Brits Annihilated

On January 13, 1842, a lone rider approached the British garrison outside Jalalabad. As he grew nearer it became apparent that both rider and horse were seriously wounded. Several days later, it became clear that the wounded rider was the only person of the 17,000 member British contingent that had been stationed in Kabul to escape as the Brits attempted to retreat.
Britain’s decision to send a military force into Afghanistan was based on their belief that Russia might attempt to occupy that country and use it as a base to threaten British interests in India. But it was not Russia that subjected the British Empire to what many rank among the worst military disasters in British history. It was a rag tag group of militias, capable of remarkable ferocity when foreigners lingered too long in their territory.

The Soviet’s “Bleeding Wound”

A Russian invasion of Afghanistan did not come for another 137 years. On Christmas Eve, 1979 Soviets moved more than three Divisions across the Amu River on Afghanistan’s northern border. As it turned out, the Soviets did not invade in order to threaten India (or Pakistan) as the British had feared in the 19th Century and many contemporary Western analysts believed to be their motive at the time. They were simply trying to salvage what they could from a failed entanglement in internal Afghan politics.

The head of the Afghan Communist party seized control of the nation’s government, in the spring of 1978, assassinating the nation’s president and proclaiming himself the nation’s new leader. But he was in turn assassinated by members of his own party only 15 months later. Soviet troops were sent to ensure that the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan could retain control despite the death of their leader. The Soviets believed that they would withdraw in six to twelve months.

It didn’t go well. The more effort the Red Army exerted to shore up the failing government in Kabul the more resentment intensified toward that government by the various tribal groups throughout the country. The more the Soviets attempted to strengthen security in the cities, the more violent the attacks became against Soviet troops in the countryside where more than three quarters of the population lived.

Over the course of the next six years the Soviets continually escalated their commitment. The Soviet military personnel in country increased from 80,000 to 120,000 and spending on overall military and economic assistance increased by more than 50%. This culminated in a major push in 1985 and 1986 to pacify the Afghan countryside. Despite that push, security for Soviet forces and the government they were trying to protect did not improve. By the late 1980s, the Soviets had suffered more than 50,000 battle related casualties including 15,000 soldiers killed in combat. As early as 1986 Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev was referring to the Soviet Afghan operation “a bleeding wound.” In 1988, he ordered a total withdrawal which was not accomplished until February 1989. In order to secure the safety of the retreating Russian soldiers, the Soviets made payments to the very militia chieftains they had been fighting for the previous decade in return for assurances that they would be allowed to leave in peace.

Where Empires Die

It is easy to understand why Afghanistan has earned the reputation as the “Graveyard of Empires.” The Diplomat magazine explained in 2017, “Afghanistan is a notoriously difficult country to govern. Empire after empire, nation after nation have failed to pacify what is today the modern territory of Afghanistan.”

The magazine gave three major reasons why so many conquering armies and in fact, the Afghan people themselves, have failed to secure the nation’s boundaries and establish stable and enduring governance:

  1. The country sits at the rugged crossroads that connect Persia, India, and Central Asia. “It has been invaded many times and is settled by a plethora of tribes, many mutually hostile to each other and outsiders.”

    2. “Because of the frequency of invasion and the prevalence of tribalism in the area… almost every village or house was built like a fortress.”

    3. “the physical terrain of Afghanistan makes conquest and rule extremely difficult, exacerbating its tribal tendencies. Afghanistan is dominated by some of the highest and more jagged mountains in the world.”

Territorially, Afghanistan is large even discounting its mountainous terrain. It is more than 750 miles long and 500 miles wide–in square miles about the size of Texas. But as The Diplomat noted, its topography make travel, communications, political cohesion, and military operations exponentially more difficult than the flat surface of a paper map would lead you to expect. Traveling from the southwest border town of Zaranj to the town of Baharak in northeastern Afghanistan is about a thousand-mile trip which according to Google Maps requires 26 hours. Arriving in Baharak, however, you would still be more than 80 miles as the crow flies from the northeastern border with no hard surface road to get you there.

Finally, Afghanistan’s population is not only diverse but large and growing rapidly. It has nearly as many people as Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Croatia and the other 6 Balkan countries combined. They are divided not only by ethnicity but language.. About three quarters can speak some version of Farsi and about half speak Pashto. Still significant numbers of Afghans cannot communicate with one another in any language.
So, how did the United States get tangled up in such a complex and troubled region so far from its nearest border?

