WASHINGTON – Is America’s two-decade war in Afghanistan a tragedy or a crime? A recent series in The Washington Post contends that it is more the latter than the former. For years, the argument goes, U.S. officials systematically lied regarding the prospects for success, while blithely downplaying the corruption and dependency American intervention fostered. The title of this series — “The Afghanistan Papers” — is meant, clearly, to echo the Vietnam-era Pentagon Papers. It implies that we should see this conflict, like Vietnam, as a misbegotten war fought in the service of illusions and lies.
Yet this is the wrong way to view the war in Afghanistan — and think about the choices America still faces. Afghanistan is best seen not as a morality play but as a classic foreign policy dilemma in which all the options are bad ones.
For starters, the fact that the war is not going well — in the sense that the Afghan government is not close to standing on its own — has been obvious for years. Yes, U.S. officials have sometimes downplayed the negatives and highlighted the positives, and there have always been professional incentives for American soldiers and civilians to tell a story of progress rather than despair. Yet Afghanistan is not Vietnam, where policymakers argued — and most Americans believed — that they were close to victory right up until the Tet Offensive in 1968.
Journalistic accounts, analytical reports and even memoirs of U.S. officials have catalogued the depressing reality of the Afghan security situation for over a decade. When U.S. President Barack Obama surged tens of thousands of additional American troops in 2009, he was candid about the grim reality they would confront. “Huge challenges remain,” he said. “The Taliban has gained momentum,” al-Qaida was resurgent, Afghan security forces remained unimpressive. And both Obama and U.S. President Donald Trump chose not to withdraw from Afghanistan — despite their obvious desire to end the war — because they worried it would cause the Afghan government to promptly collapse. Afghanistan is the war America keeps fighting not because we think we are on the verge of success, but because we understand that we are uncomfortably close to failure.
To some extent, that sad trajectory reflects America’s own errors and misjudgments. The invasion of Iraq under U.S. President George W. Bush diverted resources and attention from Afghanistan at a critical time. It made little sense for the Obama administration to pursue a vastly more ambitious nation-building and counterinsurgency mission in 2009 while simultaneously announcing that U.S. troops would begin to withdraw just 18 months later. The larger reality, though, is that there never was a magic bullet for winning — or even ending — the war.
It is sometimes argued that the Bush administration should have pursued a truly comprehensive Afghan political settlement — in essence, making peace with the Taliban — when U.S. leverage was at its peak, just after the American coalition’s initial victory in 2002. But strategy is not made in a political vacuum, and imagine the domestic politics — only a year after 9/11 — of legitimizing a group that had distinguished itself for its brutality, inhumanity and willingness to make common cause with al-Qaida. What was politically inexpedient may also have been strategically unwise. There was little indication then, just as there is little indication now, that the Taliban were genuinely interested in democratic politics and power-sharing, as opposed to using a settlement as a tactical ploy in the struggle for primacy.
Or consider the debate surrounding the strategies the United States did pursue. It is true that America’s most expensive strategy — manpower-intensive counterinsurgency, combined with efforts to promote good governance and economic development — failed to produce sustainable security, and that the infusion of outside money fueled catastrophic corruption. Yet the Obama administration adopted that strategy because the prior approach — the Bush-era light footprint — had created security vacuums, empowered brutal warlords and made the Afghan government less willing to alienate key power players by tackling corruption. The Bush administration had chosen that strategy, in turn, because it feared that a larger presence would mire the U.S. in a never-ending nation-building project. The alternative to one bad strategy was another bad strategy.
Perhaps, then, the right approach was simply to withdraw after having thrashed al-Qaida and the Taliban in 2001-2002. But that would have required accepting the near certainty that Afghanistan would quickly revert to be a failed or rogue state, that there would be an even quicker al-Qaida resurgence and that Osama bin Laden would claim to have once again forced a superpower to retreat.
Reasonable people can debate, with the benefit of hindsight, whether the U.S. should have accepted these risks as the price of avoiding another two decades of war. But the tragic dilemma of Afghanistan is that there have always been costs of withdrawal as well as costs of continued intervention.
That’s worth keeping in mind as the prospect of an American withdrawal — whether undertaken unilaterally, or following a peace settlement — is once again discussed by the Trump administration and leading Democratic presidential candidates. There are compelling reasons to seek an exit, from the pressing reality of competing priorities to the sobering fact that, sooner or later, an American that was not even born on 9/11 will be killed in action in Afghanistan. And it seems doubtful that additional near-term military pressure on the Taliban will lead to a dramatically better long-term peace settlement.
Yet there are also reasons to be wary of withdrawal. Carter Malkasian, who has studied the war as closely as anyone, has written that the most likely consequence of a U.S. pullout is a Taliban takeover of most — perhaps all — of the country. The Taliban itself is unlikely to execute or encourage terrorist attacks against the U.S., but it is also unlikely to prevent terrorist groups from setting up shop in Afghanistan, as they did before 9/11. (The one notable exception is Islamic State, with which the Taliban have often clashed in the past. Yet even IS might flourish after an American withdrawal, if this brought an end to U.S. counterterrorism strikes.) As Malkasian argues, “The United States should recognize that the most direct route out of Afghanistan is to live with the threat of terrorism.”
The best option, then, may be deeply unsatisfying — reducing U.S. forces to the minimum level required to conduct counterterrorism strikes and help the Afghan forces hold major cities, while accepting that the Taliban will run most of the countryside. That’s not a good outcome, but it isn’t catastrophic, and it can probably be achieved at an acceptable price.
What is critical, though, is to weigh America’s alternatives — past and present — in a way that reflects just how difficult those choices have always been. Decades from now, the best accounts of America’s war in Afghanistan will surely stress the mistakes Washington has made. Yet they will also remind us that foreign policy is so hard because all of the options are often unattractive.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg columnist and a professor at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies.