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Afghanistan in hindsight

Afghanistan in hindsight

I have been asked on several occasions, what I would have done differently in terms of Afghanistan.  From my several commentaries on the subject, I would have thought that readers would have known.  My view is that we should have won the war early on.  Apparently, that needs a bit more explanation.

The United States – and our allies – essentially stopped fighting in Afghanistan in 2014 when the mission was changed to an advisory and intelligence role – except for continued air support.  That is when the American casualty count dropped significantly.  If there was ever an intent to actually win the war, that change in mission meant winning the war was no longer the objective.  We were doomed to a war of attrition.  Exactly the kind of war the Taliban and other terrorists are able to maintain. 

After six more years of refusing to win the war, President Trump decided to start the surrender.  He did place conditions on American withdrawal – and was going to maintain air support.  

Instead of reversing the Trump decision – and order a win-the-war strategy – President Biden ended America’s and our allies’ presence on the ground – and our support for the Afghan government and the majority of the people who had been given a significant sample of freedom.  A major blow to the Afghan military was Biden’s ending air support. 

Many argue that given the situation, there was no reason to carry on a war of attrition any longer.  Victory was no longer an option.  And that does make some sense if you accept, as fact, that America and our allies were incapable of winning the war – that we were doomed to defeat because Afghanistan was “the graveyard of empires.”

Opponents of the war argue that we had no reason to even enter the conflict – or should have exited (surrendered Afghanistan to the Taliban) after we killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in 2010.  They say that was the only reasons for our troops fighting in the Islamic nation.  That is not true.

In reality, fighting in Afghanistan was more than tracking down bin Laden.  We can see that from the aftermath of America’s unconditional surrender.  We are told by the American military leaders that the Taliban remains a dangerous enemy.  The al Qaeda wing was never put out of business – and is once again growing in size and influence under the sponsorship of the Taliban.

While Trump lead the civilized world in defeating the ISIS califate, the terrorist organization was never annihilated.  They are again on the rise.  Virtually every American-hating terrorist organization on earth has gained either enhanced physical power or psychological advantages.  

Those were the reasons the war was necessary and important.  Killing ben Laden was just part of the purpose.

Whether we have declared that America is no longer in a state of war with the Taliban, al Qaeda or ISIS, they are still at war with America.  The Afghan conflict was a major part of our overall war on terrorism.  

Maybe America did not really “surrender” because that usually means some terms of surrender that lay out the conditions and give a vision of the post-war relationship.  In that context, we did not “surrender.”  We simply tucked tail and ran – hoping they will not come and get us. 

What has bothered me for most of the 20 years we fought and advised in Afghanistan is why we did not win the war.  Every President since 2001 has bragged that the United States has, by far, the most powerful military in the world.  Really?  Either that is not true, or we decided politically and diplomatically to NOT win the war – to not deploy our military effectively. 

We spent trillions of dollars and lost hundreds of thousands of lives – American military, allied fighters, contractors, Afghan soldiers, and citizens … for nothing.  Those who died, died in vain.  Our young fighters were sent into battle with no intention to win.

So … what should we have done?  We should have done what we should do before entering any war.  We should have had a worthy objective – as we did in Afghanistan – and lay out a winning strategy and then implement it.  What does a win look like?

I do not believe that it was impossible for America to win the war.  We and our allies should have driven the Taliban and al Qaeda into the mountains – and then used our intelligence network and our air force to bomb the Taliban into submission.  

It may have taken a hundred thousand soldiers to do the job.  But I would let the logistics, strategies, and tactics up those who know how to deploy America’s military – the generals and admirals at the Pentagon.

I believe that kind of international determination would have inspired the civilized world and intimidated the state sponsors of terrorism.  I see no way that a rag-tag bunch of terrorists fighting with machine guns on the backs of pick-up trucks and home-made roadside bombs — would stand a chance against a large, well equipped, and determined multi-national army – a fighting force with planes, drones, bunker-busting bombs and state of the art artillery and personal arms.

