November/December 2022 Issue
The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan
By Elliot Ackerman
America’s Blind Spots in Afghanistan
In August 2021, Afghanistan was thrust back into the headlines. Taliban forces rapidly closed in on Kabul, and the United States began making its final military withdrawal. Suddenly, the world was confronted with images of desperate people squeezing their way into Kabul’s airport for a chance to flee. Almost overnight, nearly everything that the United States and its allies had accomplished in 20 years of fighting, spending, and building in Afghanistan disintegrated. For the one million or so Americans who had taken part in those failed endeavors, and for the millions of young Afghans who had grown up under a Western-backed democracy, flawed though it was, such losses were head spinning. With their livelihoods imperiled, and with many fearful for their lives, hundreds of thousands of Afghans sought to leave the country, posing a new challenge for withdrawing Western forces.
The United States didn’t expect to mount such a large evacuation, or at least not so quickly. Over ten days, the U.S. military and its allies airlifted about 120,000 people, including 80,000 Afghans, from Kabul, mostly to military bases in the Middle East, from where they eventually left for the United States and elsewhere. The effort was chaotic. For those without a U.S. passport or visa, often the only ticket out was a personal connection to someone who could pull strings with U.S. personnel on the ground. American veterans, former diplomats, aid workers, and journalists scrambled to find passage for vulnerable Afghans. Many Afghans who wanted to leave were turned away. Amid this crisis, many Americans who had served in Afghanistan were angry that the evacuation was so haphazard and left behind so many Afghans they believed to be at risk.
One of those Americans was Elliot Ackerman, who served in Afghanistan as a marine and later as an adviser to Afghan counterterrorism teams under a CIA-led program. In the final weeks before the U.S. withdrawal, he joined a series of impromptu efforts to help evacuate small groups of Afghans. Ackerman used his connections to the U.S. military and other agencies involved in the evacuation to help Afghans get into Kabul Airport and onto planes. In The Fifth Act, Ackerman describes these efforts, interweaving the account of the withdrawal with his combat experiences and views on what went wrong with the war.
For decades, U.S. veterans have written books that use their intimate experiences of war to challenge the prevailing wisdom of U.S. strategists and military planners in Washington. That is not the case with The Fifth Act. Paradoxically, in setting out to explore the missed opportunities of the U.S.- led war and the botched withdrawal, Ackerman ends up reflecting the same misguided mindset that drove the war’s architects. Looking at the conduct of the war through a narrow aperture, he focuses, as Washington did, largely on U.S. forces and U.S. policy; the politics, motivations, and experiences of Afghans are pushed offstage. In doing so, however, the book usefully, if inadvertently, reveals many blind spots that compromised Washington’s strategy.
Ackerman’s book is divided into five parts, or “acts” (hence the title), and the drama proceeds by combining a number of disparate narrative strands. The most resonant one centers on Ackerman’s combat experience and describes two missions in which he participated as a Marine Special Operations team leader in 2008. In each mission, one of his comrades was tragically killed. This narrative intends to convey the importance of the “leave no one behind” ethos in the U.S. military, a theme that resurfaces in the evacuation narrative.
In the aftermath of a mission gone wrong, Ackerman is particularly haunted by having had inadequate personnel and equipment left to retrieve the body of one of his men. He decides to defer the task to another unit of marines, in the interest of protecting the lives of others under his command, but he writes that “a measure of guilt settled its weight on me.” More than a dozen years later, he still carries the weight of regret about this decision. Ackerman’s prose successfully transports the reader to the battlefield and into the midst of ambiguities facing young combatants required to make life-and-death decisions. He writes lovingly of his comrades, bringing them to life and heightening the poignancy of the stories he tells.
But that message about military valor is overshadowed by the powerful illustration he provides of wasted life. One of the missions on which one of Ackerman’s comrades died achieved no apparent military objectives. Ackerman notes that the team did not find the Taliban forces they were looking for, leaving readers with a sense of the counterinsurgency’s futility.
