The American war in Afghanistan incurred staggering costs — for the United States, Afghans and others — over two decades. The U.S. government spent $2.3 trillion, and the war led to the deaths of 2,324 U.S. military personnel, 3,917 U.S. contractors and 1,144 allied troops. For Afghans, the statistics are nearly unimaginable: 70,000 Afghan military and police deaths, 46,319 Afghan civilians (although that is likely a significant underestimation) and some 53,000 opposition fighters killed. Almost 67,000 other people were killed in Pakistan in relation to the Afghan war.

American soldiers overseeing training of their Afghan counterparts at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, March 22, 2016. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)
American soldiers overseeing training of their Afghan counterparts at Camp Bastion in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, March 22, 2016. (Adam Ferguson/The New York Times)

The full extent of the indirect costs is greater still, considering injuries and illnesses, displacement, war widows and orphans, malnutrition, destruction of infrastructure and environmental degradation due to the war. Given these immense costs and the Taliban’s total victory, it is worth examining closely whether it was possible to achieve a compromise with the Taliban that would have preserved U.S. and Afghan government political objectives.

In a discussion at USIP, U.S. government officials and academic experts noted that for a long time the U.S. did not seek political negotiations because U.S. officials thought victory was possible and the political risks of talking to the Taliban too high. By the time that thinking changed, impatience and weak U.S. leverage made it impossible for Washington to secure any interests beyond the withdrawal of troops. Interagency silos, biases toward a need for vengeance and a focus on total victory fed misjudgments that ultimately resulted in a lack of meaningful attention to pursuing a political settlement.

Prioritizing Short-term Counterterrorism Above a Political Settlement

Over the course of four U.S. administrations, counterterrorism remained the United States’ primary goal in Afghanistan. “The peace process was never our priority,” said Tamanna Salikuddin, the director of South Asia programs at the USIP, during the discussion.

Dipali Mukhopadhyay, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota and a senior expert at USIP, noted that the primacy of counterterrorism put “the Afghan government in an impossible position. It demanded of them to engage as if they were a sovereign state when, in fact, they were a territory that was being used by the U.S. in service of this war. And the Taliban understood that.”

The reasons for U.S. inattention to a comprehensive political settlement shifted over the 20-year intervention. In the immediate wake of the attacks on 9/11 and the swift ousting of the Taliban government, “the focus was on building a new government in Kabul” and its legitimacy, Salikuddin said. “Even when senior Taliban leaders offered to surrender in exchange for amnesty, there was no space for consideration of it because ‘we were winning’ and ‘we would beat the terrorists.’ No one expected the Taliban would come back as a major threat.”

Mukhopadhyay observed that “logics of vengeance, triumphalism and political expediency” drove U.S. strategic decision-making in the early years of the war, and in large part persisted through 2021. Salikuddin similarly recalled that the failure to prevent 9/11 energized U.S. national security and intelligence institutions, and U.S. activities mirrored the need for vengeance. This contributed to a political climate in which talking to the Taliban “was just not acceptable,” and even in the Obama administration when U.S. officials pursued secret channels for talks, “it was taboo,” said Salikuddin. “We had sold the American public this idea that the Taliban were the worst terrorists … and there was no way we could negotiate with them. How would we then politically acknowledge that we were going to talk with them?”

U.S. government perceptions of the battlefield also continued to shape thinking about negotiating with the Taliban, even when those perceptions were flawed. Chris Kolenda, a retired U.S. Army colonel and adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, pointed to critical factors that the United States misjudged or failed to appreciate: the Taliban’s external sanctuary in Pakistan, a degree of indigenous support for the Taliban and the Afghan Republic government’s inability to win the battle of legitimacy in insurgent-controlled or contested areas.

These factors were stacked against U.S. goals to degrade or defeat the insurgency and build a national government with an army and police forces capable of standing up to the Taliban. As Kolenda underscored, historically, no counterinsurgency effort has been successful when those factors were pointing in the wrong direction. The U.S. exit strategy, however, was premised on the vain hope that it could overcome those factors.

At crucial junctures, like the Obama administration’s troop surge, the U.S. government failed to invest in alternative, political paths to end the war. According to Salikuddin, who was a senior advisor to the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan from 2014-2017, the policy debates were about counterterrorism versus counterinsurgency, how to get Pakistan to cooperate and how to strengthen the Afghan government and security forces.

