As of the middle of the day on August 13, 2021, the Taliban controls roughly half of Afghanistan. Two decades after the beginning of the longest war in American history, the U.S. needs to confront a reality it has tried to avoid since the end of the similarly-long Vietnam War: wars are not always won by the bigger army.
How did we get here, so closely mimicking the Vietnam War that American troops are hastily evacuating the American embassy in Kabul?
In the Shadow of the Nineties
As the son of a former president and the sitting Governor of Texas, George W. Bush already had quite the leg up on his competition for the Republican nomination in 2000. A motley bunch of conservatives wanted the nomination but the only other person who came close was John McCain, a U.S. Senator from Arizona and a hero of the Vietnam War. But while Bush had a slew of personal advantages over McCain – his well-connected family and its ties to powerful Republican leaders like former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, an elder statesman with the party – he also had political ones. Bush was a born-again Christian who credited his faith with helping him overcome alcoholism. McCain was critical of Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson and adamantly believed in the separation of church and state. Bush’s views on church and state allowed for more blurred lines, a recognition of his belief that church could be a force for good in a way government could not always be.
Both McCain and Bush could be described as “compassionate conservatives.” The compassionate conservative believes in the good of individuals and of the government but feels that the more willing a government was to spend money, the more likely it is to see spending money as the solution in and of itself. Bush, though, was able to tie compassionate conservatism to his faith, spinning himself as a deeply religious, and therefore morally good, person.
One of the places where Bush most strongly felt the government, particularly under the Clinton administration, had been willing to spend money without really considering the effects of what it was doing was in foreign military intervention. In Somalia and Kosovo, the U.S. has used military power to tilt the balance of local conflicts towards American interests. It threatened to do so in Haiti, where the mere possibility of American military intervention was enough to affect a change in the government there. But each of these interventions came with a cost. Kosovo, for example, required a standing peacekeeping force to protect it. This led Bush to warn that, “If we don’t stop extending our troops all around the world in nation-building missions, then we’re going to have a serious problem coming down the road.”
More than anything else, though, Bush saw the 2000 election as a chance to reposition the American economy. While the era of big government had supposedly ended in 1996, Bush felt the American taxpayer sure still paid like the era of big government was going on. A big tax break and a reform of the tax code, Bush argued, would make the country better off.
The growth the U.S. economy experienced in the 1990s was unheard of. Nothing could derail the American economic engine as it steamed down the tracks. As voters went to the polls in November 2000, they had two choices: Al Gore, who was part of the government that championed the economic boom and kept talking about some kind of warming thing; and George Bush, who presided over a massive economic boom in Texas during the late 90s and who wanted you, the voter, to keep a little more of that boom in your wallet.
Were there signs of trouble? Oh, sure. The stock market took a beating during the lead up to the election – in particular these new “dot-com” stocks that maybe weren’t as good as they appeared. And on October 12, 2000, the USS Cole was attacked by suicide bombers linked to a terrorist network known as al Qaeda. How much these events played into voters’ minds is uncertain.
Just like the result of the election.
The 2000 election was a minefield that eventually resulted in Bush prevailing over Gore and being inaugurated in January 2001. He quickly set about implementing his political agenda. Writing for the Brookings Institution, Paul Light noted, “Absent some miracle that would produce a tax bill, Bush is likely to be the first President in 50 years to end his first 100 days in office without signing a single bill that he can claim as his own. At parallel points in their administrations, President Reagan was closing in on his dramatic mid-summer budget and tax-cut victories, while President Clinton had already signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, and was well on the way to Americorps.”
Indeed, Bush’s first few months were marked not by his accomplishments but by the lack of much of anything around the White House. Compared to the scandal-prone Clinton administration, the Bush administration was a Sunday School. Bush was jovial and his unusual, colloquialism-laden speech was fun, but his administration was mostly just running the country. It’s not dissimilar to the first months of the Biden administration.
On September 9, 2001, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Lion of Panjshir, met with a pair of men claiming to be journalists. They were not. Massoud, a military leader of the anti-Taliban group known as the Northern Alliance, was injured when the men detonated a bomb hidden inside their camera; he died on route to a hospital in Tajikistan.
On September 10, 2001, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that millions of dollars appropriated to the Pentagon over the past few years were unaccounted for and that the Department of Defense had a major issue with spending and budget bloat, referring to the bureaucracy of the Pentagon as “a threat, a serious threat, to the security of the United States of America.”