We have even seen how effective an acceleration can be.  

The war in Afghanistan began with a bombing raid on October 7, 2001.  In short order, the Taliban controlling the country was on the run.   The Council on Foreign Relations history of Afghanistan had this report on those early days.

“The Taliban regime unravels rapidly after its loss at Mazar-e-Sharif on November 9, 2001, to forces loyal to Abdul Rashid Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek military leader. Over the next week Taliban strongholds crumble after coalition and Northern Alliance offensives on Taloqan (11/11), Bamiyan (11/11), Herat (11/12), Kabul (11/13), and Jalalabad (11/14). On November 14, 2001, the UN Security Council passes Resolution 1378, calling for a “central role” for the United Nations in establishing a transitional administration and inviting member states to send peacekeeping forces to promote stability and aid delivery.”

In just two months, the Taliban control of the nation completely collapsed.  They and al Qaeda were driven to the remote mountain region on the Pakistani border.

There were significant gains in Afghanistan when President Obama ordered a surge in 2010 – committing another 30 thousand U.S. troops to the war to oppose increased Taliban aggression.  He put General David Petraeus in charge.  Once again, the Taliban were being routed and their offensive actions blunted.

In 2011 bin Laden was killed in Pakistan.  That was the point the war of attrition began.  Obama launched his drawdown policy – as he did in Iraq.  And with similar results – but over a longer period.  In 2014, Obama took America out of the fight – with only an advisory mission remaining along with essential air support.

 After that, there was no effort to win the war.  Subsequently, Trump and Biden continued the policy of a slow 5-year retreat that came to a catastrophic conclusion in August of 2021.

To the question, what would I have done if I were President?

I would have ordered the generals to give me a plan to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan.  Explain what would constitute victory – and what would be needed to achieve it.  And I would have given them whatever they needed to do the job.

You see … I do not believe that the United States did not then or now have the ability – and the resources – necessary to defeat the Taliban and further degrade al Qaeda and ISIS.  I believe such a victory would have chilled terrorist activities throughout the globe.  It would have emboldened our allies and intimidate our adversaries.  It would have reinforced the United States’ leadership throughout the world.  It would have accomplished the opposite of everything America has suffered from Biden’s ill-fated decision.

So, there ‘tis.

About The Author

Larry Horist

So,there‘tis… The opinions, perspectives and analyses of Larry Horist Larry Horist is a businessman, conservative writer and political strategist with an extensive background in economics and public policy. Clients of his consulting firm have included such conservative icons as Steve Forbes and Milton Friedman. He has served as a consultant to the Nixon White House and travelled the country as a spokesman for President Reagan’s economic reforms. He has testified as an expert witness before numerous legislative bodies, including the U. S. Congress. Horist has lectured and taught courses at numerous colleges and universities, including Harvard, Northwestern, DePaul universities, Hope College and his alma mater, Knox College. He has been a guest on hundreds of public affairs talk shows, and hosted his own program, “Chicago In Sight,” on WIND radio. Horist was a one-time candidate for mayor of Chicago and served as Executive Director of the City Club of Chicago, where he led a successful two-year campaign to save the historic Chicago Theatre from the wrecking ball. An award-winning debater, his insightful and sometimes controversial commentaries appear frequently on the editorial pages of newspapers across the nation. He is praised by readers for his style, substance and sense of humor. According to one reader, Horist is the “new Charles Krauthammer.” He is actively semi-retired in Boca Raton, Florida where he devotes his time to writing. So, there ‘tis is Horist’s signature sign off.


  1. frank stetson

    Well, 20 years, four Presidents, how many Generals, and for what? Just don’t see how more of the same puts you in a better place.

    Given where we were, what we apparently did or did not know today, while we understand what you might have done in the past, so what?

    Can we win today, that was the question? I ask first, win what? What do we win after we win?

