How America Lost Its Way in Afghanistan

By Fredrik Logevall


A History

By Carter Malkasian


A Secret History of the War

By Craig Whitlock

In the predawn hours of July 1 they departed, the few remaining U.S. troops at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan, the center of operations for America’s longest war. At its peak the sprawling compound — there were two runways, a 50-bed hospital, shops and restaurants, and a notorious “black jail” prison — housed tens of thousands of U.S. service members; now the last of them flew off, without fanfare and after shutting off the electricity. It marked the symbolic end of America’s 20-year military intervention in a war-ravaged land.

Left behind at the base were some 3.5 million items, carefully cataloged, including furniture and electronics, small arms and ammunition, as well as thousands of civilian vehicles and hundreds of armored trucks. The plan was for the material to be inherited by the Afghan military; most of it was, but not before looters made off with a substantial haul.

It will be up to historians of the future, writing with broad access to official documents and with the kind of detachment that only time brings, to fully explain the remarkable early-morning scene at Bagram and all that led up to it. But there’s much we can already learn — abundant material is available. When the historians get down to work, chances are they will make ample use of two penetrating new works: Carter Malkasian’s “The American War in Afghanistan” and Craig Whitlock’s “The Afghanistan Papers.”

The two volumes constitute a powerful one-two punch, covering as they do the key developments in the war and reaching broadly similar conclusions, but with differing emphases. Malkasian provides greater detail and context, while Whitlock’s United States-centric account is fast-paced and vivid, and chock-full of telling quotes. Both authors paint a picture of an American war effort that, after breathtaking early success, lost its way, never to recover.

My recommendation is to read the Malkasian first. A former civilian adviser in Afghanistan who also served as a senior aide to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Malkasian speaks Pashto and has a doctorate in history. In this, his third and most comprehensive book on Afghanistan, he provides a broad-reaching and quietly authoritative overview of U.S. involvement, from 9/11 onward. He is good on military operations, including the Battle of Marjah in 2010. No less important, he enlightens us on the Afghan part of the story — on the tribal system and its variations; on the forbidding geography, so vital in the fighting; on the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar and his decision-making; on the complex and ever-shifting relationships between the government of Hamid Karzai and the warlords in the provinces.

Whitlock, a veteran Washington Post reporter, expands on a much-discussed series of articles that appeared in The Post in late 2019 and that were based on interviews and documents gathered by the Office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) for several “Lessons Learned” reports. (Malkasian also makes copious use of these materials.) In Whitlock’s grim assessment, American military and civilian leaders in three successive administrations from George W. Bush’s to Donald J. Trump’s engaged in an “unspoken conspiracy to mask the truth” about the almost continuous setbacks on the ground in Afghanistan.

It wasn’t always that way. At the start, in early October 2001, the United States rode a wave of international support following the 9/11 attacks to launch a sustained aerial campaign against Al Qaeda and the ruling Taliban and dispatched Special Operations forces to assist a resistance organization in northern Afghanistan. The result was a rout. Within 60 days, the Taliban was driven from power, with the loss of only four U.S. troops and one C.I.A. agent. It was a stunning victory, even if Osama bin Laden and top Taliban leaders eluded capture.

Flushed with success, U.S. planners were uncertain about what to do next. They feared that Afghanistan could descend into chaos, but didn’t want to be saddled with the tasks of nation-building. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who is a key figure in both volumes, personified the indecision. Empowered by George W. Bush to oversee the mission, Rumsfeld shared the president’s inclination to view the Taliban and Al Qaeda as inseparable. Yet he also showed a subtler side. More than many of his colleagues, he worried about getting bogged down in Afghanistan, and about the potential cost of the struggle to U.S. taxpayers. He understood that American power, no matter how great in relative terms, was limited.

“Respectful of Afghanistan’s history,” Malkasian writes, Rumsfeld “was aware that U.S. troops could upset the Afghan people and trigger an uprising. He wanted to outsource to Afghan partners and be done with the place as soon as possible. In hindsight, he was prescient. Yet his actual decisions cut off opportunities to avoid the future he so feared.”

Thus Rumsfeld ignored entreaties to include the Taliban in the postwar settlement in late 2001, despite support for the notion from Karzai. Thus he sanctioned overly aggressive counterterrorism operations that alienated ordinary Afghans and in short order drove former Taliban supporters to resort again to violence. And thus he and Bush turned a blind eye to the repressive actions of Karzai’s government and its warlord allies.

