The Top 10 Mistakes Made in the Afghan War

From Tora Bora to wartime fatigue, the U.S. legacy in Afghanistan was just one failed endeavor after another.

America's long war in Afghanistan isn't likely to end well, and the American people seem to know it. Despite a wholly predictable effort to portray the war as an American victory, the United States isn't going to defeat the Taliban between now and the scheduled departure of most U.S. troops later this year. Meanwhile, relations between the United States and the Karzai government are going from bad to worse. Afghan President Hamid Karzai is not only refusing to sign a security agreement that would allow the United States to leave a residual force in country, he is also making increasingly strident accusations that the United States is to blame for recent civilian deaths.

This depressing outcome is not what most Americans expected following the rapid toppling of the Taliban back in 2001. It is therefore important that we draw the right lessons from the experience, if only to partly redeem the sacrifices made by the soldiers who fought there. In that spirit, here is a list of the top 10 mistakes made in America's Afghan War.

1. Trying to Go It Alone

After 9/11, America's NATO allies invoked the mutual defense clause of the NATO treaty and offered to help the United States go after the Taliban and al Qaeda. Convinced that the job would be easy and that allies would simply make things harder, the Rumsfeld Pentagon responded with a brusque "No, thanks." Instead of making Afghanistan a collective project from the start, the Bush administration wanted to show it could do the job all by itself, with an assist from the Afghan Northern Alliance. That decision seemed justified when the Taliban fell quickly, but when Bush & Co. marched off to Iraq (see below), there was hardly anybody left to keep the Taliban from coming back. By the time NATO got involved big-time, a new civil war was underway and the best opportunity to build a stable Afghanistan had been squandered.

2. Blowing It at Tora Bora

The United States invaded Afghanistan for one reason: to get Osama bin Laden and as many of his followers as possible. Unfortunately, poor coordination with local Afghan forces and a reluctance to commit sufficient U.S. troops at the Battle of Tora Bora allowed bin Laden to escape into Pakistan, where he remained at large for another eight years. Had we caught him then and there, al Qaeda might have been dealt a fatal blow and the United States could have declared victory in the "war on terror" instead of watching al Qaeda morph into a global franchise. Yet despite this costly failure, the U.S. commander at Tora Bora -- Army Gen. Tommy Franks -- was later chosen to command the invasion of Iraq.

3. The Afghan Constitution

The Bonn Agreement in December 2001 established an interim government for post-Taliban Afghanistan and was, in many ways, an impressive diplomatic achievement. Unfortunately, the Constitution adopted in 2004 was an ill-conceived misstep. It created a highly centralized state that ignored Afghan traditions of local autonomy and gave the president too much formal power. The new government was supposed to run the entire country from Kabul and appoint all the key local officials, but the Karzai regime lacked enough competent civil servants and the new structure created irresistible opportunities for patronage and corruption. Moreover, the Afghan economy could not support an elaborate governmental structure or large security forces, which made the fledgling Afghan state permanently dependent on outside support from the start.

4. The Detour Into Iraq

The Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq was not just a disaster for Iraq and for the United States, it also diverted military and intelligence resources from Afghanistan and allowed the Taliban to regroup and resume the war. Sadly, we will never know what might have happened had the United States and NATO kept their eyes on the ball back in 2003.

5. The 2009 Surge

In the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama burnished his national security street cred by declaring that he was going to end the war in Iraq so that he could focus on the "real war" in Afghanistan. He then succumbed to military pressure and sent additional U.S. troops, starting with 17,000 shortly after taking office and adding another 30,000 in the fall of 2009. But the decision to escalate was fatally flawed, because the Taliban still had sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan and were never going to be defeated by military force alone. To succeed, the surge would have had to be far larger and much longer in duration, and Afghanistan simply wasn't worth that level of effort. The surge also led to a sharp uptick in Afghan and American casualties, which gradually undermined support for the war back home.

6. Setting a Time Limit

The mistaken decision to escalate was compounded by a second error: Obama made it clear from the start that the surge would be a temporary measure and gave the Taliban a pretty good idea when the United States would begin to get out. As critics noted at the time, telling your adversary exactly when you were going to quit was hardly the best way to persuade them to give up the fight. Instead, it told the enemy exactly how long they needed to hang on in order to wait us out.

7. Downgrading Diplomacy

Ending the war and building a functioning Afghan government required a reconciliation process that would integrate the more moderate elements of the Taliban back into the Afghan political community. Unfortunately, the United States didn't get serious about a peace process until it was too late. As U.S. special envoy James Dobbins acknowledged last year, "it was probably a mistake to delay a serious effort at reconciliation until 2011." Washington should have pushed hard for serious discussions while the surge was at its peak, instead of waiting until its role (and therefore its leverage) was declining. The United States also failed to engage regional powers that might have helped put together a stabilization deal, in part because it wasn't even talking to some of them (e.g., Iran).