American intelligence had corresponded with Massoud, who had warned that al Qaeda, the organization responsible for the Cole bombing, was planning a large-scale attack in the United States. The intelligence community took Massoud seriously, but bureaucratic in-fighting prevented the different defense and intelligence agencies from communicating what they knew.
Operation Enduring Freedom
Operation Enduring Freedom began on October 7, 2001. Afghanistan had been in a de facto civil war since 1996, with the ruling Taliban challenged by the Northern Alliance. It was a de facto war because the Northern Alliance held roughly the same territory throughout the five-year conflict while the Taliban had focused on shoring up support in the nation’s south. The Northern Alliance was made up of strange bedfellows, former enemies backed financially and materially by current adversaries, united in their animosity towards the Taliban. Between 20 and 40% of Taliban fighters were Pakistani, fighting Northern Alliance soldiers armed with Iranian guns and supported by Indian doctors.
The Taliban is not, and was not, al Qaeda, but the two were close and in many instances fighters drifted from one to the other. Moreover, the Taliban had no issue with al Qaeda operating within Afghanistan so long as it did not challenge Taliban rule, and its leader, Osama bin Laden, had relatively free reign. bin Laden was wanted by the U.S. for the bombings of U.S. embassies in 1998 and, fairly quickly, it was determined that he and al Qaeda were responsible for the September 11th attacks. The U.S. demanded that the Taliban hand over bin Laden or it would go to war and, of course, it went to war.
The Taliban, by the way, were willing to hand over bin Laden – just not to the United States. This willingness is sometimes presented as a genuine offer of cooperation mired in distrust of a foreign power but realistically it was an offer to move bin Laden to a third party so the U.S. would stop bombing Afghanistan without actually surrendering bin Laden to any kind of actual justice.
By the end of 2001, the Taliban was in shambles. American military power is incredible and, what’s more, it was joined by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and, of course, the Northern Alliance. Damning the Taliban further, Pakistan nominally sided with the U.S. and the Northern Alliance, though it continued to aid the Taliban.
Operation Anaconda, launched in March 2002, encapsulated the way Americans viewed the Taliban. Though it saw heavily fighting by the U.S., just fifteen U.S. or Afghan troops died while the U.S. claimed to have killed some 800 Taliban fighters.
After Anaconda, the Taliban relied on guerrillas to attack troops or installations, but it rarely felt like a force that could actually win. Instead, it was a pest, attacking soldiers and causing havoc but never really threatening to regain control of the country. Meanwhile, the Bush administration, flush with the early victories of Afghanistan, turned to settle a score against Iraq.
Iraq was not implicated in the September 11th attacks. You would be forgiven for thinking it was, though. The Bush administration carefully crafted its rhetoric: 9/11 was done by terrorists, Saddam Hussein supports terrorists, al Qaeda are terrorists, al Qaeda are Muslim, Saddam Hussein is Muslim. If you drew conclusions from that, well, you’re a smart person. You did that yourself. We never said anything.
The Forgotten Country
On May 7, 2011, the Taliban laid siege to Kandahar. The siege had been planned for some time but it came just days after the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. forces in Pakistan. The three-day battle was unsuccessful, with Afghan government forces able to stop the Taliban from taking the city.
It had been nearly a decade since the United States invaded Afghanistan and the Taliban were still fighting. In contrast, Iraq had outlawed the ruling Ba’ath Party of Saddam Hussein in 2005 and, though a major insurgency had ravaged the country, the U.S. had formally handed control over to a civilian government. By the end of 2011, the U.S. would withdraw thousands of troops from Iraq.
That withdrawal would be short-lived, though. The Iraqi government could control many of the cities but rural areas in Iraq, like they were in Afghanistan, were ripe for extremist groups. The Iraqi branch of al Qaeda adopted a new name, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and in 2014 U.S. troops returned to combat the Islamic State. Through Operation Inherent Resolve, a group of coalition countries provide military assistance to Iraq to this day, but the country mostly manages its own defense and police and has since 2017.
Afghanistan is different. The country struggled to take control of its security. Iraq has oil and other resources to export, to turn into money it can use to build government. Afghanistan has mineral resources that would require stability to exploit; without it, the country is impoverished and its best cash crop is opium.
In both cases, however, the U.S. had to engage in the kind of nation building that Bush had decried in the 2000 election. It destabilized the governments of two countries and could not simply leave them behind. Compassionate conservatism, though, fears pouring money into a situation, lest you give a man a fish but never teach him how to fish.
Well, it didn’t fear pouring money into the Pentagon. That was in the name of American security, after all. The U.S. pledged to “organize, train, equip, and sustain Afghan security forces” and ensured a peaceful election in 2005. It bought American military equipment for Afghanistan’s new military and sent advisors to train them in how to use it.
