest war fought by a single nation. It eventually resulted in a Taliban takeover with no clear idea of the future Afghan government.

The factors that resulted in the complete failure of the US in Afghanistan were:

  • Poor planning and execution by US and NATO
  • Vague and unclear objectives
  • The way the government was formed
  • Corruption in the government
  • Failure to integrate and work with former resistance fighters

Poor Planning and Execution by the US and NATO

A great Chinese general rightly said,” A battle is won before it is ever fought”. Americans hate Chinese; that could be the reason they didn’t listen to Sun Tzu. American security forces were going to fight the Taliban in an unfamiliar region with very little knowledge of geography, history, and culture. Afghanistan had no established institutions, constitution, roads, or organized infrastructure of any kind. It was a barren and hilly area with ethnic and tribal divisions, united only by the central government.

The moment US forces reached Kabul, the Taliban joined hands with other banned outfits and started to fight foreign forces. US forces had no choice but to utilize maximum resources to fight these militias. The land-locked mountainous region proved heaven for rebels and insurgents. Suicide attacks, IED blasts, ambushes, guerilla raids, and vandalization of public property were occasionally reported. Security forces were able to take cities and road connections but encountered heavy resistance in villages and small populations. Militia leaders also fled Afghanistan and sought refuge in neighboring countries.

Hasty decisions and lack of understanding provided the Taliban a golden opportunity to recruit more people in the name of fighting foreign forces. US and NATO troops kept on using brute force to eradicate the Taliban and other outfits but took no subtle steps to contain and ultimately decommission and harmonize these fighters into society. The Taliban were quick to defame the US and its allies in Afghanistan, making the region polarized and prone to infighting. As the fighting continued, the whole country became a warzone while the Taliban gained more fighters and escalated the resistance.

Counterproductive drone attacks and killings of ordinary civilians during military operations produced a sense of hatred and fear of foreign forces in the minds of Afghan people.

Soldiers engaged in fighting

Soldiers engaged in fighting

Vague and Unclear Objectives

The US invasion, named the War on Terror, soon became a nation-building task where hundreds of billions of dollars were used to build infrastructure (that was subjected to suicide and IED attacks by militants), and finally, the US began building and training the Afghan army.

There were no clear objectives and timelines. Americans argue that their mission was to dismantle Al-Qaeda but faced similar resistance from the Taliban. US found themselves in a quagmire when NATO member countries showed their concerns about the delayed stay of their troops in Afghanistan. These rifts further deepened as violence was steadily escalating despite a large number of troops, utilizing vast financial resources.

US officials kept giving dates and ultimatums regarding the improvement of the security situation but failed to keep their promises. The nation-building thought to be the game-changer proved a futile exercise. Afghanistan's reconstruction was compared to the rebuilding of Europe after WW2, which was a factually incorrect analogy. Postwar European countries were internally stable and had established political and military institutions, unlike Afghanistan, which was going through an internal conflict with foreign forces holding all the power.

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The Political Formation of Government

After 2001, there was no government in Kabul. Taliban out of power were on the run in mountains and hideouts. The US supported the anti-Taliban factions in Afghanistan to formulate a government. Hamid Karzai was elected as an interim president for two years until 2004.

During this time, the US helped Afghan leadership to formulate a constitution. In 2004, the first-ever elections took place when Hamid Karzai was elected the president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

But the elections of 2004 and 2009 were far from transparent. There were reports of massive fraud, widespread rigging, and interference by US intelligence and state machinery. Warlords, tribal leaders, and influential drug traffickers who delivered political support in return for a share of power promoted lawlessness. The majority of polling stations had no formal security. These polling stations became an easy target for the militants.

Large-scale election fraud, suicide attacks on polling stations, and the rise of warlords and criminals to high state offices presented a gruesome image of democracy in the general public. Democracy came to be regarded not as a panacea a universal evil as it created an ethnic and religious divide among Afghans.

The Afghan government was entirely dependent on aid from the US and multilateral donors. Furthermore, the Afghan government was inefficient and corrupt. Corruption scandals, massive bribery in government offices, a deteriorating security situation, and unwanted interference by the US Army in political decision making made the political government unpopular and portrayed the president as a puppet in the hands of foreigners rather than a national entity.

The former rulers, the Taliban, rejected the democratic government. Calling democracy an alien system, they vowed to increase attacks on the US Army and Afghan political leadership. Taliban, popular among conservatives, didn't participate in the election procedure. This step created a political vacuum where a large portion of society could not participate in the political system. As a result, democracy could not find its roots in the country.

An Afghan policeman with campaign photos of Hamid Karzai. Allauddin Khan/AP Images

An Afghan policeman with campaign photos of Hamid Karzai. Allauddin Khan/AP Images

Corruption and Mismanagement by the Afghan Government

The level of corruption in government and military was unbearable. As the democratic government faced excruciating criticism due to the worsening security situation, high levels of jobbery and inefficiency added insult to the injury of ordinary civilians. Native Afghans complained about bribes, long delays, and incompetency of government officials.

Corruption also plagued security forces and degraded their morale and integrity. The reported strength of army personnel was roughly 300,000. But critics pointed out that these figures were highly inflated. The army had a large number of ghost soldiers and officers. Other government departments also faced a similar situation. Bribes, long waiting lines, and red tapes were routine matters, with very few people getting timely service.

The irresponsible and stubborn attitude of political leadership was also a major cause of the government collapse. President Ashraf Ghani waited for the Taliban to grow stronger and finally fled the country leaving all his people in absolute hopelessness. Inefficiency and mismanagement were primal causes of the collapse of Afghan government.

Taliban Strongholds and Ideology in Afghanistan

The mujahideen were created by the US and Pakistan in the 1980s to fight the Soviet Union. These fighters were brainwashed to resist Soviet invasion by calling it a foreign occupation. So, when the US attacked the Taliban, these mujahideen-turned-Taliban considered the US attack an invasion. Instead of helping their previous masters, they started a crusade against the US forces.

I have explained this mismanagement in the first point. Before the deployment of troops, a comprehensive plan must have been formulated to integrate these people into society. Instead, US and Afghan security forces made these people their enemies.

These fighters became resistance militia and continued to fight the US and political government. US and NATO made a mistake by toppling the Taliban government. No army in the world can fight insurgency in a foreign territory.

The US Army, though very capable, could not battle with the Taliban in an unfamiliar landscape. The US Army repeated the mistake of the USSR and tried to end the war by use of force instead of employing political means.

President Biden responding to Journalist on Withdrawal of Forces

President Biden responding to Journalist on Withdrawal of Forces

Joe Biden rightly stated that there was no right time to withdraw forces, and I agree with him. Trillions of dollars were wasted; hundreds of thousands have lost their lives. Everybody played their part in screwing Afghanistan. The US, Afghan governments, the Taliban, and neighboring countries used Afghan territory to achieve their desired objectives. The world powers and internal and external stakeholders must now refrain from using Afghanistan as a battleground to settle their scores. All kinds of foreign interventions must be curbed immediately.

Global powers must pressurize the Taliban to form an inclusive government and provide due rights to all members of society. Twenty years of the military campaign has yielded no results. Afghans have already lost enough and are in dire need of peace and harmony. The world needs to understand that Afghans cannot bear another war. Only political settlements and the formation of an inclusive government can make this war-ravaged country a better place.


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© 2021 Abdullah Iqbal

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