U.S. Helps Oust the Taliban

The simple answer is 9/11. Throughout the 1990s, the Taliban Government of Afghanistan provided safe harbor to Osama Ben Laden and his terrorist army. Al Qaeda used the Afghanistan as a haven for recruitment, training, military planning and fundraising.
Following the attack on 9/11, I was actively engaged in developing the funding package needed by the U.S. government to respond to that attack. Afghanistan, the overthrow of the Taliban and the destruction of Al Qaeda were a central component of that package and I was briefed several times a week on our efforts toward those objectives. Events moved quickly. Within only a month we had built a solid partnership with a coalition of Afghan militias calling themselves the Northern Alliance. In another month, the Northern Alliance had routed Taliban fighters in the Northern City of Mazar e Sharif and within week after that one battle, Taliban rule was crumbling across the country.

Defining U.S. Goals in Afghanistan

The big question once U.S. backed forces gained control of the country, was what should they do with it? The coalition that expelled the Taliban was composed of tribal groups representing a variety of ethnicities and regions. They had little in common with one another other than their general dislike of a strong centralized government in Kabul and their disdain for Taliban rulers in particular. Inside the U.S. there was also no consensus as to what kind of effort would be appropriate for assisting the new government.
Clearly, denying terrorist organizations safe harbor was a primary concern but there were also those who had grander visions. Some argued that Afghanistan’s backwardness was itself an innate threat to other nations. Others argued that the rise of the Taliban was directly linked to the U.S. failure fifteen years earlier to invest in building leadership capabilities among the Mujahedeen fighters who we had supported during the Soviet occupation. There was also a humanitarian argument. Afghanistan was (and continues to be) one of the poorest countries on earth. Data published recently by the World Population Review indicates that 55% of Afghanis are still living in poverty–placing it among the World’s 15 poorest countries. U.S. Census data ranks the country as second in the world in infant mortality. Nearly 30 percent of the country is under nourished, and 50 percent of drinking water is seriously contaminated.

In addition, very strong concerns were raised about the status and treatment of women and young girls. It was felt by many in the U.S. that a major part of our effort in Afghanistan’s should directed at ending practices such as childhood marriage and that we should make increased educational and economic opportunity of women a top priority for the new government.

Ultimately, achieving all of these goals or even any of them was dependent on building a stable and effective government–one that had the support of the Afghan people and was capable of protecting them from both internal and external threats including the potential resurgence of the Taliban. But did Afghan society have the makings for such a government? Would the Afghan people support such policies we were proposing even if such a government could be created? Did the U.S. government have the technical capability to help such a socially complex, educationally challenged and geographically difficult region build such government?

Like a lot of people, I wanted to believe it was possible. At times, I even convinced my self that it might be.

Implementation (Devils and Details)

But from the very beginning there were ominous signs that things would not go as we had hoped. Before the Afghan Reconstruction Initiative was more than a few years old I met an old acquaintance, a retired diplomat who had recently been sent with a group of other former diplomats to examine U.S. assistance efforts in Afghanistan. The trip had turned my friend into a pessimist.

One example that he used to illustrate the difficulties he had observed was a police training program. Afghan cities are often hopelessly clogged with traffic. This is largely due to the near total anarchy practiced in the parking of trucks and automobiles. The obvious answer was to establish clear parking rules and enforce them with trained police issuing citations to violators—the same practice followed in virtually every country with the developed world. But there was a serious snag to this approach in Afghanistan. A majority of the participants in the training program were illiterate (as was true of about 2/3s of the country at the time) so before any training could occur for writing parking tickets, a long-term education effort was required simply to help these adults learn to write.

Contracts were awarded for numerous projects to improve Afghanistan’s infrastructure such as improving its power grid, highway system and telecommunications. But much (in fact most) of that work had to be conducted in rural areas that were never fully under governmental control. The contractors couldn’t work unless the security conditions were resolved and the State Department did not want to suspend the work until that happened. As a result, highly paid staff on numerous multibillion dollar contracts sat in hotels drawing large salaries while waiting for the “all clear” signal permitting them to go to work.

Perhaps the best possible effort by the United States and the international community would have fallen far short of attaining most or any of the lofty goals that had been set. In retrospect, I think that is probably true. But what ensued was far from the best possible effort.

Failing on Fundamental Objective: Afghan Ownership!