But when President Hamid Karzai asked for $10 billion from the international community to fight corruption and shore up the national economy, he got nowhere. By 2014, the U.S. had handed over security responsibilities to the Afghanistan government and was now subject to Afghan oversight. Over the next five years, Afghan security forces tussled with the Taliban, both aware that the U.S. could return if necessary. The U.S. hadn’t even fully left; a major military presence, particularly around Kabul, was meant to demonstrate a lasting commitment to a democratic Afghanistan.
A peace between the national government and the Taliban was nearly reached during the Trump administration before President Trump scuttled it after the death of an American soldier. Peace talks did occur between the Taliban and the Afghan government and they seemed to be progressing, with the U.S. ultimately ending its commitment to Afghanistan in 2021.
The end of the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan came because, quite simply, the objectives were met. Osama bin Laden was dead and al Qaeda was in ruins. Whether or not the Taliban regained control of Afghanistan was no longer something the U.S. was willing to care about it.
Chalk it up to “America First,” but it’s hard to imagine how else the war might have gone. In the aftermath of the September 11th attacks, the U.S. saw in Afghanistan an adversary that was in some way responsible for the attacks but was also tangible, unlike the nebulous and stateless al Qaeda. The war in Afghanistan was easily understandable. It was also ill-fated from the start because the Bush administration feared the very nation building they had to engage in for the conflict to result in anything other than the destabilization of an impoverished country.
The U.S. had anticipated that the Taliban would win in the end. Exactly when it figured this out is still not known, but earlier this year the Biden administration pledged it would withdraw U.S. troops unconditionally, no matter what the situation on the ground looked like. That reads like Pentagon leaders knew that the situation in Afghanistan was untenable. Yet, the U.S. is still abandoning that commitment, and the fragile democracy it built there. It is attempting to get as many Afghan interpreters out of the country as it can, worried that they may be targets of Taliban revenge when the capital inevitably falls.
The Rhymes of History
Mark Twain probably never said “history never repeats itself, but it does often rhyme,” although he did write the more poetic but harder to quote, “History never repeats itself, but the Kaleidoscopic combinations of the pictured present often seem to be constructed out of the broken fragments of antique legends.”
Whether rhymes or mosaics, the history of American military conflict has felt increasingly like a broken loop. The longer an American war is, the less likely the U.S. is to prevail. The evacuation of Kabul may not yet evoke the same imagery as the fall of Saigon, but it surely will.
By the fall of Saigon in 1975, the U.S. had already formally ended its involvement in the Vietnam War. This slip away from the region years earlier would for some time give cover to the invincibility myth that surrounded the American military. The U.S. had not lost the Vietnam War, it had exited the war in peace. That the peace was broken almost immediately and South Vietnam swiftly crushed without U.S. help was not the fault of the United States. But if the goal of the Vietnam War was to protect an independent democratic Vietnam then of course the U.S. lost the war. It never achieved its objective.
If, as we’ve considered, the goal of the War in Afghanistan was simple to chastise the Taliban for its willingness to shelter anti-American terrorists then surely that mission was accomplished some time ago. The Taliban was thoroughly chastised by 2002. The United States hung around, though, which suggests that maybe we had some other ideal: a democratic Afghanistan.
When did we try to accomplish that ideal, though? Throughout not just the Bush administration but the Obama and Trump administrations, too, the U.S. was gun shy when it came to the real work of nation building. We had never been so shy with other nations; we wrote the Japanese constitution.
If Vietnam taught us anything, it was that we could not impose government or ideals on a people. The south Vietnamese did not like their government and were distrustful of the Americans. The lack of trust was pervasive. In Afghanistan, to avoid the rhyme of history, the U.S. tried to take a hands-off approach to rebuilding the nation. Neither approach worked because both assumed that an outside force could spark regime change without the nastiness that comes with regime changes.
Do not be misled: more than 250,000 Afghans have fled the violence of the Taliban and few want to return to the harsh authoritarian regime of the ultra-religious Taliban. The United States, in abandoning its resolve in Afghanistan, is abandoning the people there, and it is doing so out of the very fears this article is about: that Afghanistan is a new Vietnam, a new, perpetual war, from which the U.S. can never truly escape. The only escape is abandonment, and the only alternative to abandonment is to trapped forever in the mountains of central Asia. It is the worst imaginable situation and it has come to us because no one was willing to do what really had to be done to make the American invasion in Afghanistan work.