    These Generals say retaining 2,500 troops would change the outcome and that’s what we needed to do. In what universe could that be true? It certainly wouldn’t spell success to you based on what you said above. So, basically the best our current Generals can do is just what they did before, hold the status quo, gain no further success, and continue on as is for some more years. Their “solution” was to continue to do what has been failing for so long. Or “having lost sight of our objective, we decided that doing the same thing would provide a different outcome.”

    It’s sad you believe these kids died in vain; I do not. Did we win. No, most certainly not. But we could have IF we had suck to the original goals of the mission and not rewritten them to keep us there for 20 years. We should have started leaving the day Bin Laden left this mortal coil.

    • Harold Blankenship

      Where did we go wrong? By not taking over the country and putting the people there under our government. Like some of the lands that we conquered during WW II. By the way, what happened to Ben. I guess that we ran him off of the site

      • Joseph S. Bruder

        Ben probably just needed a break to take care of his own affairs. Larry writes one of his Biden (and/or Democrat) hit-pieces every day… the rest of us have real jobs besides trying to keep Larry honest (a losing proposition).

        • John cook

          Ben is probably off somewhere sniffing bicycle seats. Democrats are perverts. Joe and Frank should go join him

  2. Joseph S. Bruder

    Well, Larry, you are right about one thing – you admit that you think Trump was wrong to surrender to the Taliban. “Instead of reversing the Trump decision” is a backhanded way of saying Trump fucked up and Biden should have reversed it. Except it was an agreement that Trump signed and committed the US to. Can you imagine all the attacks on US citizens and military personnel if Biden had pulled out of that agreement?

    And then you say Biden should “order a win-the-war strategy” and that if you were in charge you “would have ordered the generals to give me a plan to defeat the Taliban and al Qaeda in Afghanistan”. Larry, now you are showing that you’re out of your ever-lovin’ gourd! The Russians couldn’t do it in 10 years, we couldn’t do it in 20, and you (who complained in another column about the $350B per year being spent on building up US infrastructure) think you can double down (let’s call it $350 billion, just for kicks) and throw enough military hardware (that takes years to build up) and manpower (ditto, years to build up, train, and then more years to bring home) to change the course of a war on their home turf? And don’t forget that Biden also campaigned on pulling the US out – why would he want to re-start the war from scratch, and commit the US to another 20 years there?

    The sad part is that Bush had the opportunity to pull out within a year or so of the beginning, but wanted to annihilate the Taliban instead of just winning. A real leader recognizes when to take your toys and go home.

    Larry, you write “Maybe America did not really “surrender” because that usually means some terms of surrender that lay out the conditions and give a vision of the post-war relationship.” Larry (besides the fact that you’re now admitting that Trump surrendered), I already attached the entire agreement to one of your columns – would you like to see it again? The sum total of the agreement is “We will leave, here are your prisoners, don’t attack us, and we’ll put in a good word for you with the UN.” You only dictate the terms of the “post war relationship” if you are the winner. Trump essentially made them pinky-swear that they wouldn’t chase us home on the way out.

    Yes, the US could carpet bomb the whole country or nuke it and be done with them. But that would be a mockery of everything the US stands for, and we’d be left with millions of refugees and even more militant and determined Taliban (and non-Taliban) fighters who want to kill us. We’d have a big piece of radioactive land with no strategic value, and a responsibility to rebuild it for whoever is left alive there. Larry, sometimes it’s just better to walk away. Trump could have negotiated a better outcome, but that ship sailed before Biden took the helm. We were not going to ever win in Afghanistan. Let them devolve into cannibalism, or build up a new shining city on the hill, or whatever it is they are destined to do. Some of them have seen what American-style society is like, for better or worse. We can’t change their fate, only they can.