As the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction pointed out in a recent report, the reconstruction effort was almost always focused on producing short term results for long term problems. According to the IG, “These choices increased corruption and reduced the effectiveness of programs.”

They also forced the U.S. to rely on technologies that required western contractors, and excluded Afghan officials from policy decisions and Afghan laborers from performing the work necessary for the construction of highways, power grids and communication systems. In the end, we focused little effort on building the capacity to govern, manage or maintain those systems. This not only meant that much of what we created was not sustainable, but that Afghans felt little ownership of what was being done in their name and their country’s future. It was somewhat akin to the awkward situation that exists when a family member spends far more on a holiday gift than they can afford only to find the recipient has little or no interest it.

Waste, Fraud and Corruption

Equally troubling was the continuing flow of allegations of widespread fraud both within the Afghan government and in the U.S. dispersal of those funds. In 2019, The Washington Post, published a lengthy series of articles documenting many or the allegations that had been circulating for more than a decade and painting a picture of our efforts in Afghanistan far more dismal than even many of the harsher critics had feared. The Post concluded:

Dark money sloshed all around. Afghanistan’s largest bank liquefied into a cesspool of fraud. Travelers lugged suitcases loaded with $1 million, or more, on flights leaving Kabul… As President Barack Obama escalated the war and Congress approved billions of additional dollars in support, the commander in chief and lawmakers promised to crack down on corruption and hold crooked Afghans accountable. In reality, U.S. officials backed off, looked away and let the thievery become more entrenched than ever.

To purchase loyalty and information, the CIA gave cash to warlords, governors, parliamentarians, even religious leaders, according to the interviews. The U.S. military and other agencies also abetted corruption by doling out payments or contracts to unsavory Afghan power brokers in a misguided quest for stability.

The Post interviewed a forensic accountant who served on a military taskforce examining $106 billion worth of Defense Department contracts directed at the Afghan effort. He concluded that more than 40 percent of the money ended up in the pockets of insurgents, criminal syndicates, or corrupt Afghan officials.

Corruption not only resulted in money intended to improve the lives of ordinary Afghanis being wasted but it spawned a generation of officials so focused on pocketing the massive trove of cash flowing out of Washington that they largely ignored the core responsibilities to the public they were responsible for serving. This past February, the New York Times reported:

Afghan security forces are also contending with portions of a populace that have more faith in the Taliban than in the government. In capturing new territory, the Taliban installed their own administrative services, explained Lal Mohammad, 23, a wheat and grape farmer who now lives behind the Taliban’s front line in Panjwai.

Insurgent fighters have smashed smartphones and banned music, imposed a curfew, dug defensive tunnels between people’s homes and used empty rooms in them as fighting positions. Roadside bombs are everywhere, he said. But land disputes and petty crime are well managed, compared to the Afghan government’s corrupt bureaucracy, said Mr. Mohammad.

“People like it,” Mr. Mohammad said, adding that he just wants someone to take over Kandahar so people can get back to their lives.

Afghan Government Control Declines Despite Trump Troop Buildup

President Trump repeatedly expressed deep skepticism about American efforts in Afghanistan both before he sought the Presidency and after moving to the Oval Office. In 2013 for instance, he tweeted: “We should leave Afghanistan immediately. No more wasted lives.”

Six months after becoming President, he grilled his top military and security officials on Afghan policy according to a report by The New York Times. “We’re losing,” Trump declared, He complained according to The Times that the Pentagon plan was “vague, open ended, with no definition of victory.”

But Trump did not stand his ground. The near-term political consequences of presiding over a withdrawal ultimately outweighed his deep-seated mistrust of American efforts in that country. A month after the meeting, Trump ordered an additional 4000 U.S. troops be deployed to Afghanistan on top of the 8,400 already in country.

But official estimates of Taliban control over various provinces the country indicate that Trump’s sense of a deteriorating military situation were very much on target. They also show that the nearly 50% increase troop strength that approved following the June meeting did nothing to reverse the deterioration.

Among the various reports made by the the Special IG were quarterly estimates of the percentage of the Afghan people living in areas completely controlled by the government, as to those only living in areas influenced by the government and area under control on influence of the Taliban.

The report for the period in which President Trump took office showed that the Afghan Government controlled 97 of the nation’s 407 districts containing slightly less than 24 percent of the nation’s population. Twenty-One months later the government controlled only 74 districts and the percentage of the population living in districts controlled by the government dropped by one quarter, from 24% to 18%.