8. Losing Public Support

When the Taliban refused to give up bin Laden, the United States had no choice but to go after the man who had orchestrated the 9/11 attacks. The American public signed up for that war with enthusiasm, but not to an open-ended effort to transform an impoverished, land-locked, and ethnically divided Muslim country that had never been a vital U.S. strategic interest before. And neither Bush nor Obama ever managed to persuade them that the war was worth the cost, mostly because the American people aren't completely gullible. By 2008, the war was costing the American taxpayers an amount several times larger than Afghanistan's entire GDP, and neither Bush nor Obama could come up with a convincing rationale for continuing to pour money and lives into distant strategic backwater.

To be sure, Obama tried to justify the war as necessary to prevent al Qaeda from establishing a "safe haven" again, but al Qaeda already had better havens by 2009 and was barely in Afghanistan by that point. Moreover, a long and costly war against the Taliban was increasingly a distraction from the broader campaign against al Qaeda itself.

Bottom line: the American people will support a war when vital interests are at stake and there is a plausible theory of victory, but by 2009, neither of those conditions had been met.

9. Failure to Manage Unruly Allies

Winning the war in Afghanistan depended on getting at least two foreign governments to play ball. The first was the Afghan government itself, which was corrupt, inefficient, and increasingly unwilling to listen to well-intentioned U.S. advice. The second was Pakistan, which continued to play footsie with the Taliban and sometimes put roadblocks (literal ones) in the way of the U.S. military. Unfortunately, U.S. leaders never fully appreciated that the war could not be won if we didn't get more cooperation from these supposed allies, and that we wouldn't get that support as long as they were convinced that Washington would never call their bluff. It's a sad but familiar story: a once-powerful patron becomes too strongly committed to a weak client with its own agenda, that client extracts many concessions by threatening to collapse or by telling us one thing while doing another.

10. Strategic Contradictions

Finally, the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan was bedeviled by strategic contradictions that were never fully recognized or resolved. Although many American soldiers fought with skill and heroism, achieving our stated war aims was an uphill battle from the get-go.

For starters, the United States and NATO couldn't win without a much larger investment of resources over a much longer period, but it just wasn't worth that level of investment. And for all the talk about COIN, Army Field Manual 3-24, and supposedly brilliant commanders like David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, the U.S. Army was never designed for or adept at this kind of operation and isn't likely to get much better at it with practice. And finally, building a new Afghan state and fighting a counterinsurgency war required outsiders to pour billions of dollars into an impoverished country, but the flood of poorly managed money merely fueled corruption and ensured that much of the aid money was wasted.

No one should take any pleasure in contemplating these (and other) mistakes, especially when one considers how long the United States fought there and how shallow its learning curve was. One at least hopes that some larger lessons have been learned, and that U.S. presidents will be a lot warier of this sort of quagmire in the future. Or as former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in 2011: "In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should have 'his head examined.'"

Scott Olson/Getty Images


Boiled Sausage and $1 Vodka

My teenage trip in the glory days of Soviet Sochi.

In the summer of 1970, on a teen tour across Scandinavia and Russia, I spent a week in Sochi, long before the $55 billion Olympic Village was even a twinkle in Vladimir Putin's eye. The Soviets had invaded Czechoslovakia only two years before; the mighty eyebrows of Leonid Brezhnev, the ponderous party general secretary of that ponderous era, were still jet black. The Soviet Union felt comatose; with military spending consuming much of the federal budget, everything was scarce. In Leningrad -- that would be St. Petersburg today -- our group went to an outdoor "Georgian-style" shashlik restaurant where, owing to the rationing of meat, we each received precisely 3 ounces of gristly beef along with our grilled onions and peppers. "Back in the USSR" boomed out over the speaker system across an empty dance floor.

Ah, but Sochi; that was our beach vacation. The salubrious climate, with mountains not far away, had made Sochi Russia's tuberculosis capital. As soon as we arrived, the guides assigned to us informed us that Sochi had 60 sanatoriums; we would have the opportunity to visit many of them. From our first visit I recall only long hallways, tiled floors, high ceilings, vast lounges with slippered patients. We begged off the other 59.

In those days, travel in the Soviet Union was organized either by Intourist, a giant state bureaucracy, or Sputnik, the travel arm of the Communist Youth League. We went Sputnik, which is to say, bargain basement. Our hotel was a giant white block at the edge of the beach. We ate all three meals in the cafeteria. All three were the same -- boiled sausages, kasha, and black bread. In the morning, but only in the morning, we got butter with our bread. At lunch, our stewed fruit juice appeared also to have been smoked. None of us complained about only receiving 3 ounces of meat.

