Now that our 20-year war in Afghanistan is grinding to an unsatisfying end, it’s time to ask the question: Was it ever winnable? The answer: Probably not, in part because, over the years, “victory” was defined either not at all or in terms implausibly grandiose.
At the very beginning, there was a chance of a decent way out for the U.S. Initially, as President Joe Biden noted earlier this week, the war was launched to overthrow the Taliban government, which had harbored al-Qaida, and to crush al-Qaida as well, killing or capturing its leader, Osama bin Laden.
The first part—the ouster of the Taliban from Kabul—went more quickly than expected, thanks to an audacious CIA-led war plan combining U.S. special forces, high-tech drones, and Afghan rebels on horseback. The second part went badly. Incompetent U.S. commanders let bin Laden escape to Pakistan. President George W. Bush, thinking the war was over, abandoned the terrain and moved on to Iraq. The Taliban came back fighting. And the new central government, which Bush and others had installed in Kabul, was unsuited to govern the warlord rulers in the countryside, much less stave off the Islamists’ insurgency.
The U.S. commander left holding the bag, an enterprising three-star general named David Barno, fashioned what might have been a successful plan: using the few American troops remaining to train an Afghan army and recruiting American corporate executives to train the new Afghan ministers and bureaucrats in how to run a government.
This was an appropriately small-scale version of a “counterinsurgency” strategy—designed as much to win the hearts and minds of the Afghan people as to defeat the enemy on the battlefield—and it started to work a little bit. But Washington was obsessed with the new war in Iraq; nobody cared about Afghanistan; Barno was sent home to a petty office job, and his successor reverted to strictly military actions against the Taliban. (Barno’s experiment, along with much else in this column, is reported with more detail in my 2013 book, The Insurgents.)
After a while, Afghanistan started to attract a bit of renewed attention (official Washington was stunned that the Taliban were back, when in fact they’d never left), but the response was simply to send more troops, drop more bombs, and raid more homes.
This didn’t work. The new president, Barack Obama, was looking for a solution. (He had campaigned on the idea that Iraq was the bad war, Afghanistan the good war.) By this time, Gen. David Petraeus had become a household name by bringing the warring militias in Iraq under control, in part through a counterinsurgency strategy that was much larger and more ambitious than the one Barno had briefly tried in Afghanistan. And so, after much deliberation, Obama decided to apply the strategy in Afghanistan—and to send 30,000 more troops to help make it work. Eventually, Petraeus himself was sent to command the troops. He’d worked miracles in Iraq; the hope was he could do so in Afghanistan as well.
There were three fallacies to this hope. First, as Petraeus himself said at the time, his victory in Iraq was tactical, buying enough time for the country’s political factions to get their act together—which never happened. Second (a fact kept secret until several years later), the victory of sorts was enabled by hackers, analysts, and linguists from the National Security Agency, who captured militia leaders’ computers, swiped their passwords, and sent phony messages to their fighters, telling them to meet at a certain place—where, at the arranged hour, U.S….