At the same time that the IG reported the steep decline in the government’s territorial control, the U.S. Afghan Military Command in Kabul announced that it would no longer provide the data upon which the I.G. reports were based. John F. Sopko, the Inspector General, told The Times, “It’s like turning off the scoreboard at a football game and saying scoring a touchdown or field goal isn’t important.”

All indications are that the Afghan Government’s grip on the country continued to erode following the data shutdown—including the period prior to the Trump Administration’s “Doha Negotiations” with the Taliban (completed in February 2020) in which the Trump Administration agreed to cut U.S. Troops in Afghanistan from nearly 13,000 to only 2,500 and the period following those concessions.

Public Discourse is Neither Balanced nor Fact Based

It has been startling to me how little of this history has found its way into most of the reporting I have seen on Afghanistan in recent weeks. It seems that a large majority of those offering assessments of the current situation are the very individuals responsible for the failed policies that have left us in the current terrible predicament.

It is not surprising that people who played a large role in formulating these policies and dispersing the $2 trillion we spent on them would now argue that our current predicament is not their fault but rather the current President’s lack of “strategic patience.” What is surprising is that they should be given the so many opportunities to express them.

Another group that seem to be in front of the microphones a lot these days are not long-term supporters of our Afghan policies. Rather, they are the very same individuals who over the last 4 or 5 years had nothing bad to say about withdrawal as long as it was being proposed by the previous President. Now that this President is following through with the policies that they once supported, it is suddenly characterized as not just a bad decision but a treasonous attack on our troops, allies and national honor.

The Biden withdrawal, they seem to infer, is the reason for the Taliban victory. The reality that the government which we created and nurtured for nearly twenty years had been steadily losing ground for most of the past decade is a fact that network and print media interviewers have allowed this group to ignore. If the first concrete effort to place the destiny of their country in the hands of those nominally responsible for running results in their almost instantly disappearing in a puff of smoke, what short of full scale occupation would had led to a different result?

Neither of these two groups of commentators, nor the news coverage generally are giving the country what it desperately needs—a full and fair review of why this $2 trillion effort which cost the lives of 2,448 U.S. soldiers, 3,846 individuals employed by U.S. contractors and 444 aid workers; failed and failed so miserably. I find it hard to believe that honest people in either party would want to see it repeated and I also think few people really want us to step back on the world stage and allow the future of the planet left in the hands of terrorist organizations, the Chinese Politburo, or the cronies of Vladimir Putin.

So here we are, the same place we were in the Fall of 2001 when the CIA was cobbling together the Northern Alliance. We are stuck in a dangerous world, and we need to do a much better job of understanding how to use our wealth and our military might to reduce the danger. Abstention is really no more of an option today than it was after Viet Nam or the beginning of Afghanistan. But we do need to get it right next time and to do that, we need a much better debate than we are currently having.

Weighing the Real Options

The most immediate question we face is whether the President made the correct decision on whether to leave at this point in time. To those people, I would pose three simple questions:

• Would five more years have made any difference?

• How many more U.S. Troops would the U.S. have had to commit above the current 2,500 level to allow the Afghan government to control at least half of the country?

• If we failed to make that commitment or if we did but it succeeded no better than similar efforts in recent years, would the eventual withdrawal have looked fundamentally different from what we are seeing today?

I think it is reasonable to argue that at least 50,000 American troops would have been required to establish some level of parity between the forces of the Afghan government and the Taliban. In my judgment, even that would not have been sufficient given the declining creditability of the Afghan government during the early months of this year.

But such a troop commitment was well beyond what the country was willing to make and in my judgment well beyond the commitment we should have made. Not only would It have crowded out our ability to be proactive in meeting dangerous challenges we are facing in other parts of the world but in the end, it would not have solved the underlying problem. The Afghan people did not want to take ownership of vision that we had created for them.

There is a second issue that also needs a far more thoughtful and fact-based examination. Given the realities of the military and political situation in Afghanistan when the President made the decision to leave the country, what would a successful withdrawal from Afghanistan have looked like. Could the U.S. have secreted their troops, contractors and the Afghan support personnel out of the country in the dead of night?

A clear “no” is the only answer to that question.

American presence in Afghanistan was spread across the country. American citizens, many of Afghan descent, were permitted to travel freely into and out of many, if not all of the nation’s 42 provinces. Moving all of those individuals to central departure points and arranging air transportation would be a significant logistical challenge even if no war were taking place. But given the unreliability of the Afghan security forces the challenge was enormous and the prospects of leaving the country without significant loss of life were narrow.