Yet, Ackerman’s war-fighting narrative fails to address why the United States lost. Ackerman skates over crucial problems with how the U.S. military carried out the war. For instance, in describing his work as a CIA paramilitary operator, during which he advised an Afghan counterterrorism unit established and funded by the agency, he does not seem to recognize that these teams were a double-edged sword. He celebrates their tactical successes, such as when they kill or capture enemy targets. But he ignores the mountain of evidence that their routine night raids on villages, including ones in which he took part, fomented bitterness toward foreign militaries and undermined the Afghan government’s ability to build popular support.
The real story is not only one of U.S. failure but of Taliban success.
Consider also an operation that Ackerman describes that took place in the Zerkoh Valley in Herat Province in 2008, when he was a marine. He briefly notes that a U.S. general had to pressure Afghan President Hamid Karzai to green-light the operation because Karzai had concerns about civilian casualties. He also dismissively refers to the “tribal politics that had allowed Zerkoh Valley to become a Taliban sanctuary.” But Ackerman leaves out the fact that a year earlier, U.S. airstrikes in the same area killed dozens of civilians, causing local outrage and demonstrations against the government. (Although the United States never made an accounting of the casualties, the Afghan government claimed that 42 had been killed, and Human Rights Watch reported at least 25 deaths.) Karzai’s concerns were justified, and no Afghan leader could simply brush aside tribal politics as Ackerman seems to propose.
In recounting another 2008 operation, this time in Farah Province, Ackerman refers to “a turbaned man and his family who we’d turned out of their home.” The man shouted at the marines searching his home each time he heard “the sound of an item crashing to the floor.” Ackerman misses a chance to discuss the corrosive effect of foreign invaders repeatedly harassing Afghan civilians—a mistake that U.S. policymakers and Pentagon planners made, as well.
The Fifth Act mirrors another flaw in the thinking of strategists in Washington about what U.S. forces could achieve in Afghanistan. Ackerman advised a large group of Afghan commandos as well as CIA-led counterterrorism units. Yet these men are no more than bit players in his story. Repeatedly, Ackerman refers to “our war,” “my war,” “us,” and “our Afghan tragedy.” In doing so, he calls to mind the habit of U.S. policymakers to see themselves as the primary protagonists of the war and to perceive the conflict in Afghanistan as an American initiative built around the United States bending Afghans to its will, rather than as one in which the actions and motivations of Afghans on both sides would hold ultimate sway.
In the face of the Taliban’s rapid reconquest of the country in 2021, Ackerman seems baffled by the “bitter” and “humiliating” defeat by a far inferior force. But he looks for answers only in U.S. policy errors and, to a lesser extent, in the failings of the U.S.-backed Afghan government. The Taliban, an enemy poorly understood by the United States, are largely missing from his picture. Ackerman tries to explain why the United States lost, yet he overlooks half the equation. The real story is not only one of U.S. failure but of Taliban success, owing to strong motivation, organizational resilience, and support from outside the country, particularly Pakistan.
Ackerman is least persuasive when he strays from his own memories of combat in Afghanistan. When the book comments on policy and politics, it offers no basis for its reasoning besides Ackerman’s personal experience. Ackerman leans heavily on the idea that the United States lost the war because “we never understood what winning meant.” But he never makes clear what, in his own view, “winning” meant.
A better explanation for Washington’s failures in Afghanistan is that the United States should have focused from the outset on how to end the war, not how to win it. That might have meant seeking to prevent an insurgency from gaining traction in the first place by including the Taliban early on as minority stakeholders in the post-2001 government. Or it could have meant negotiating seriously with the Taliban at the height of U.S. power, around 2011, rather than waiting to do so until 2019, at which point U.S. influence in the country was approaching its nadir and U.S. leaders had made clear their intention to pull out. Quiet negotiations with the insurgents began in 2009 but proceeded in fits and starts and lacked strong political commitment from Washington until it was too late.