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Most important, Rumsfeld neglected to build up the Afghan security forces. He dismissed as “crazy” a January 2002 request from the Afghan interim government for $466 million a year to train and equip 200,000 soldiers. The Afghans scaled back their request, then scaled it back some more, until Rumsfeld agreed to a cap of 50,000 soldiers. Even then, little was accomplished, as Rumsfeld, increasingly preoccupied with the planning for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, insisted that training and housing costs for the recruits be minimized, and pay be kept low. By the beginning of 2004, a mere 6,000 Afghan Army troops had been trained; by 2006, when Rumsfeld stepped down, the figure had risen to 26,000, still far too few to counter the major and successful offensive the Taliban launched that year.

The offensive proved a turning point, showing in stark terms the immense challenge the Bush administration had set for itself. The United States had entered a country it didn’t understand, one that had flummoxed great powers in the past, and it had done so without a clear long-term strategy. Its client government in Kabul was beset by corruption and the lack of broad popular backing, while the Taliban was dedicated and resourceful and able to repair to sanctuaries in neighboring Pakistan to rest and plan. From an early point, moreover, U.S. leaders were preoccupied with the deteriorating security situation in Iraq. Afghanistan became a sideshow. (Robert Gates, who succeeded Rumsfeld as secretary of defense in 2007, recalled that he had three priorities upon taking office: “Iraq, Iraq and Iraq.”)

Yet even as American planners acknowledged — behind closed doors — that they were losing in Afghanistan, they kept up the bullish public pronouncements. “Lies and Spin,” Whitlock titles a particularly devastating chapter, as he quotes general after general declaring to reporters that the trend lines pointed in the right direction, that the enemy was on the ropes, that victory would soon come. Never mind the plethora of intelligence assessments showing the opposite — the Taliban, far from reeling, was expanding its reach, ever more confident it would prevail in the end. Or as a Taliban commander put it to a U.S. official in 2006, sounding much like a North Vietnamese counterpart from circa 1966: “You have all the clocks but we have all the time.”

The surge of 2009 under Barack Obama should loom large in any account of the war, and so it does in these books. It involved a major but temporary escalation, which had the aim of using enormous resources to reverse the Taliban momentum within two years and then turning over security operations to the Kabul government. One wishes for more on the domestic political intricacies that shaped the policy’s contours, but both books make clear that the surge failed to bring lasting results, even though, as Malkasian puts it, “the best minds, accomplished generals and a careful president led the way.” Malkasian is sympathetic to Obama’s plight — the president, new to the office and faced with a menu of terrible choices, was boxed in by pressure from the military and from Republicans in Congress. “Bush had enjoyed freedom to maneuver for half his presidency,” he writes, while “Obama never enjoyed such freedom.”

Whitlock is less forgiving, faulting the Obama team for adopting a new counterinsurgency strategy that achieved little except to further alienate the local population; for failing to clamp down on pervasive Afghan government corruption; and for refusing — like its predecessor — to level with the American people, instead insisting on a “false narrative of progress.” Though Obama in his second term reduced sharply the scope of military operations, “The Afghanistan Papers” castigates him for failing to deliver on a promise to end the war, and for conjuring up “an illusion” that the remaining American forces would be on the sidelines, in an advisory capacity; in reality, they were still in the fight, on the ground in counterterrorism operations as well as from the air. And so they would remain under his successor, Donald Trump, who swallowed his initial inclination to get out and instead vowed to achieve the victory that had eluded Bush and Obama.

Could it have gone differently? Neither of these authors gives much reason to believe that an alternative American strategy would have brought an appreciably different result. Malkasian, the more sanguine of the two, identifies some missed opportunities to limit the bloodshed and cut back U.S. involvement, but concludes that Afghanistan was always destined to be a long and difficult slog (“something to be endured”). Whitlock, for his part, credits President Joe Biden for his April 2021 decision to pull the last U.S. forces from what the author terms an “unwinnable war.”

Indeed, one puts down these two estimable works with the strong sense that the very presence of the United States created a monumental problem for the Kabul government. Much like South Vietnam a half century before, it could never escape being tainted by its association with a foreign occupying power. Vast quantities of American aid, necessary to any hope of prevailing in the war, wiped out any hope of securing robust popular support. Or, more simply: One couldn’t win without the Americans, and one couldn’t win with them.

Could some way have been found out of the dilemma? The question has loomed larger than ever as the last American aircraft rumbled down the runway at Bagram on that early July morning and flew off into the darkness.

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