Afghanistan: What Went Wrong

This week marks 100 days since our troops' chaotic flight from Kabul, a grim end to a disastrous 20-year project. And yet, say the authors of an unsparing new book, it didn't have to be that way.

10 December 2021 ·   7 min read

Afghanistan: What Went Wrong

By Madeleine Spence

Tomorrow it will be 100 days since the last British troops left Afghanistan. The last American troops left two days later, on August 30. Chaos had consumed the capital, Kabul, after it fell to the Taliban almost overnight. Nearly 200 Afghans and 13 American troops were blown up in a suicide bombing as hordes waited knee-deep in sewage outside Kabul airport. The world watched in horror as desperate civilians fell to their deaths trying to cling to the underside of a plane leaving for safety.

Comparisons with the evacuation by helicopter of the last Americans to leave Saigon after the Vietnam War were quickly drawn, and the question was asked from the benches of the House of Commons: 20 years since our troops first arrived in Afghanistan, how could it possibly have ended like this?

“What happened in Afghanistan in 2021 was not a defeat, but something between a betrayal and a moral collapse.” That is the damning summary from David Kilcullen and Greg Mills in their new book The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan. It is a clear-eyed analysis made with the surgical precision of two insiders who saw, firsthand, the legion of small ways that the war was lost when it could have been won.

They are heavily critical of newspaper columnists and politicians bloviating from the sidelines in the immediate aftermath of the botched August evacuation, and argue that the clichés that came pouring out about Afghanistan — a graveyard of empires, hostile, unruly and impossible to fix — are “overly simplistic and a massive cop-out”.

Kilcullen and Mills have spent years working with some of the most powerful policymakers and on-the-ground participants in Afghanistan since the 2001 invasion. Kilcullen, 54, an Australian who is a professor of politics at Arizona State University, is a counterinsurgency expert who served with the Australian light infantry for 25 years, including in Afghanistan. He has worked in the country since 2002, and was the counterterrorism adviser to Condoleezza Rice when she was the US secretary of state.

Mills 59, is the South African director of the Johannesburg-based Brenthurst Foundation and has expertise in state development. He has served four deployments to Afghanistan with the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force. As the Taliban swept through Afghanistan this summer, he was in the presidential palace, the Arg, with Ashraf Ghani, the president, who had invited him to visit. Shortly afterwards, Ghani would flee, leaving his people to their fate.

“The task in Afghanistan was absolutely achievable, the war eminently winnable,” say the authors. “But we failed to achieve the mission, screwed up the effort from start to finish, and we have now been defeated.”

Britain spent some £22 billion in Afghanistan and lost 450 lives. American costs reached between $1 trillion and $2 trillion, with 2,465 lives lost. How did these massive investments of money and blood come to such an ignominious end? How did we fail so badly in Afghanistan?

The original sin

In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a shellshocked America launched its war on terror, vowing to find al-Qaeda and pursue the Taliban — the group which had ruled over Afghanistan since 1996 and was suspected of harbouring terrorists. By October, George W Bush's administration had invaded with the support of Britain, under Tony Blair, and Nato allies.

Not long afterwards, a mistake was made that would set the stage for a years-long battle against an insurgent Taliban. It is referred to in The Ledger as “the original sin”: the West's refusal to negotiate with the Taliban in 2001 after defeating them militarily.

In December 2001, months after the West's victory, peace talks aimed at rebuilding Afghanistan were under way in Bonn. Here, the Bush administration made the cardinal error of failing to understand the Taliban's role in the state they were talking about rebuilding.

In reality, the Taliban were less interested in exporting extremism than furthering their own nationalist agenda and enacting vigilante-style justice in their country. But the Americans saw them as radicals to be roundly defeated as part of the war on terror.

Donald Rumsfeld, then the US defence secretary, wanted to pursue “the military annihilation of the Taliban”, write Kilcullen and Mills. Yet they could never be annihilated. This was an ill-defined group that often shifted shape and overlapped with the state. “I saw many occasions where Afghans would dance between Taliban and international actors in another room on the same stage,” Mills says.

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The West's desire to see things in black and white left no room for shades of grey on the ground. Left out of the negotiations, the Taliban retreated and plotted their return.

The self-licking lollipop

Before long, the West was in a desert quagmire, fighting an insurgency against a Taliban that had not, after all, disappeared despite Rumsfeld's hard line. Kilcullen and Mills explain how over the next decade, an ever-expanding war machine took hold.

They tell a story about the Vietnam War to illustrate the circular logic that played out all over Afghanistan, making it difficult to simply sit still and wait for things to stabilise. A counterinsurgency expert travels to a remote jungle airstrip and asks a soldier manning it why it's there. To resupply the nearby base, he says. And why is the base there? To maintain the airstrip.

The war machine constantly demanded more money, resources, lives and time while simultaneously degrading the morale, motivation and political will of the international forces. To use a military phrase, Mills says, we had created a self-licking lollipop which infinitely justified its own existence.