On the other hand, very few U.S. officials advocated for a comprehensive political process as the main line of effort. Indeed, for many years, some held on to a glimmer of hope that the United States would win the war. The low numbers of U.S. casualties meant that keeping troops in Afghanistan became an acceptable status quo.

The irony is that the idea of a political process to end the war gained traction and acceptance within U.S. policymaking circles at the same time that U.S. leverage was on the decline, as the American troop presence dwindled. By the Trump administration, the American public was increasingly war-weary and there was desperation to end America’s longest war. This in turn “made the peace process an expedience, a way to get out, not really a way to get a settlement,” said Salikuddin.

Kolenda stressed the consequences of U.S. impatience: “As soon as the U.S. began unilateral troop withdrawals, it became clear that the U.S. just wanted to get out. Then the Taliban could play for time and play hardball.” Nor were the incentives right for the Afghan Republic to negotiate an end to the conflict, Kolenda observed; the imperative for Republic leaders was to do everything they could to keep U.S. forces in Afghanistan.

U.S. Bureaucracy Not Set Up to Pursue a Political Settlement

Salikuddin, Kolenda, and Mukhopadhyay concurred that there are significant structural obstacles within the U.S. government that militated against efforts to align political and military strategies, or even to conceive of ending a conflict through a negotiated settlement.

“The U.S. has no organized way of thinking about war termination beyond decisive, zero-sum victory,” Kolenda argued. Part of the problem is resource imbalances that privilege military tools of national power. U.S. agencies often operated in silos and without a strategic vision of a realistic end state. “We have nobody functionally in charge of our wars. There is nobody on the ground in Kabul in charge of all U.S. efforts on the ground. [Those efforts] are all silos reporting to Washington, and all doing their own things,” Kolenda said.

From the intelligence community to the Defense Department to the State Department to the U.S. Agency for International Development, each bureaucracy was focused on its own goals without an overarching strategy driving toward a common goal. These agencies may have been achieving milestones, Kolenda said, and therefore believed they were being successful. Meanwhile, the overall mission was in drift. “Instead of being a fist that moves as one, we’re like five fingers that we keep getting jammed.”

Why Did Lessons Go Unlearned or Ignored?

From the outset of the war, a vast amount of relevant knowledge could have informed U.S. policy, Mukhopadhyay said. For instance, empirical evidence existed on the role that spoilers could play in derailing peace, the importance of third-party peacekeeping forces, the risks of holding elections too early, the perverse effects of aid and the salience of sanctuary in the success of insurgencies. “Yet at every step of the way” she said, “the lessons within those empirical findings seem to have been ignored.” Even much of the evidence and research produced throughout the war seemed largely irrelevant to policy on the ground.

The use of knowledge and research, Mukhopadhyay said, emerged later as an attempt to do two things: "[T]o clean up messes that had already been made by decisions that were locked in early on, and to affirm or confirm a set of biases that were driving the spending of money, the movement of troops and the unrolling of one doctrine versus another.”

New research then fed into a “wartime information economy” that often “enabled projects, programs and ideas that maybe were working in a micro sense but weren’t actually shifting political facts on the ground in a meaningful way,” Mukhopadhyay said. Again, like the siloed “fingers” of agencies that Kolenda described, particular forms of research and evidence were used to justify certain activities, with the sum of the parts being less than the whole.

Much of this research was conducted by outsider organizations and individuals, who lacked a deeply rooted understanding of the country.

Mukhopadhyay pointed to numerous structural dynamics in how policy was made and implemented, which also “do not lend themselves to deeper reflection” and reassessment. These include the ways in which personnel were assigned, short tours, force protection and the insulated ways that embassies and organizations operated.

Mukhopadhyay described a kind of clash of civilizations between the worlds of the academy and of policymakers. The way academic work is published, its long timelines, decisions on hiring and tenure, and what kind of research gets funded do not correspond to the way policy is made or incentivize relevance to policy or timeliness. Further, the parameters of policy decisions tend to be complex and opaque to outsiders, curtailing their ability to contribute to those decisions.

Nevertheless, there were exceptions in Afghanistan: research on drone warfare, civilian casualties and the role of contractors “shed light on problems, shifted the needle in public discourse, and created debate within military and civilian institutions that seemed productive and important,” Mukhopadhyay said.

In the end, though, it wasn’t enough to move the needle in Afghanistan. The hope now is that these lessons can inform policy in future conflicts, preventing a repeat of the immense costs in blood and treasure seen during the Afghanistan war.

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