Don’t Believe the Generals

A T-shirt that was popular with veterans for much of America’s nearly 20-year war in Afghanistan showed a helicopter in flight with the caption we were winning when I left. U.S. generals seem to be the only ones who didn’t get the joke. On the first anniversary of our botched withdrawal, the military leaders most responsible for America’s disastrous outcome in Afghanistan have continued to loudly insist that the war was winnable when they were in charge, and that responsibility for the debacle must lie with someone else.

Retired Generals Frank McKenzie and Joseph Votel, the last two commanders of U.S. Central Command, which includes Afghanistan, recently made the case that America should have stayed indefinitely, arguing that the pullout was a mistake and that America could have defended its interests—and kept the Taliban at bay—with a small residual force of a few thousand soldiers. And in The Atlantic, the retired general and former CIA director David Petraeus, who commanded the war in Afghanistan after presiding over the surge that helped bring temporary stability to Iraq, wrote that more than a decade ago “we had finally established the right big ideas and overarching strategy.” But the problem, he maintained, was that America did not have the stomach for a “sustained, generational commitment.”

A sustained, generational commitment? The United States spent more than $2 trillion in Afghanistan and sacrificed the lives of 2,461 service members over those two decades. And in that time, the top brass mostly got their way. President Barack Obama caved to his generals, agreeing to a substantial troop surge in a war he was trying to end. President Donald Trump did the same on a smaller scale, entering office on a promise to end the war but eventually agreeing to a “mini-surge” and deferring a full withdrawal to his successor.

The outcome of America’s commitment was an Afghan government and military that couldn’t hold out long enough even for U.S. forces to leave with a semblance of dignity. The “right big ideas” deployed by a generation of generals proved to be empty slogans: “government in a box,” “money as a weapons system,” “ink spots.” All of these were tactical approaches or overly simplistic frameworks that ignored the nuances of Afghan politics and the reality of attempting to modernize a fractured country that was mired in corruption and a continuing civil war.

This myth of a sustainable stalemate is contradicted by a mountain of evidence and experience. U.S. casualties in the Afghan War’s last years remained low because of the Doha Agreement, whatever its flaws. The Kabul government’s forces that had to fight and win the war were losing “gradually and then suddenly,” as Ernest Hemingway described bankruptcy.

By 2017, Afghan army and police recruiting began to dry up, a result of high casualties, corruption, and mistreatment, as well as successful Taliban propaganda that capitalized on those failures. Later that year, the U.S. government classified Afghan security forces’ size and stopped collecting district stability data, a fraught but valuable metric of security. These were not the hallmarks of a winning campaign. General McKenzie admitted to the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2018 that Afghan security forces were suffering unsustainable attrition. And when Afghan forces failed in battle with the tools and training we had given them, the answer from the generals was not to shift our approach but always to ask for more time and more money.

In June 2011, a full decade before last year’s total withdrawal, President Obama announced a major troop reduction in Afghanistan and a future “responsible end” to the war. Trump successfully campaigned in 2016 on a pullout promise; as president, he signed the February 2020 Doha Agreement that would deliver just that. President Joe Biden ordered an Afghanistan policy review, and then chose to delay the withdrawal but ultimately honor the Doha terms.

In the face of all these signals that the U.S. intervention was coming to an end, America’s generals seemed to think they could keep a small war in Afghanistan going forever. If the war didn’t end, hard questions about the fundamental flaws in execution never had to be acknowledged. U.S. military leaders could continue to pretend that they had achieved something in the country.

As for the inevitable chaos of the withdrawal itself, the U.S. State Department deserves most of the blame for the shameful condition of the Afghan Special Immigrant Visa program, which prevented tens of thousands of our Afghan partners from getting out of the country safely, and the White House must own some final operational and timing decisions in Kabul. But the bulk of the blame for the failures of analysis, planning, and execution still rests on the shoulders of our military and its leaders. They built a house of cards in Afghanistan. As years of reporting and research have shown, whether it would come crashing down was never in doubt; it was only a matter of when and how.

Defeat is a bitter pill for any army to swallow. And unfortunately, blaming operational and tactical failures on politics at home—a stab in the back—is a long and dangerous tradition: You can find Iraq and Vietnam versions of that sardonic T-shirt. Plenty of blame can be spread around for America’s defeat in its longest foreign war. But don’t let the generals fool you: We were losing when they left.

Gil Barndollar is a senior fellow at Defense Priorities, a think tank specializing in military and strategic issues. He served in Afghanistan as a U.S. Marine in 2011–12 and 2013–14.
Jason Dempsey is a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank specializing in defense and national-security issues. He served in the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in 2009 and 2012–13.
Don’t Believe the Generals