Western forces' expansion into Helmand province in 2006 is an example of one such self-fulfilling prophecy. The southern province, which eventually became the theatre of much British bloodshed — 104 soldiers died in the town of Sangin alone — was not part of the Taliban's ancestral homelands and was not strategically important. British troops went in thinking they might capture a significant chunk of terrain in a relatively safe area and prove they were doing good work in Afghanistan. “That then drew the Taliban to fight us, precisely because we invested our prestige in the area,” says Kilcullen. “Of course, once you go there, it suddenly draws out the crabs, because now it matters.”

Soon Helmand, an opium-producing region, became emblematic of Blair's war on drugs and became its own justification for the British presence. Meanwhile, we alienated local poppy farmers who found themselves able to grow their crops under the Taliban but were not allowed to do so in western-controlled areas.

As hearts and minds were lost and the Taliban fought harder, even more resources were required in Helmand, a province which, from the beginning, had meant little.

Poor succession planning

In 2014 the West's official combat mission ended but we remained in Afghanistan to provide security assistance, advice and training to the Afghans. Up to this point, the goal of the international forces was clear: get rid of the Taliban and other insurgents from key strongholds and build Afghan civil and military capability so that locals could take over the fight, and control would be transferred to the Afghan government.

The newly appointed President Ghani stepped into the breach in 2014 as the man who would take Afghanistan forward. Yet the international community had set the stage for a catastrophe.

They had been open about the fact that they were scaling back the military operation and that they would not deviate from their intended timeline, much to the delight of their enemies. “The international community very helpfully told the Taliban exactly how long they had to survive in order to wait it out,” the authors write. The Taliban did just that.

After Ghani took over, he suddenly found himself governing on a war footing with a Taliban that not only had failed to disappear but was resurgent. Yet Ghani, another product of poor planning, was not the right man for the job.

He was an internationalist: a World Bank employee for 25 years who saw the presidency of Afghanistan as a stepping stone to something greater, such as head of the United Nations.

“That's not the sort of person you want running a country that's at mortal risk of being destroyed,” says Kilcullen. There was focus on lots of great programmes to do with gender equity and IT capability in government, “but that's like figuring out what wallpaper to put in your bathroom when your house is on fire. He wasn't a wartime president.”

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Poor succession planning also hit the Afghan national army. Kilcullen compares the Afghan military to a Jenga stack, where certain blocks, by our own design, could be provided only by the West: logistics, intelligence and aviation support and maintenance. America spent about $69 billion on building the Afghan security forces and a promise was made to the Afghans that we would never withdraw those blocks. They believed us, and built their military structure around them. “We even forced them to buy the Black Hawk helicopter, which was highly inappropriate for their requirements, to lock them into a structure where they needed us,” he argues.

When President Joe Biden pulled his troops out, giving little to no warning to their Afghan counterparts, he also pulled out the American Jenga blocks, causing the tower to topple.

The problem of impatience

There was one mammoth political failing that underpinned all the tactical and logistical failings that punctuated two decades in Afghanistan, argue Kilcullen and Mills.

“We all focused a lot on how to end the war. But that's actually a misunderstanding of how counterinsurgency works,” says Kilcullen. The West won many battles against the Taliban, but the Taliban won the war. They were able to exploit the West's own impatience, and had calculated that they simply had to play a waiting game.

“[That] might have changed if the West had signalled that it was in Afghanistan for the long haul,” the pair write. “Taliban leaders would have been more likely to commit to a political solution if faced with the prospect of a permanent military stalemate.”

There were moments in the past 20 years where Afghanistan was relatively stable, where troops weren't dying, and where — had there been the political will from Washington — there was no reason to leave. In fact, there was every reason to stay and to help secure the country while giving the Afghans time to develop their own power structures, economic institutions, functioning military and government. “There was no reason we had to actually leave,” says Kilcullen.

Yet Biden, like Donald Trump before him, saw a binary choice: stay or go. As the leading actor in the theatre of Afghanistan, once the Americans made the decision to go there was no choice but for the allies to exit behind them.

Will there be a next time?

The failures of Afghanistan — and those of Iraq and Libya — played a part in politicians' reluctance to intervene in President Bashar al-Assad's Syria but, Mills argues, it is inevitable that the West will once again find itself sucked into some similar role elsewhere. So we must ask ourselves, he says: “Can the West, or anybody for that matter, play the nation-building role in a way that has a better outcome?”

Mills believes the answer is yes. During his time in Afghanistan, he would often look on in wonder at how people seemed to be making things up as they went along. An endless rotation of new personnel would arrive every 12 months, desperate to prove that their predecessors were idiots and that they had the solution: add a few more troops here, spend some money on development there, fund some military action here, try sporadically talking with the Taliban. “It really appeared at times that there were no adults in charge,” Mills says.

But it didn't have to be that way. Next time, he says, instead of spending two decades on the back foot coming up with strategy as we go along, all the while trying to leave, the West needs to commit to the role. The era of short-term interventionism needs to be over, we should have a long-term strategy from the off.

“You can't just in the beginning say, 'We're just going to be there for a short time,'” Mills argues. “You have to grab the issue and live with it for the long run.

“Situations will arise in the future. The point we're trying to make is don't make the same mistakes again, please.”

This article originally appeared on The Times