After 18 years of war, thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars squandered, the United States accomplished precisely nothing.
By Stephen M. Walt
September 13, 2019 "Information Clearing House" - Afghanistan has been back in the news lately, but most commentators are missing the big picture. In recent weeks there has been a raft of articles suggesting the United States and the Taliban were nearing a peace deal that would enable the United States to withdraw most, if not all, of its forces there. These rumors prompted immediate warnings from skeptics such as retired Gen. David Petraeus, who failed to win the war on his watch but wants his successors to keep trying, and assorted other hawks who want America’s longest war to continue and still think victory is achievable.
Next up was U.S. President Donald Trump. Eager for another high-profile photo-op, the narcissist-in-chief came up with a scheme to invite Taliban leaders to Camp David and crown the peace deal there. According to some reports, Trump eventually got persuaded to drop this ill-conceived idea, but this latest sign of a White House in disarray may have contributed to the decision to fire National Security Advisor John Bolton earlier this week.
In fact, all this recent juicy hoopla is missing the big picture. We can palaver about peace terms, residual forces, the implications for the upcoming Afghan elections, et cetera, as long as we want, but the cold, hard reality is that the United States lost the war in Afghanistan. All we are debating—whether in talks with the Taliban or in op-ed pages back home—is the size and shape of the fig leaf designed to conceal a major strategic failure, after 18 years of war, thousands of lives lost, and hundreds of billions of dollars squandered.
To be clear, the Afghan debacle is not, strictly speaking, a military defeat. The Taliban never vanquished the U.S. military in a large-scale clash of arms, or caused its forces there to collapse. Instead, it is a defeat in the Clausewitzian sense—18 years of war and “nation building” did not produce the political aims that U.S. leaders (both Republicans and Democrats) had set for themselves. The reason is fairly simple: Afghanistan’s fate was never going to be determined by foreigners coming from 7,000 miles away.
As some of us have been pointing out for years, the conditions for a successful counterinsurgency and nation-building campaign were almost entirely lacking in Afghanistan. The country is isolated, poor, mountainous, and divided into many different ethnonational groups. It has no tradition of democracy, a long history of local autonomy, and a deep antipathy to foreign interference.
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