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.