The approach of the one-year anniversary of the U.S./NATO coalition’s retreat from Kabul have brought forth many articles and essays. So, why did the U.S. and Afghan efforts to build a better nation fail? Next week, we’ll look at what critical issues are facing Afghans today and what the world can do to help.

Where Did it All go Wrong?

My experiences working at the side of generals and ambassadors from 2002 until 2021 form my assessment of the war effort, and the peace-building failure. I was a small part of this endeavor, but fully accept my shortcomings in not pushing senior leaders harder to make wiser policy choices.

From my observations in 2, 3, and 4-star headquarters, including OMC-A, JSOC and ISAF commands, I think our biggest mistake was thinking this war was about “kinetic action”—about hunting and killing terrorists and their allies. Every new commander came to put their stamp on the operations that would lead to a military victory. The problem was, there was no military solution to be had. The solution was always diplomatic and revolved around making the correct policy choices. While the U.S., NATO-plus, and ANDSF soldiers became efficient killers, they were never going to be able to outpace the terrorism factory sitting right over the border in Pakistan.

The key to stabilizing Afghanistan was always stabilizing Pakistan. I’ve spoken those words many times since 2002, and it was my simple advice to the incoming U.S. Ambassador and ISAF Commander as the Obama administration tried to shift the war strategy in 2009. No one in that administration was willing to do the hard work required to change Pakistani national security policy. Because of the failure of four administrations to stop the supply of terrorists flowing into Afghanistan, we lost a war and the Afghan people lost a nation to a misogynistic terror regime.

In the big picture, the Afghan and U.S.-led NATO coalition faced off against many countries in this war, but they chose to ignore the big picture and focus on the small one—the Taliban and their terror allies and fellow travelers, like Haqqani, AQ, or IS-K. In reality, the small enemy was supported and controlled by Pakistan. Pakistan in turn was controlled by their debt to China, and their animosity towards India and anyone that allied with India. China sought to get rid of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and to create an opportunity to steal Afghan natural resources at a low cost. Russia also sought the removal of U.S. and NATO presence in the region, and sought to use the opportunity to prove NATO was a paper tiger. Finally, Iran wanted to remove U.S. presence in the region, and weaken U.S. resolve to counter terrorists anywhere in the world. These nations were all clear about their intentions starting in 2002 when I sat in all their embassies in Kabul listening to them lecture us on U.S. flaws and historical failures.

Why the Policy Failure?

The U.S. policy makers for 20 years chose to listen to the wrong advice on their decisions about Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many charlatans and so-called Afghan experts paraded in and out of the White House, Pentagon, and Foggy Bottom. These people dispensed flawed ideas and lobbied for everyone except Americans and Afghans. Decision-makers in D.C. failed repeatedly to talk to the right Afghan people and the U.S. leaders they sent to Afghanistan to execute the D.C. policy. Some “advisors” had an anti-war bias, some had financial interests, others had personal ambitions, and too many were working for Pakistan’s security sector and business interests. At the end of the war, there were even lobbyists trying to white-wash the Taliban terrorists so they would seem like a trustworthy party to end hostilities with.

The actual experts on Afghanistan were pushing for a real policy change. They wanted America and their allies to stop the funding, training, and arming of terrorists fighting in Afghanistan; to close the safehavens protecting terrorists in Pakistan; and they wanted to stop the radicalization process in thousands of madrassas dotting the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Those who understood the conflict wanted to get Afghan and Pakistani leaders to sit down and tackle the issues that kept the two nations locked in conflict—the border, India, support for each other’s opposition groups, and economic and drug smuggling issues.

The battle that could have won the Afghan war was the battle to get the policy right, not the battle to eradicate insurgents from any village or stronghold.

How it ended

Because the U.S. and NATO policymakers were not willing to expend effort to solve the Pakistan issue in South Asia, and the Afghan leaders were unable to convince anyone to resolve the Pakistan issues with Afghanistan—it all fell apart. I often tell Afghans that at the end, the U.S. and NATO leaders, and their populations were just exhausted with the war effort. This brief article explains that the exhaustion was self-imposed. By flailing away for 20 years at the wrong issues, those nations that were supposed to be helping Afghans create stability and secure their full human rights, ended the war by just quitting the fight. This ending was exactly the one the Taliban-Haqqani network, AQ, IS-K, Pakistan, China, Iran and Russia wanted, and maybe Qatar too. (Qatar has always had a very curious relationship with violent Islamist groups and terrorists)

No military strategy, no elite commando outfit, no ace pilot, and no brave Marine can ever win a war if they are working within the confines of the wrong national policy. That is a lesson we have failed to learn in every war since Korea. The South Korean long-term-partnership model was the only solution that might have worked to counter the unwillingness of D.C. to stabilize Pakistan and shut down the terrorism factory.

Every nation that wanted America and NATO to fail in Afghanistan counted on the U.S. and NATO states to lose patience with the war and leave. They were correct in their assessment. The Afghan people were abandoned by the world, and all the promised security partnerships disappeared overnight. Afghans were left alone, and hundreds of thousands of people who served in Afghanistan were left wondering what to make of the outcome.

If you are interested in a deeper discussion of Afghanistan and their future, consider attending the Global Friends of Afghanistan conference on Afghanistan at Georgetown University on September 1.


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Jason spent 23 years in USG service conducting defense, diplomacy, intelligence, and education missions globally. Now he teaches, writes, podcasts, and speaks publicly about Islam, foreign affairs, and national security. He is a member of the Military Writers Guild and aids with conflict resolution in Afghanistan.