In the days following the White House’s announcement of a full military withdrawal from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021, two satirical articles circulated widely across social media. One suggested that U.S. Army senior leaders could substitute a two-minute plank in lieu of success in the war-torn country. The other hailed President Biden’s intention to pull all U.S. troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 3001. It is perhaps ironic that after 20 years of war, satire captures our sentiment more accurately than the news itself. Or perhaps not.
I’m not exactly an advocate of making strategic decisions based on a calendar date. My third deployment to Iraq, shortly after the withdrawal of coalition forces at the end of 2011, was supposed to be different. Instead, it was restive; security was tenuous; rocket attacks were still relatively common, and a general sense of unease had settled on the capitol city. Two years later, we were back in force as the violence perpetrated by ISIS wreaked havoc on whatever semblance of stability remained in the country.
But Iraq isn’t Afghanistan. In Kabul, the institutions that form the central government are far less evolved, much more immature. The political ties that bind the country are fragile at best. And the security forces that the President is certain will “continue to fight valiantly” are still at a nascent stage in their development, at least a generation away from becoming a force capable of securing a lasting, stable peace. Amid all of this, the Taliban are negotiating our withdrawal while executing a campaign of targeted killings, assassinating “influential and prominent” Afghans they perceive as threats to their eventual return to power.
In 20 years, the costs have mounted, in blood as well as treasure. More than 3,500 coalition lives have been lost in Afghanistan, and an estimated 31,000 more civilian deaths have been documented. A 2019 Brown University study estimated that the U.S. had committed around $978 billion to prosecute the war, a number certain to have since crest the two trillion-dollar threshold when considering the full cost of the war. At least $88 billion has gone toward training and equipping the security forces, yet they remain largely incapable of containing the Taliban threat without significant and ongoing international support. After two decades and no end to the stalemate in sight, it was time to say, “enough is enough.” So, where did it all go wrong? What does it all mean? What does the future hold?
From the outset, Afghanistan presented what is best defined as a wicked problem: a socio-cultural problem often considered too complex to solve because of (1) incomplete or contradictory knowledge, (2) the number of people and opinions involved, (3) the large economic burden, and (4) the interconnected nation of the various issues involved. While we often joked about the PowerPoint slide from hell, it’s a relatively accurate a representation of the complexity of the challenges we faced in Afghanistan. It’s debatable whether wicked problems are truly unsolvable, but even attempting to do so requires an appreciation for the complexity involved and the humility necessary to address it. Instead, we led with hubris and a near-blind denial of the reality of the problem.
We often lay blame for this at the feet of the succession of generals who led the war effort, but quite honestly, there’s plenty of blame to go around. If good strategy begins with sound policy, then bad strategy can’t be an orphan. As Australia—long a coalition partner in Afghanistan—copes with meaning in their role, they put the blame squarely on “incoherent policy-making and planning by US political and military leaders.” When policy fails to account for the complexity of a wicked problem, then even the best strategy—and there were more than a few attempted—will flail about like a dancing inflatable at a used car dealership.
THE MONEY PIT
War isn’t cheap. And launching into a war in the wake of the 9/11 attacks assured the world that America wasn’t going to be bargain hunting in Afghanistan. But there is such a thing as chasing good money after bad. There’s a reason Afghanistan is known as the graveyard of empires; geography, culture, and history all but guarantee that any invader will soon find themselves bogged down and spending vast amounts of money with little to show in return. It’s hubris to assume that you can spend your way to a different outcome.
Nevertheless, Congress did exactly that. Even as a parade of military commanders presented one strategy after another, Congress held open the purse strings without hesitation. I understand the tenacity and never say quit attitude that drives a wartime military leader to see a mission through to the bitter end. But, with the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction tirelessly ringing the alarm bells on spending, I don’t understand why the people elected to be stewards of our nation’s resources didn’t do a better job of reining in expenditures. Was it sunk cost fallacy? Or was it just plain laziness?
THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE
Where is the American public in all of this? Blissfully ignorant, for the most part. Most of us remember a time when the yellow ribbons were ubiquitous and service recognition was greeted with a heartfelt “Thank you for your service!” Over time, those yellow ribbons became faded and worn—perhaps mirroring a growing public apathy—and vocal enthusiasm for service recognition grew almost mechanistic.
While we were slogging our way through the Pech Valley or gutting it out in Helmand Province, America moved on, even if we didn’t. Eventually, the news cycle moved on, too, and so did their attention. When the war in Afghanistan was no longer an above-the-fold headline and the evening news led off with other stories in other places, America lost interest. Twenty years is a long time, and public interest wanes quickly. Remind them that we’re still in Afghanistan, and a fair number—44% according to a 2020 Brookings study—will tell you that we have an obligation to stay the course. As long as it doesn’t affect them, that is. And, for the most part, it doesn’t.
THE VETERAN DILEMMA
For veterans of the war, a withdrawal doesn’t bring closure but a need to come to terms with the meaning of their time there. Many of us lost friends in Afghanistan and many more still bear the scars—both physical and otherwise—of those faraway battles. Although most have long since accepted that withdrawal was both inevitable and overdue, the frustration and emptiness left behind can be gut wrenching. A mission unfinished, sacrifices seemingly made for nothing, and some 40 million people left to fend for themselves. That’s a tough pill to swallow, even if leaving was necessary.
With veterans, it’s not simply a matter of victory or defeat. It’s the need to find meaning, to define a legacy. That might take time, something the Soviets who fought there decades ago have still to come to grips with. Was it all worth it? Only time will tell.
THE END OF THE ROAD
Following the White House’s announcement, Colin Powell—the unwitting architect of our second invasion of Iraq—brought possibly the best context to the decision: “I’d say we’ve done all we can do… It’s time to bring it to an end.” Powell, for so long a voice of reason in a sea of chaos, said what so many of us have thought for so many years. His words are both powerful and profound, but they also signal a dark future for Afghanistan.
Despite statements to the contrary, things won’t be alright. There is no doubt that the Taliban will exploit our exit. The real question is how long will they wait? Over the past six months, the Taliban have swept up large swaths of territory, filling a security vacuum created by earlier drawdowns. Targeted assassinations are already changing the landscape of a post-coalition Afghanistan. And now that we’ve announced our withdrawal, any real leverage we had over the Taliban is lost. Once the coalition is gone altogether, the only thing standing between the Taliban and the people of Afghanistan is a security apparatus largely dependent on international support. Without that support, the outlook is grim. It’s not a matter of if, but when.