The Key Reason the U.S. Lost in Afghanistan

Mark Thompson

U.S. soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division launch a 2006 patrol in Helmand province along Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan. (U.S. Army photo)

But Pakistan sheltering bin Laden wasn’t so strange. After all, Pakistan had been offering safe haven to bin Laden’s al-Qaida and Afghanistan’s Taliban insurgents ever since the U.S. government drove the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan 10 years earlier—for offering bin Laden sanctuary. There were plenty of denials from Islamabad, and willful ignorance from Washington, about Pakistan’s double-dealing. If the leaders in Islamabad didn’t know, it was because they didn’t want to know. But it became clear shortly after the war began that Pakistan would succor U.S. foes in two ways: By supplying them inside Afghanistan while they were fighting there, and by hiding them inside Pakistan when they weren’t. That represented the sucking chest wound that would keep the U.S. from prevailing in its longest war.

The world’s most powerful military was kept from achieving its aims—it was defeated, in non-diplo parlance—by a powerful Pashtun tribal insurgency. The Pashtuns, who make up more than 40% of Afghanistan’s 39 million people, straddle what the Pentagon calls the Af-Pak border. They sheltered al-Qaida and the Taliban on the Pakistani side, beyond the reach of U.S. guns. It turned that forbidding, mountainous frontier into a 21st Century Ho Chi Minh trail, the supply route through Laos and Cambodia that fueled the communist insurgency in South Vietnam a half-century earlier.

A U.S. soldier keeps watch over Afghanistan’s rugged terrain during a 2013 flight. (Photo: U.S. Army / Sergeant Jessi Ann McCormick)

“The issue of sanctuary—of places where the Taliban and other insurgents could rest and plan attacks … was at the heart of America’s problems in Afghanistan,” Wesley Morgan writes in The Hardest Place, his just-published book on what went wrong in Afghanistan. “Pakistan provided the Taliban-led insurgency with a huge and permanent safe haven.”

It didn’t start out that way. “This particular battle front will last as long as it takes to bring al Qaeda to justice,” then-President George W. Bush declared four days after the invasion began. “It may happen tomorrow, it may happen a month from now, it may take a year or two, but we will prevail.” The U.S. never declared precisely what prevailing in Afghanistan would look like, and nuclear-armed Pakistan did just enough, long enough, to ensure the U.S would not prevail. Washington also flunked the second test of the so-called Powell doctrine, named for Colin Powell, the retired Army general who ended up serving as secretary of state on 9/11, which was: “Do we have a clear attainable objective?”

Before 9/11, Pakistan was one of only three nations to recognize the brutal Taliban government running Afghanistan (the others were Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates). Pakistan’s military—the strongest, most important institution in the country—allied itself with both the U.S. military and the Taliban, playing one against the other, after 9/11.

The U.S. never declared precisely what prevailing in Afghanistan would look like.

I recall the war’s early days, when I was covering the Pentagon for Time Magazine. The Taliban had been driven out of Kabul in two months; Pentagon officials began expressing private optimism that U.S. troops would start coming home by summer 2002. But then the U.S. made the fatal choice to try to nurture a central government in a land historically torn by tribal disputes. Eighteen more summers would pass before Washington finally abandoned that quest as unachievable. By the time the fourth U.S. president overseeing the war decided to call it quits, nearly 2,500 U.S. troops and almost 4,000 workers for U.S. contractors had died in Afghanistan. The bill paid for by the American people ultimately will top $2 trillion—nearly $7,000 for each of us.

Flipping through two decades of reporter’s notebooks highlights a U.S. government rightfully eager to avenge 9/11, but dismissive of the need to confront Pakistan and shut down its support for the very perpetrators of those attacks.

U.S. officials knew Pakistan was a challenge from the war’s earliest days but chose to look on the bright side. U.S.-Pakistani relations fell apart in 1990, after the U.S. concluded Islamabad was trying to build a nuclear bomb in secret (for which a valiant CIA analyst paid a heavy price). For more than a decade, there was no military-to-military relations between the two countries. “The sanctions didn’t work,” Christina Rocca, the top U.S. diplomat for the region at the time, said in 2003. “We’ve decided there had to be a better way to deal with Pakistan than to essentially tie our hands.” The countries resumed a chary relationship. Washington believed that the Pakistani government’s fear over the insurgency deepening in their own country—and more than $30 billion in U.S. aid—would keep Afghanistan’s eastern neighbor from causing too much trouble.

There was a chorus of praise from U.S. officials early on. “Pakistan has done more for the United States in the direct fight against al Qaeda than any other country I know of,” Army General John Abizaid, then-chief of U.S. Central Command, said in 2004.

The author interviews John Abizaid in the Army general’s forward headquarters in Qatar in 2004. Behind them are digital clocks. “Pakistan” (enlarged) is flanked by “Kabul” and “Baghdad,” highlighting its critical role in the war in Afghanistan. (Photo: Mark Thompson)

“We certainly value Pakistan in the global war on terror,” Colonel Cardon Crawford said in 2005, when he was the Army’s operations chief in Afghanistan. “We think they’re a huge ally.”

“The Pakistanis are a vital partner in the war on terror,” Michael Vickers, then-assistant secretary of defense for special operations, said in 2008.

There were flashes of cooperation, to be sure. Pakistani soldiers, for example, acted as forward observers for U.S. artillery, guiding in long-range artillery rounds on Taliban targets along the border. “The Pakistanis have adjusted our artillery fire into the Pakistani side of the border to go after anti-coalition militia,” Crawford said in 2005. “There has to be somebody out there who says here’s the target and when the round lands he’ll say go left, go right, go up, go down.” Yet the line between the two countries has always been fuzzy. “They don’t recognize borders,” Crawford said. “There’s no real signs out there a lot of places that say ‘You’re now crossing into Pakistan.’”

But for each step the Pakistani military took to help the U.S. in Afghanistan, it took many more that gave oxygen to the enemy. “If your Pakistani ally says you can go through their country but only at night and leave no visible footprint in the day, this kind of constraints your options. Okay?” General Robert Magnus, then-assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, said in 2006. “Not that they would really do that?” a reporter interjected. “Well,” Magnus said to laughter, “not that they would.”

What do safe havens provide? “Knowledge and rest and refit and planning and just, you’re not under the pressure of being found and hunted and having to protect yourself,” Army Lieutenant General Thomas Metz, the then-head of the Pentagon shop set up to defeat improvised explosive devices, said in 2008. “It gives you time and energy to do other things. That’s to me the tremendous advantage of a safe haven.”

U.S. special operators ready for combat along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border in 2019. (Photo: U.S. Army / Sergeant Jaerett Engeseth)

As the war ground on U.S. frustration simmered. “The Taliban and al-Qaida have been able to maintain safe haven along that border,” Henry Crumpton, then the State Department’s counterterrorism coordinator, said in 2006. “You have got to deny the enemy safe haven otherwise they’re going to keep coming at you … there’s a lot on that border that we don’t know about.”

But Dell Dailey, who succeeded Crumpton as the State Department’s counterterrorism chief, didn’t like Crumpton’s use of the term “safe haven” to describe Pakistan. “We need to be careful about calling it a safe haven,” he said in 2008. Then-Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf preferred “hideout,” Dailey noted, because Musharraf “does not think it’s necessarily got government complicity.” Regardless, Dailey continued, “it’s got the potential to be a pretty powerful safe haven for several reasons,” citing cultural, economic, political, and religious differences that made it tough for outsiders to penetrate. “The Pakistanis going there with just raw military force may not be the necessary solution,” Dailey said. Nonetheless, he added, continued U.S. economic and military aid would turn Pakistan around. “Is there a light at the end of the tunnel?” he asked rhetorically. “Yes, there is.”

The U.S. war in Afghanistan was always a two-front conflict. “You must have parallel progress really in Pakistan commensurate with what we have in Afghanistan,” James Conway, then-commandant of the Marine Corps, said in 2009. “Otherwise it’s like squeezing a balloon. We can be wonderfully successful in Afghanistan and simply have delayed the problem because people would flush across the border into Pakistan—safe haven—we can’t touch them. Then when we say, ‘Okay, we’re done here,’ and we start pulling out, they come back. That would be a very bad scenario, but in some ways that’s what’s happened now, if you track the whole Afghanistan thing over the years.”

“You have the watches, but we have the time,” has long been a familiar refrain from Taliban fighters.

Ten months later a new president, after nine months in office, ordered 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan, a nearly 50% increase, to pop that balloon. President Barack Obama told West Point cadets it would help bring the war to a successful conclusion.

Obama limited the surge to 18 months, knowing that the U.S. public has little appetite for wars that drag on. His strategy collided with those safe havens inside Pakistan, which allowed the enemy to outwait—outwit?—the U.S. “You have the watches, but we have the time,” has long been a familiar refrain from Taliban fighters. That the refrain was true was clear right from the start. “Part of the problem that we have in this war that is being waged throughout my area of operations is patience,” Abizaid said in 2004. “Culturally speaking, our patience quotient is not high. Culturally speaking, the patience quotient of our enemies is very high. We think in terms of sound bites of 15 seconds; they think in terms of hundreds of years.”

Well, maybe more than 15 seconds. “There is a thirst to solve this overnight,” Admiral Mike Mullen, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in 2008, seven years after the war began. “We’re just not going to solve it overnight.”

Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, visits a U.S. outpost in Afghanistan near Pakistan in 2011. (Photo: Department of Defense)

Then Pakistan’s perfidy broke into the open when the U.S. killed bin Laden deep inside the country. The SEALs struck without letting Pakistan know they were on their way, fearing bin Laden would be tipped off. Relations between Washington and Islamabad, already tepid, chilled. “Obviously the bin Laden operation intensified the degree of difficulty, if you will, with respect to the relationship,” Mullen said June 2, 2011, a month after bin Laden’s death. “We all agree we’re going through a pretty tough time right now.” Pakistan’s culpability was undeniable.

Pakistan’s goal was to drive the U.S. out, leaving Afghanistan a vassal state and reducing the influence there of India, its arch-enemy. U.S. military officials, increasingly sensing Pakistan’s long game, began speaking more freely. “Right now there’s freedom of movement across that border, and drug facilitation and lethal aid movement is a constant,” Marine Major General John Toolan said in 2012, after spending a year in southern Afghanistan. “There isn’t an Afghan leader that I speak to that doesn’t blame Pakistan for all their problems.”

Thanks to Pakistan, those problems would never go away. “From my perspective as a military commander having to deal with the problem, it’s like I can’t shut the water off,” Toolan said. “I just keep mopping the floor, but I can’t turn the water off. If I could turn the water off, then Pakistan would be a lot better.” The stakes, he added, were high. “There is a lot of nuclear weapons pretty close around Afghanistan … maintaining stability in the region is as important as establishing stability in Afghanistan,” he added. “As long as the regional stability is sustained, and we don’t have nuclear conflagration and all that kind of stuff, what we did will pay off.”

The war had stalemated. “Pakistan is a haven for numerous Islamist extremist and terrorist groups, and successive Pakistani governments are widely believed to have tolerated and even supported some of these as proxies in Islamabad’s historical conflicts with its neighbors,” the Congressional Research Service reported in 2019. “The 2011 revelation that al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had enjoyed years-long refuge in Pakistan led to intensive U.S. government scrutiny of the bilateral relationship, and sparked congressional questioning of the wisdom of providing significant aid to a nation that may not have the intention or capacity to be an effective partner.”

Donald Trump called for pulling out of Afghanistan as early as 2011. “We have wasted an enormous amount of blood and treasure in Afghanistan,” he tweeted in 2013. Once elected, he kept up the pressure. “For its part, Pakistan often gives safe haven to agents of chaos, violence, and terror,” Trump told a military audience in 2017. “We can no longer be silent about Pakistan’s safe havens for terrorist organizations, the Taliban, and other groups that pose a threat to the region and beyond.” But Pakistan, he added, was merely a speed bump on the road to victory in Afghanistan. “In the end,” he pledged after seven months in office, “we will win.”

Today, al Qaeda and the Taliban are back in business together, thwarting the very reason the U.S. invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago.

Of course, that depends on how you define “win.” Under Trump’s 2020 deal with the Taliban, essentially endorsed by President Joe Biden, the Afghan insurgents said they would bar terrorists like al-Qaida from operating inside Afghanistan. Just over a year ago, Trump’s secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, said a senior Taliban official assured him that “they would break that relationship and that they would work alongside of us to destroy, deny resources to and have al-Qaida depart from that place.” But U.S. intelligence officials don’t believe it.

Today, al-Qaida and the Taliban are back in business, together, thwarting the very reason the U.S. invaded Afghanistan 20 years ago.

On January 4, the U.S. Treasury painted a grim picture of the two as part of its work to choke off funding for terrorists. “Al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection,” it said. Bin Laden’s group “capitalizes on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support.”

U.S. officials say the 2,500 troops and 18,000 U.S. contractors still in Afghanistan can start coming home because 20 years of war have reduced the threat al-Qaida and the Taliban now pose (the number of U.S. troops in Afghanistan peaked at 98,000 in 2011). The U.S. says it will monitor what is happening inside Afghanistan from posts outside the country and attack, if necessary, to keep it that way.

Pakistan’s central government, along with its estimated 150 nuclear weapons, could become a target of a resurgent Taliban once the U.S. is gone. But Islamabad, suggesting a certain nervy nonchalance, said May 11 that U.S. troops are not welcome in Pakistan as they seek bases near Afghanistan to keep an eye on possible threats.

How much of Afghanistan the Taliban controls hasn’t been publicly disclosed by either the Afghan or U.S. government since October 2018. Back then, the U.S. said the U.S.-backed central government controlled 54% of Afghanistan’s roughly 400 districts (34% were contested, with the remaining 12% under insurgent control). But the available evidence suggests the Taliban is on the rise. “By many measures, the Taliban are in a stronger military position now than at any point since 2001, though many once-public metrics related to the conduct of the war have been classified or are no longer produced,” a March Congressional Research Service report said.

