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AFGHANISTAN: A War Gone Wrong. An Exit Mismanaged.


Wesley Smith

August 19, 2021

6 min read

Foreign Policy



Last week the Taliban captured the capital city of Kabul and took over Afghanistan.  A day after the fall of that country, the Pentagon’s independent Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) issued his final report.  It details how the 20-year war went wrong.

John F. Sopko was sworn in as Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction on July 2, 2012.  SIGAR is headquartered in Arlington, VA; has an office in Kabul, Afghanistan; and has a field presence in multiple locations throughout Afghanistan.  Mr. Sopko worked for three U.S. presidential administrations, Democrat and Republican.

According to the report, the U.S. basically tried to create a new country out of whole cloth, in its own image.  Over 20 years, the mission and the strategy to accomplish the mission changed repeatedly.  The report states, “At various points, the U.S. government hoped to eliminate al-Qaeda, decimate the Taliban movement that hosted it, deny all terrorist groups a safe haven in Afghanistan, build Afghan security forces so they could deny terrorists a safe haven in the future, and help the civilian government become legitimate and capable enough to win the trust of Afghans.”  In the middle of all this, major infrastructure projects were begun and schools built.  Some of the schools were never used and it is questionable if the infrastructure will be maintained.

Ignoring the cultural and historical context of this primitive tribal country, the U.S. and its NATO allies sought to create a Western-style, modern democracy for a population to whom these concepts were totally foreign.  Time, money, and other resources were often wasted, with little accountability.

In the end, 2,443 U.S. service members were killed and 20,666 were wounded.  Over 3,000 civilian contractors died.  Additionally, there were 66,000 Afghan military deaths and 48,000 civilian deaths.  The bill totaled $145 billion on building military and government organizations, and another $837 billion spent on fighting insurgencies.  Billions more were spent on schools, dams, and various construction projects.  While some progress was made, there was not much faith that any of the achievements would last without a permanent U.S. presence.  It is a sobering and non-partisan report.

Here are only a few highlights from the IG report:

  • There was poor accountability for much of the billion dollars of aid delivered to the Afghan government.  Spending was prioritized in such a way that corruption was encouraged and effectiveness of programs diminished.
  • U.S. officials prioritized their own political preferences for what they wanted Afghanistan to look like, rather than what they could realistically achieve, given constraints on the ground.
  • Afghan security forces were trained on advanced weapons systems they could not understand, much less maintain.  (By the way, many of the weapon systems are now in the hands of the Taliban, once the Afghan military surrendered without much of a fight.)
  • The U.S. imposed formal law (through a central government) on a people where 80 to 90% of disputes were traditionally addressed informally at a tribal or local level.
  • The report draws major parallels with the war in Vietnam, as an effort to tamp down an insurgency and train up local forces to fight for their own country’s freedom.  But IG Sopko also issued this warning to reporters: “Don’t believe what you’ve been told by the generals or the ambassadors or the people in the administration stating we’re never going to do this again.  That’s exactly what we said after Vietnam:  we’re never going to do this again.  Lo and behold, we did it in Iraq.  And we did in Afghanistan.  We will do this again.”

As if the mishandling of the 20-year Afghanistan mission was not bad enough, the exit from that country by the Biden Administration is even worse.  President Biden, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley are inept, confused, and at times, dishonest.  And they are the ones in charge of this bungled withdrawal.  Thousands of Americans are trapped in the country, thousands of additional troops are being redeployed to Afghanistan—but only to an airport with one runway that is literally surrounded by the Taliban. Sophisticated weapons and equipment are now in the hands of the enemy.  Thousands of Afghans who assisted the U.S. are still there and face death by the Taliban if caught.  The State Department stated they are counting on the mercy and goodwill of the Taliban to get Americans to the airport and out of the country—as the U.S. cannot guarantee their safety.  What an insult to the world’s only remaining superpower.  What an embarrassment to the American people. What a betrayal to our men and women in uniform who served in Afghanistan.

President Biden stated the chaos and confusion were inevitable.  Really?  Secretary Austin said there is no way to gather up the Americans there and get them out of the country.  A new captain in the Army or Marines, fresh out of a military training class, could have handled the withdrawal better than the Pentagon leadership.  For starters, how about getting the civilians out of the country before you withdraw all of the troops?  That is Military Operations 101.

How could this exit have been executed without the chaos the world is witnessing?  Some basic tactics could have been used—and were not.  For example, a covering force with superior firepower should have been positioned at the airport to protect operations. Bagram Air Base (abandoned by the U.S. and now occupied by the Taliban) should have been under a similar covering force as a second site from which to rescue civilians since Bagram is only one and one-half hours away from Kabul and larger than the airport at Kabul.  U.S. armor should have been guarding the entrances to both air fields.  Infantry units should have been guarding all the major highways leading to these airfields.  U.S. airpower should have been attacking the Taliban and preventing them from surrounding Kabul and the airports.

Importantly, even now, the Taliban should be put on notice that if they block civilians from escape and/or harass those trying to leave—they will be targeted and killed.  Period.  That was one of the threats the Trump Administration leveled over the heads of the Taliban as a condition of U.S. withdrawal.  That is not the case now.  And, unbelievably, the Department of Defense is deferring to the State Department to figure out how to rescue the abandoned Americans.  Biden’s State Department is imploring the Taliban to “help us.”

This is a situation that will long be remembered by Americans.  There should be a bipartisan congressional investigation as to how all of this happened.  Leaders on President Biden’s National Security team and at the Pentagon should be called to account and many of them fired and replaced.  There is no excuse for the unmitigated bungling of this withdrawal.  The Inspector General’s report and the events on the ground in Afghanistan right now are vivid indicators of a war gone wrong and an exit grossly and inexcusably mismanaged.  As Americans, we know better and we deserve better.

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