U.S. Obligation to Afghan Support Personnel 

Adding exponentially to that challenge was the messy issue of Afghan nationals who had assisted us in our efforts in behalf of their country and the families of those Afghans. I think we should do what we can to help and if possible extract those people. But I also think that the standard being set for the United States is unfair and unrealistic and speaks very clearly to the underlying problem with our policy in Afghanistan.

The Afghan nationals who assisted us did so in large part because their country and their families were in deep trouble when we arrived. We were helping them create a better future—not the other way around. Our efforts to support their cause in the fall of 2001 and the years that followed did not include a commitment on our part that things would turn out well. It was an offer to do what we could to help them build a better future. For all of our failings we do make a remarkable effort to meeting that commitment. Had the more educated and westward leaning portion of that population fought with the tenacity of the Taliban we would probably not be worrying about their extraction.

Having said, how and when to extract these individuals was an enormously difficult and critically important decision. One answer that may have occurred to many would be to begin pulling them out in early spring when it began to appear that U.S. forces would be withdrawn. That would have worked well for the Afghan nationals employed in support of U.S. Forces but it would have been a death blow to any prospects the remaining Afghan government might have had. Our early and orderly removal of many of the brightest and most talented citizens who supported the U.S. backed government in Kabul would have resulted in the end of that government before it had a chance to show whether our years of investment had given it the metal to stand up to opposing forces.

Were the Afghan nationals that we employed in behalf of a mission for the future wellbeing of their of their country so underinvested in that mission that they would leave before it was put to the test? If the answer is “yes”, our government made commitments to those people that it had no right to make. If the answer is “no”, we were necessarily in the very difficult situation of postponing their departure until the government had collapsed and the security situation was grave.

While many have argued that the failure of the U.S. to remove those individuals would be a betrayal to their service, their removal prior to the fall of the Afghan government would have been a clear betrayal of the government we had spent two decades recruiting and subsidizing.

Reasonable Expectations about a U.S. Withdrawal

The withdrawal of forces from a combat zone is one of the most difficult and dangerous missions any military can undertake. There is little chance that it can be accomplished without significant loss of life even if it is done with the utmost skill and concern for the lives of those placed in harms way. There is little doubt that the best example of how not to withdraw forces example in the midst of combat was the British retreat from Kabul in 1842.

Most military historians give the Soviets passing grades for their withdrawal in 1988 and 1989. I could find no precise estimate of Soviet casualties during the 9 month withdrawal period but a paper published by the U.S. Army Medical Department Journal in 1998 indicates that the Soviets suffered losses of 759 killed and 3663 wounded in during all of 1988 (the last full year of the war) and 53 killed and 144 wounded in the six weeks of 1989 before the last units withdrew. Further, casualty statistics released by the Soviets at the beginning of the withdrawal period in May of 1988 would support the notion that a very large share of 1988 casualties happened during the withdrawal and not in the 4 months prior to its beginning.

That would indicate that during the retreat, they probably suffered between 500 to 700 soldiers killed and something more than 2500 wounded. This is despite the fact that Soviets made substantial payments to the Mujahedeen and various tribal leaders to not fire on or otherwise attack their retreating units.

The idea that the President should be able to guarantee the safety and wellbeing of forces being withdrawn from a place as chaotic and dangerous as Afghanistan creates an expectation totally out line with reality or past experience.

As we mull over the mistakes that we made in dealing with this troubled country over the past 20 years, we should be grateful for at least one thing. Finally, we have a president that can not only recognize a failed policy when he sees it but has the fortitude to take the action necessary to see that the tremendous waste of lives and treasure does not continue indefinitely.

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Scott Lilly has been writing about public policy for more than four decades. He is widely viewed as one of the leading experts on the federal budget process and the impact of changes in federal spending policy on local communities, national security and the economy. For 31 years, he worked as a Congressional staffer during which time he directed the staffs of the Joint Economic Committee, the Democratic Study Group and the House Appropriations Committee. He has traveled widely probing the effectiveness of government programs across the U.S. and overseas. He is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and an Adjunct Professor of Public Policy at the LBJ School of Public Policy, University of Texas. He has testified before numerous Congressional committees and has been a guest on CBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and various other television and radio networks. He has been frequently quoted in the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune and other major newspapers.