Why did the United States lose the Afghan War?


In the weeks and months since the withdrawal from Kabul, which has left the people of Afghanistan (and, as of writing, an unknown number of Americans and other westerners) in the hands of the Taliban, a great many fingers have been pointed at President Joe Biden.  It is clear that a number of extremely poor decisions were made, in the run-up to the withdrawal, and while Biden’s allies have been trying to blame the affair on former President Donald Trump the fact remains that Biden was the man in the White House when the withdrawal took place and therefore bears the ultimate blame for the disaster.  One can argue, and Biden’s more reasonable allies do, that the war was already lost and needed to be brought to an end as quickly as possible, no matter how painful it was for the United States.


But why was the war lost?


In 1949, after the Chinese Communists defeated the Nationalists and unleashed a reign of terror, Americans asked ‘who lost China?’  It seemed difficult to believe that the vast amount of treasure expended on the Nationalists could have led to defeat, rather than victory.  And yet, the answer was relatively simple.  The United States didn’t lose China because the United States literally never had China.  It’s ability to influence events on the ground was extremely limited, despite how much money and weapons were directed to the Nationalist Chinese.  The US was unable to push the Nationalists to reform – it took decades for Taiwan to develop into an economic powerhouse, well after the government received a salutary lesson in the importance of political and economic reform – and they enjoyed very little support from the Chinese population.  The issue was decided based on factors on the ground, not in Washington.  And Washington did not realise this until it was far too late.  Indeed, there is a case to be made that Washington never recognised it at all.


This is a problem that has bedevilled the United States since 1945.  The US became one of two global superpowers in 1945 and, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, found itself the sole hyperpower.  This has bred a degree of dangerous overconfidence, mingled with a lack of strategic focus.  The US enjoyed the great good fortune of not needing to care about many regional issues, yet found itself involved in places that were of little interest to the US or – worse – caught between two parties, both of which expected the US to take their side.  This lack of focus made it hard for the US to commit itself to anything long-term, creating a world in which the US is in the rather odd position of permanently being a transient power.  The US’s allies, therefore, see US involvement as temporary and are therefore reluctant to commit themselves wholeheartedly to supporting the US, on the grounds the US will eventually put out and leave them holding the bag.


From the US point of view, this is not wholly a bad thing.  The US can pick and choose its engagements at will, as most local issues simply do not threaten the US’s existence.  How can they?  But this leads to a major problem, in that Washington is often unaware of the facts on the ground, dismissive of local concerns and unwilling to either invest in the region sufficiently to have long-term influence or to abandon it completely.  The US, from everyone else’s point of view, neither hot nor cold.  America’s enemies have been quick to point out that, when the going gets tough, the US gets going.  There is enough truth in the charge to ensure every single US ally had one eye on the exit, ready to bail if the US starts trying to slip out of the area.  This fatally undermines American positions right across the world.


The Afghan War, however, was extremely difficult to fight right from the start.   The US did not, as far as I can tell, do any serious thinking about how the occupation would go, nor did it make the commitments it needed to both invest in the war and convince both the locals and American allies that the US was serious.  Worse, the US found itself trying to tackle a series of problems that could not be easily solved, even with the political will to do so (which was often lacking).


First, Afghanistan is an extremely difficult place for the United States to even reach, not without support from neighbouring powers.  The logistics made it impossible to support a major force within the country, let alone the sort of effort required to evict the Taliban and then build a working state that would, eventually, win hearts and minds and ensure the eventual US withdrawal wouldn’t be followed by a rapid and inevitable return to Taliban rule.


Second, the US’s understanding of local politics and culture was extremely limited and its willingness to understand the realities facing its allies was, at least at first, non-existent.  The average local warlord was unwilling to send his men into meatgrinders on American behest, as losing his troops would reduce his power and eventually get him killed (particularly if his men blamed him for the deaths).  Nor was the average farmer willing to give up growing poppies – for drugs – when all the alternatives would simply make him poorer.  Worse, there was a flourishing culture of nepotism and corruption that was appalling to American eyes, but – as far as the locals were concerned, the only way to get ahead.  This bred frustration and resentment on both sides, making it difficult for the country to be stabilised and creating openings for the Taliban to exploit.