This being Russia, alcohol was practically free. Vodka was $1 a bottle; so was champagne; so was cognac. In what now strikes me as a suspicious coincidence, it seemed that many of us were celebrating birthdays during this period. In the evenings, our two tour leaders, who held on to the money, would stock up on alcohol, and we would camp out on the grass not far from the kiosk that sold crumb cakes. Although I had already begun drinking wine, I can thank the Soviet Union for teaching me how to drink. I was 15, which I suppose by Russian standards was a very advanced age for a beginner.

You may, by now, have seen pictures of Sochi's famous beach. It was not a sand beach, nor even the fine pebble beach you find on volcanic islands. The beach consisted of rocks. Somehow, this seemed exactly right. What it meant, however, was that you couldn't lie comfortably on a towel, especially not on the threadbare towels handed out by our Sputnik hotel. Also, the rocks heated up in the course of the day so that by the afternoon you had to run straight into the water to keep the bottom of your feet from roasting.

The Russians did not, themselves, do a great deal of swimming. These were large, very pale persons who were generally content to remain immobile. A vacation in Sochi was a reward for Stakhanovite achievement, which in 1970 I suppose would mean things like exceeding production targets on the building of semi-functional black-and-white televisions. The Russians around us seemed perfectly pleased with the room, the board, and the beach.

It was taken for granted among us that our rooms were bugged. This may have been Cold War paranoia, but in several cases our Soviet guides dropped something into conversation that it would seem they only could have known from overhearing our private talks. We then adopted the conceit that absolutely everything was bugged. When we paddled out into the Black Sea on one of the rubber rafts the hotel made available, we staged elaborate bouts of disinformation.

All this comical hokum came to an abrupt end on the morning when our Sputnik guides presented to us a petition, already signed by patriotic Eastern Bloc youth, calling on the United States to halt the imperialist war in Vietnam. Bear in mind that this was 1970. The anti-war movement was peaking. Most of us were between left and left of left. I can't remember whether I was a socialist or a social democrat. Or maybe an anarchist. In any case, we were all for signing. Here, fortunately, we were rescued by our trip leaders. Toby, a dancer who I suppose was all of 23, said, "If you guys sign this today, there will be an article next week in the International Herald Tribune with the headline, 'Americans Sign Russian Petition Condemning Vietnam War.' And it will have a list of your names.'" We acknowledged that that was a good point. Also, a dirty trick by our hosts.

By this time in history, pro-Soviet sympathies had long since been purged from the American left. None of us needed de-programming. Nevertheless, the experience of this dank, cheerless, monochrome country cured us of whatever lingering sense we might have had of the virtues of collectivism. We boarded our Aeroflot flight to Helsinki, making sure to take the hard candies we were offered on board to prevent our ears from popping in the poorly pressurized cabin. When we arrived, I recall that a few of my friends kissed the tarmac. Thank God for Europe!

Sochi will now serve as the international showcase of a Russia that is no longer dank, cheerless, and monochrome. The billions of dollars lavished on the city have bought, according to Russia scholar Leon Aron, "40 new and refurbished hotels, 220 miles of new or reconstructed roads, 125 miles of rail, a dozen tunnels stretching 16 miles and cutting through the mountains," and so on. A report from the International Crisis Group notes that while "the virtually nonfunctioning sewage system had made the Black Sea, unbeknownst to tourists, risky for swimming" -- now they tell us! -- a new water-treatment plant has made it safe for dog-paddling. The report also notes, incredibly, that President Putin plans to develop the tourist potential of the North Caucasus with a chain of ski resorts in Dagestan, Ingushetia, and even Chechnya.

In the old Soviet Union, success meant that you got to spend a week basking on rocks and eating boiled sausage that someone else had cooked. Now you get to go heli-skiing (with armed bodyguards). That's progress, at least for the 1 percent. But Sochi is a gigantic monument, by many accounts ruinously wasteful and spectacularly corrupt, to the whims of a dictator. The Sochi we will see on television is a gold-plated Potemkin village, its bedraggled citizens swept out of camera range. It's too crude to compare Putin to the blood-drenched Joseph Stalin. A more just analogy would be the era of the Romanov tsars, when a glittering aristocracy presided over a vast, benumbed populace. How long, you wonder, will they stay numb?

Addendum: In last week's column, I gave the impression that David Kilcullen is a counterinsurgency (COIN) enthusiast, albeit a disappointed one. Not true, he says. "Rather I'm a student and practitioner of guerrilla warfare who has always (and publicly) argued against large COIN interventions, for more than a decade in both print and verbally, both in and out of government."