  3. larry Horist

    There is a fundamental difference between us. I do believe that the United States could have defeat the Taliban if we had put the military tot he task. You do not believe that America has the military power to win the war. You, and others, claim that it was a mistake to get into the war .. and were were ultimately defeated — and yet, the 2400 fallen soldiers did NOT die in vain. What, accomplishment did the die for. I consider them heroes of the first order, but they died in vain because out political leaders sent them into battle and they decided not to win. Just tell me what you think our fallen heroes died for?

    • Joseph S. Bruder

      Larry, if we could win the war, don’t you think it started with Bush saying “Hey generals, go out and beat the Taliban in 6 months”? And that didn’t work

      … and then Obama says, “Hey Generals, what will it take to win this war? 35,000 troop surge? OK, go do it!” and that didn’t work …

      … and then Trump says to his buddy in Mar a Lago, “Hey Fred, what will it take to win the war in Afghanistan” and then tried whatever Fred said, and when that didn’t work, he said, OK, go make a deal and make it sound good…

      … and then Biden asked the Generals “Afghanistan – what are our options?” and they said, “Trump surrendered. Get the hell out while you have political cover”… and that’s what he did.

      Not a single President said “go in there and lose one for the Gipper”… Larry, what the hell are you thinking? You can waltz in after 20 years of no progress whatsoever and just say, “Time to quit screwing around guys… now you can start winning”? That’s the fundamental difference between us – I’m grounded in reality.

  4. Frank stetson

    The Generals asked for 2.500 troops to remain.

    The solution on the table by our experts was useless.

    Could we have won with total war? I would like to say yes, but Larry, don’t think anyone ever has in Afghanistan.

    • larry Horist

      Okay Frank. I get it. You basically do not believe that the United States has .. or ever had the military capability of defeating the Taliban. If that is the case, the Russian, China and even Iran can take over the world — and the way things are going, they probably will. After all, according to you … we are totally incapable of keeping the South China Sea open. No way we can defend Taiwan. Putin gets Ukraine. North Korea joins the anti-American ICBM nuclear club. Biden surrendered a lot more than Afghanistan.

      • Joseph S. Bruder

        Trump withheld military aid from Ukraine while trying to extract campaign favors. He essentially gave Putin the green light to do whatever he wanted there (not to mention giving him Syria too). Trump actively encouraged North Korea onto the world stage during his “love affair” with Kim… And he antagonized the Chinese with his trade war. And on top of that, he pulled out of the nuclear agreement with Iran, and allowed them to continue building up their nuclear materials. Those are all messes that Biden is trying to clean up now. Some will take cooperation with European allies (relationships that Trump damaged, and Biden is trying to rebuild), and some of those problems may take a generation to fix.

        And again, Trump surrendered Afghanistan, not Biden. Biden just made the decision that Trump already fucked it up, and there was nothing he could do except finish the withdrawal. If you wanted another war, see my other reply.

    • Joseph S. Bruder

      Contrary to what Larry thinks about me (he has a habit of making completely wrong guesses about what Democrats/liberals/progressives think), yes, I believe the US military could win in Afghanistan – but at what cost? We’d have to kill a third of the population, destroy most of their infrastructure, practically level the mountains, and kill thousands (if not 10’s or 100’s of thousands) of civilians. What would that do to our standing in the world? Do you think the other countries in our coalition would have gone along with that? Would the people of the US support a war like that? It wasn’t popular when Bush went in, and people were pretty supportive of Biden getting us out. People would support a war against a monster like Hitler, but invading another country to save them from themselves is not exactly a “just war”.

      A war like Larry proposes would create an humanitarian crisis that the world hasn’t seen in at least a few generations. Think of how many refugees that would generate. Republicans (under Trump and Miller) shut off the refugee pipeline completely. I think the American people would accept the refugees (they’ve been pretty welcoming to the 120,000 that Biden brought in), but would Republicans in Congress go along or fight tooth and nail against war refugees? How many REAL terrorists would that war generate? The Taliban has it’s hands full and no real reason to come to the US now, but a war like that would not only energize the remaining Taliban, but every Muslim in the Middle East would be trying to kill as many Americans as possible.