Third, Afghanistan’s neighbours were reluctant to support the US for domestic policy reasons and/or suspicious of America’s long-term intentions.  This limited their willingness to provide meaningful assistance, particularly as it became clear the US was slowly sinking into a quagmire.  The US didn’t have many options for dealing with the neighbours, nor did it have much to offer them.  This created situations in which, for example, Pakistan would side with the US, but also offer the Taliban sanctuary within Pakistan.  The US saw this as treacherous.  The Pakistanis, all too aware that their country was constantly on the brink of collapse, felt they had no choice.  They could not destroy the Taliban, so they had to find a way to live with it.  It is quite possible Pakistan was unaware Osama Bin Laden was hiding in Pakistan, but – given his location – it is also possible Pakistan was quietly ignoring him in the hopes he would serve as a bargaining chip, if they needed one.


Fourth, there was no solid long-term plan for stabilising the country and creating a flourishing rule of law.  There was little appetite for accepting the political and cultural realities of Afghanistan, particularly corruption and the treatment of women, but – at the same time – attempts to change the culture ran aground on local realities, ranging from simple unwillingness to accept western ideas to the inability to remove American allies who committed crimes against the local population.  Indeed, American soldiers who blew the whistle on such crimes were punished by the American government, ensuring a colossal lack of faith in the government and a belief it was just a matter of time until the war was effectively abandoned.


Fifth, and perhaps worst of all, there was no honest assessment of these failings, nor was there a willingness to do what needed to be done.  No American President was willing to tell the American people that there would have to be sacrifice, that the US would need to either commit itself to Afghanistan for a very long time – and that progress would be very slow, at least at first – let alone acknowledge the US’s mistakes and missteps.  Both Obama and Trump inherited wars they couldn’t bring to a close, at least partly because senior military officers refused to admit defeat and tried to sell them both on ‘war-winning’ strategies that were nothing of the sort.  It was clear to everyone, save Washington, that the US was in deep trouble long before the final denouncement in 2021.  This did not do wonders for American credibility.


The result of all these failings, and others, led to a steady collapse of the American-backed government.  Local troops saw no reason to fight and die in a hopeless war, not when they could turn their coats – a long-standing tradition in the region – and find themselves on the winning side.  Nor were local farmers and other civilians prepared to die for the government, when the government had repeatedly failed to deliver even the simplest of its promises.  The Taliban only got into power, in the first place, because post-Soviet Afghanistan was a lawless nightmare.  The Taliban might have been bad in the eyes of the average local, but they at least tried to produce law and order.  It is easy, if one lives in a reasonably civilised country governed by the rule of law, to condemn people who join extremist groups and support them.  If one is not so lucky, it is harder to reject the extremists when the only other option is death and destruction.


What choice would you make?


Fighting and winning an insurgency requires several things.  First, you must be honest about the reasons for the insurgency (insurgents don’t pick up arms for no reason).  Second, you must seek a political solution that tackles the root causes of the insurgency, as well as isolating the insurgents who want to fight to the bitter end (or you’ll be refighting the war again and again until you do).  Third, you must make it clear that you are willing to commit yourself to fight (to show you have something to bargain with).  And fourth, you must acknowledge there will be setbacks and try to learn from them (rather than telling lies everyone involved knows are lies).  None of this is easy, but it has to be done.


In one sense, the US defeat in the Afghan War is unlikely to cause any real long-term problems for America.  The Taliban are not going to cross the ocean and invade the United States.  The building blocks of US power remain intact.  America’s major enemies are still unable to produce more than a limited challenge, one that – win or lose – will not threaten the US itself.  In another, US credibility has taken a body blow.  US allies will shy away, openly or covertly planning for the time the US backs away, leaving them isolated and staring at their enemies.  It will not be long before China starts eying Taiwan, and Russia starts eying Ukraine and Eastern Europe, and pointing out the US cannot be relied upon to come to their aid.  And, historically speaking, they may well be right.


Again, this can be blamed on Joe Biden.  But it will linger long after he leaves office.


And now you’ve read this far, I have a request to make.


It’s growing harder to make a living through self-published writing these days.  If you liked this book, please leave a review where you found it, share the link, let your friends know (etc, etc).  Every little helps (particularly reviews).


Thank you.


Christopher G. Nuttall

Edinburgh, 2021