The Taliban and al-Qaida are simply waiting for the U.S. to leave. The independent and hawkish Long War Journal estimates that al Qaeda is operating in at least 21 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces. “Some Afghan officials reportedly suspect the Taliban of remaining in negotiations long enough to secure a full U.S. withdrawal, after which the Taliban would capitalize on their advantage on the battlefield to seize control of the country by force,” that March report said.

Not much of a return on our investment, to put it bluntly. The Pentagon says the war cost $824.9 billion. But it uses a narrow definition. Accounting for the war’s full cost—like long-term medical care for those who served, and interest on the money borrowed for the war—pushes the total cost to $2.3 trillion, according to the Costs of War Project at Brown University. Most importantly, according to the project, 2,442 U.S. troops died in Afghanistan, about 1% of the nearly quarter-million people killed during this war. As searing as those losses are, others lost their lives as well: 3,846 U.S. contractor employees, almost 50,000 Afghan civilians, and nearly 70,000 Afghan troops and police.

The U.S. has crossed its trigger fingers. Biden has opted for a hope-based withdrawal, unlike the perpetually just-out-of-reach conditions-based withdrawal the Pentagon wanted. Pretty much everyone involved in the U.S. effort is concerned. “I fear that this war is going to get worse,” said retired Army general David Petraeus, who spent a year in command in Afghanistan in 2010-2011 before running the CIA. The Taliban show no signs of relenting. Taliban attacks jumped 37% from the first quarter of 2020 to the same period in 2021.

“It’s not a foregone conclusion that there’ll be an automatic fall of Kabul,” Army General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said April 28, referring to the Afghan capital. That’s a remarkable downsizing of presidential pledges to “win” and “prevail.” But it’s also a point-blank acknowledgement by the nation’s top military officer that prolonging the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan wouldn’t ensure victory.

Army General David Petraeus visits U.S. and Afghan troops near Afghanistan’s border with Pakistan in 2010. (Photo: U.S. Army / Staff Sergeant Bradley Lail)

Despite Pakistan’s track record, some delusions persist at the highest level of the U.S. government. “Pakistan has a special role to play in supporting peace, and senior U.S. officials and I have been in close touch with Pakistan’s leaders over the past several weeks,” Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. point man on Afghanistan, told Congress April 27. “We have urged Pakistan’s leaders to exercise their considerable leverage over the Taliban to reduce violence and support a negotiated settlement.”

Don’t hold your breath. The United States is likely to end up losing its longest war, just as it ended up losing its then-longest war in Vietnam. The parallels are pertinent, and their lessons should be learned to keep the nation from making the same mistake a third time. Both wars bogged down because of support and supply lines beyond the borders of South Vietnam and Afghanistan.

The United States is likely to end up losing its longest war, just as it ended up losing its then-longest war in Vietnam.

The U.S. too often sees itself as Captain America, clad in red, white, and blue. But these kinds of wars require a white-coated Doctor America, instead. She needs to determine if the conflict is a localized tumor that can be cut out. Kicking Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991 was that kind of war. But when the conflict has metastasized due to cultural, economic, and tribal links that know no border, even the U.S. and its military, with all its firepower, cannot save the patient. In the wake of something like the 9/11 attacks, the U.S. needs to destroy those responsible as quickly as possible, without feeling any need to remake the nation involved, before heading home.

Robert McNamara, who as defense secretary from 1961 to 1968 and who was the architect of the Vietnam War, finally came clean in his 1995 book, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. It took him decades to acknowledge that the war was a mistake. “My voice would have had no impact at all at that point,” he told me when the book came out, trying to explain why he kept his doubts to himself when he left the Pentagon. “My voice would have had no impact whatsoever.” That made about as much sense as his belated reason for finally coming clean. “He said he wanted to help prevent the country from making similar mistakes in the future,” I noted in Time after he died in 2009. “He fretted that just as Washington misperceived Vietnam a generation ago, it remained in danger of making a similar mistake.”

McNamara’s warning went unheeded, as one of his successors has admitted. “I believe we—and the Afghans—would have been better served had our military departed in 2002 and had thereafter relied on non-military instruments of national power,” Robert Gates, who served as defense secretary for both Bush and Obama from 2006 to 2011, acknowledged last year.

What took McNamara 27 years to concede only took Gates nine. Guess that qualifies as some kind of progress. Next time—and there will be a next time—let’s hope those in charge know the limits of American power, and, tempering U.S. hubris with humility, act accordingly.

The Center for Defense Information at POGO aims to secure far more effective and ethical military forces at significantly lower cost.

The Key Reason the U.S. Lost in Afghanistan