CHICAGO – The US government and military lacked the “will and ability” as well as clear objectives during their war in Afghanistan that ultimately led to their withdrawal and the return of the Taliban to power.
These are the views of panelists participating in a webinar from the US Institute for Peace, a US government organization charged with conflict prevention and resolution around the world.
They said the US government did not have a clear idea of how to end the war in Afghanistan after it invaded Afghanistan in 2001. They argued that the failure to engage with the Taliban early on was due to deeply ingrained thinking of military and political leaders whose goals were limited to achieving a “zero-sum victory” and driving the Taliban from power.
The US government has spent trillions of dollars on the Afghan war and reconstruction effort, but has still failed to achieve an inclusive and lasting political solution to the conflict, according to USIP panelists.
The United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 after 9/11 with the aim of driving the Taliban from power after they refused to hand over members of the Al-Qaeda terror group identified as responsible for the New York attacks.
In August 2020, US civilian and military forces hastily withdrew from Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan, culminating in the Taliban’s takeover of the country.
The US held direct peace talks with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, leading to the signing of an agreement in 2020 stipulating the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and the start of intra-Afghan talks to end the violence and achieve reconciliation.
According to Tamanna Salikuddin, director of South Asia Programs at USIP and a former US government official who worked in Afghanistan, one of the biggest mistakes the US made was that it did not see the need to negotiate. “The real failure in Afghanistan was not engaging with the Taliban from the beginning,” she said.
Salikuddin said the political and military branches of the US government did not seem to understand each other’s plans and priorities for the ultimate goals in Afghanistan.
Agreeing with Salikuddin, Christopher Kolenda, a retired US Army colonel and associate fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the US government lacked a doctrine on how to deal with Afghanistan after the invasion.
He said that the Taliban had two factors in their favor: external actors who facilitated their logistics and bases in neighboring regions, and considerable internal support.
Added to that, he argued, the US-backed Afghan government had failed to win the legitimacy battle against the Taliban inside the country. “And because of these two factors, we started drifting toward failure even though we thought we were succeeding,” he said.
“The US government lacked both the will and the ability to pursue a political settlement in Afghanistan similar to that in Vietnam and Iraq,” he said.
Masoom Stanekzai, a former intelligence and defense minister of the US-backed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, argued that regional and international conflicts contributed to the current situation in the country.
He said that Afghan society was historically conservative but never radical. This changed with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and US support for the mujahideen, which led to the gathering of extremist groups within the country.
Stanekzai said the United States conducted its war on terror to the exclusion of regional players like Pakistan, which were major players but often “played a double game during the years of the US presence in Afghanistan.”
He said Afghan government officials had been meeting with Pakistani leaders for two decades, but there were no positive and tangible results from these talks that could help stabilize Afghanistan. He attributed this failure to Pakistan viewing the warming of US-India ties as a threat to its interests in Afghanistan.
Furthermore, the Afghan government was hampered by internal and inherent weaknesses that contributed to unsuccessful attempts to control the situation in the country.
Addressing the inherent weaknesses of the US strategy in Afghanistan, Kolenda said that “the US is not the only one. The US has no way of thinking of ending the war beyond a decisive zero-sum victory.”
He added that the nature of US operations in Afghanistan fostered “bureaucratic silos” that hampered the creation of a unified system to conduct war and because of that kind of thinking “we had no one functionally in charge of our wars.”
“There was no one in Kabul in charge of all the US efforts on the ground,” he added.