Afghanistan wasn’t destined to fail. Here’s how we could have fought it better.

An American soldier in Afghanistan’s Khost province in 2011. (TED ALJIBE/AFP/GETTY)
An American soldier in Afghanistan’s Khost province in 2011. (TED ALJIBE/AFP/GETTY)

Jenkinson’s experience should have inspired humility and caution at a moment when Washington still believed that more troops, more aid money, more of literally everything could win the war. Instead, Jenkinson’s soldiers were replaced by a new unit, and when I visited a year later, the road hadn’t advanced an inch; two more U.S. soldiers and dozens of Afghans had been killed there. By that point, U.S. troop levels had hit a wartime peak of about 100,000.

Since The Washington Post published The Afghanistan Papers this month — documenting the confusion, waste, corruption and shifting definitions of success there — people who served on missions like this one have been grappling with their overwhelming feelings of anger and despair. “Everything that we were told was bullshit, from the level of support we had to what we were allowed or expected to do,” one soldier who served in Kandahar in 2013 told The Post upon reading the revelations. If they agree on nothing else, Republicans and Democrats were united in their reaction. “Our government knew the war was unwinnable, but refused to level with the American people,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.). Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) summed up the war as “years and years of half truths and outright falsehoods.” Policymakers like Richard Haass, a former top diplomat from the war’s early years, lamented that President George W. Bush’s Iraq obsession starved Afghanistan of desperately needed money and troops. Those from the war’s later years, such as former ambassador Ryan Crocker, complained that the surge of money and troops under President Barack Obama fed violence and corruption.

What do you do if you gave your best and that still wasn’t good enough?” That was the question my friend Matt Sherman, who spent 10 years in Afghanistan and Iraq from 2003 to 2016, posed to me this past week.

The last time the country faced that uncomfortable query — after the catastrophe in Vietnam — it ducked. The U.S. military tossed its counterinsurgency doctrine and vowed never to fight another long war against shadowy guerrillas. Its new religion became the Powell Doctrine, named for Gen. Colin Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It held that the United States should fight wars only when it could use overwhelming force to achieve clear objectives. In 1991, Operation Desert Storm, the swift campaign to drive Saddam Hussein’s forces from Kuwait, seemed to offer conclusive proof that Powell and America had found a winning formula. In a move that would have delighted President Trump, we even celebrated with a military parade with tanks.

But by 1999, when I started covering the military, the Powell Doctrine was already looking creaky. “The only reason Desert Storm worked was because we managed to go up against the only jerk on the planet who actually was stupid enough to confront us symmetrically,” Marine Gen. Tony Zinni, a Vietnam veteran, warned in his retirement speech the next year. The swift tank-led victory was more aberration than model, he said, and he worried that future presidents might ask the military to battle insurgents and respond to humanitarian catastrophes — missions for which it would be unprepared.

So after Osama bin Laden sent hijackers to kill Americans, the U.S. military’s initial response drew from the Powell Doctrine. The error wasn’t in sending troops to Afghanistan, but in assuming that they could use precision firepower to kill our enemies and leave — an approach that ignored the fears of the American people at the time. As long as bin Laden and his allies survived in the mountains, the U.S. government (which had underplayed the terrorism threat before Sept. 11) would be expected to stay and build some sort of Afghan state that could prevent such an attack from ever taking form there again.

Into this hysteria of overconfidence arrived Rory Stewart. The former British parliamentarian and diplomat came to Washington to give bracing testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee about a different approach. Stewart, pointing to three decades of American policy failures in Afghanistan, called for fewer U.S. troops and more humility about what America could achieve. “The fundamental problem with the [Obama administration’s] strategy is that it is trying to do the impossible,” he told lawmakers. “It is highly unlikely that the U.S. will be able either to build an effective, legitimate state or to defeat a Taliban insurgency.” A heavy U.S. footprint would alienate Afghans, increase casualties and exhaust America’s already waning patience for the war — an “instant electroshock therapy followed by abandonment.”

Stewart’s alternative was to cut the size of the U.S. force from 90,000 to fewer than 20,000 troops, who would be the core of a “patient, tolerant, long-term” international approach that could be sustained over several decades. His strategy wouldn’t electrify villages, put more girls in school or even stop the Taliban from gaining territory. He proposed to keep just enough counterterrorism forces in the country to prevent al-Qaeda from planning another attack and, over the course of decades, “encourage the more positive trends in Afghan society and help to contain the more negative.” An eventual government might in some areas be run by warlords and elements of the Taliban. If we were lucky, “30 years of investment might allow [Afghanistan’s] army, police, civil service and economy to approach the levels of Pakistan,” he said.

It won’t be any easier selling something like this to the American people next time there’s a call to deploy soldiers to a conflict. Politicians and voters want consistent progress and clear outcomes. They want to see our enemies vanquished and rightfully demand assurances that U.S. troops won’t die in vain. Stewart’s solution meets none of those conditions. But his ideas avoid the kinds of catastrophes that those same politicians and voters are decrying today. They reject the false assumption that outcomes in places like Afghanistan can ever be predictable, a way of thinking that fueled much of the sugarcoating and lies that have infuriated so many over the past week. And they won’t bankrupt us. Most important, his model offers a way of fighting future wars that actually learns from the lessons of Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam.

The United States didn’t follow that modest path, which is why The Afghanistan Papers could chronicle such a litany of disappointments. Their inevitable result will be a nation inclined to believe that U.S. troops should avoid nation-building at all costs, quickly killing our enemies and getting out. Today there are about 13,000 U.S. troops left in Afghanistan. Virtually all the Democratic presidential candidates have said that they would bring the troops home in either their first year in office or before the end of their first term. Trump ran on the same platform and now says he’ll reopen peace talks with the Taliban in order to keep his campaign promise. (“They want to make a deal very badly,” he told troops in Afghanistan last month. There’s little evidence to suggest that’s true.)

Just one year later, the U.S. military left the valley. Like so many remote, embattled outposts across Afghanistan, it was quickly swarmed by enemy fighters.

Greg Jaffe is a national political reporter for The Washington Post, where he has been since March 2009. Previously, he covered the White House, foreign policy and the U.S. military for The Post.

Afghanistan wasn’t destined to fail. Here’s how we could have fought it better.