      And that’s just the humanitarian side of the war. What about the cost? We’re probably talking about 100,000 troops to do what Larry wants. Obama tried 35,000 and it went nowhere. Ready to spend another 5 or 10 trillion dollars over the NEXT 10 years? And what happens if they dig in even more and we’re still not “winning”? Double down again? Or pull out after 10 more years of ever-more wasted money? How long will our economy hold up with that much money drained out of taxpayer pockets? When will the pipeline of available cannon-fodder dry up? If the war is unpopular, and nobody is volunteering, is Larry ready for a draft? Pretty much the entire US and both political parties were behind the WW2 effort, but right now if Democrats say the sky is blue, Republicans will mobilize a third of the population to say it’s actually red. Republicans in Congress were happy to support Trump’s surrender, but when Biden actually pulled the troops out they were suddenly against it.

      Larry is playing tic-tac-toe in a 3-dimensional chess world.

  5. frank stetson

    “Okay Frank. I get it.” Actually, not even close.

    “You basically do not believe that the United States has .. or ever had the military capability of defeating the Taliban.” Basically, that is not what I said. I said: “Could we have won with total war? I would like to say yes, but Larry, don’t think anyone ever has in Afghanistan.” Previously, I had said: “Can we win today, that was the question? I ask first, win what? What do we win after we win?” You did not respond.

    And that’s the point. You want to win, but win what? Do I believe we can level the place and move in. Absolutely. I mean we have enough nukes to level a good chunk of the world. Is that is winning? Win the hearts and minds and convince the Afghan nation that they want a CVS on every corner and big box stores on every street? Not bloody likely. I mean if the Russians couldn’t do it, I do not think we have the evilness to exceed their brutality, and certainly, after 20 years, pretty doubtful the Afghan hearts and minds will change with anything we do.

    Sure, we rule the world and can rain death from above anywhere, but that’s not winning a war. We can police a defeated nation and make them follow our rules, but forced democracy with a puppet government is not winning the war either. We have yet to force people to democracy, to our way of providing human and civil rights, but I guess that’s kind of what you are asking for. To rid them of people we don’t like and then force them to be a democratic republic like us whether they want it our not. And so, unless you win the hearts and minds, the real culture remains.

    “If that is the case, the Russian, China and even Iran can take over the world — and the way things are going, they probably will.” Hmm, somehow I don’t see the connection here, but I guess that’s your opinion. It never entered my mind, or discussion. After all Larry, they may have Afghanistan, but we have West Virginia. Ain’t no one ever taking that place.

    “After all, according to you … we are totally incapable of keeping the South China Sea open. No way we can defend Taiwan. Putin gets Ukraine. North Korea joins the anti-American ICBM nuclear club. Biden surrendered a lot more than Afghanistan.” This is just more gibberish; nothing that I said or thought. Or are you espousing the famed Domino theory which we disproved after so many lives in Vietnam?

    IMO, Larry: could we decimate them, yes. Could we win the war, no. It takes two to nation build Larry, and only we wanted it in Afghanistan. Freedom is difficult, liberty is hard. You have to want it, really want it more than anything else and be willing to make the sacrifices to keep it. You have to be willing to die for it. The Afghans, after 20 years, did not rise to that occasion, and us leveling the place, expelling the bad guys, did not change that in 20 years. I don’t think more bombs and bullets would make anything different. The Afghans just laid done their guns.

    IMO, we did what we came to do. We got Bin Laden, we mete out punishment for those who enabled, we gave Afghanistan 20 years to get it’s act together, and our kids bravely defended our nation, tried to let Afghanistan find it’s democracy, and then we left. The Taliban, having a full year or more from Trump’s recruitment agreement, reconstituted itself, redeployed, and the nation basically welcomed them. It is, what it is. Now we see if Taliban 2.0 is different, we already see some change, some reversion to human rights violations, still a bit early, probably won’t end well, but we will see.