In February 2020, the United States struck a deal with the Taliban that included a timeline for withdrawal. Ackerman blames the agreement for having “fatally delegitimized President [Ashraf ] Ghani and his central government.” That agreement was flawed and probably accelerated the government’s downfall. But it was far from a primary cause of the collapse. For all its problems, the deal should be credited as an effort to salvage the possibility of intra-Afghan peacemaking and for ensuring that the United States could withdraw without a fight. The agreement must be judged against the backdrop of President Donald Trump’s decision to pull out U.S. forces from the country. There is little evidence to suggest that the brittle Afghan government would have remained intact had the United States withdrawn without a deal.
Ackerman joins a sizable camp of critics who have blamed the United States for not being committed enough to fighting the war. But he fails to explain what being committed enough would have looked like, beyond creating an impression that the U.S. military would remain in the fight indefinitely. What should the United States have done that it had not already done—and for how much longer? Ackerman does not say.
Ackerman decries the lack of a “social construct to sustain” the war, by which he means a war tax or draft that would have, in his view, entailed greater buy-in from the American public. But he leaves unclear how such steps would have helped and ignores their political implausibility. At the same time, he implies that the United States should have rationalized keeping troops in Afghanistan, instead of pulling out, by claiming they were not “at war,” such as the United States has done in Syria and parts of Africa. But it strains credulity to suggest that even keeping a relatively small number of U.S. troops in the country indefinitely would have meant that there was anything other than a war going on: in 2021 alone, there were over 35,000 war-related deaths in Afghanistan. What is more, to suggest that U.S. officials should have downplayed the war sits uneasily with Ackerman’s contention that they also should have encouraged ordinary Americans to personally invest in it more.
Ackerman played a laudable role in helping Afghans escape their country as the Taliban advanced on Kabul in August 2021. And his depiction of the evacuation as chaotic is undeniably true. But his vantage point, from thousands of miles away, could offer only a limited view. He weaves descriptions of text messages, emails, and phone calls about evacuating Afghans with vignettes from his family vacation in Italy, which happened at the same time, a juxtaposition that is hardly illuminating.
Ackerman provides limited portraits of the Afghan evacuees he assisted; as he notes, he didn’t know most of them. His efforts to aid strangers in need were admirable. But the lack of a personal connection means that readers who want a rich account of the final days of the U.S. war in Afghanistan—including the experience of the Afghans whose lives were turned upside down—will need to look elsewhere.
Despite the book’s subtitle, its focus is not the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. Ackerman was not there during the withdrawal, and he does not suggest that he has closely studied the denouement. Nonetheless, he regards the timing of the withdrawal as arbitrary and its handling as a betrayal. He proposes that the United States should have extracted more Afghans, and sooner. But nothing would have precipitated widespread panic and the collapse of the Afghan government with greater certainty than the United States evacuating hundreds of thousands of Afghans well in advance of the withdrawal date—whenever that date was set to be. And it is doubtful that a more deliberate evacuation, rather than a quick and reactive one, could have been sustained with less chaos as the government crumbled and the Taliban rolled into Kabul.
Ackerman’s position presupposes that the United States should have risked this highly probable sequence of events. But Ackerman, like many critics of the withdrawal process, fails to acknowledge the dilemma that U.S. policymakers faced. It is undeniable that aspects of the emergency evacuation could have benefited from advance planning. For example, the U.S. government could have processed more Special Immigrant Visas, for which Afghans who worked for the United States are allowed to apply. But the notion that a massive evacuation could have been carried out well ahead of the August 31 deadline without turmoil is fanciful. Furthermore, since the withdrawal, the United States and private groups have arranged for passage out of the country for thousands more Afghans, including many who were vulnerable or who had worked with U.S. forces.
NO WAY OUT
In the final years of the war, it became clear that Washington’s choice in Afghanistan was between losing quickly or losing slowly. When U.S. President Joe Biden decided in April 2021 to completely pull out, he chose to lose fast, though how fast was uncertain. Ackerman claims that “the Afghan government had fought the Taliban to a stalemate when President Biden announced his withdrawal.” This is false; in fact, the Taliban had been gaining ground for years, especially since the United States began to draw down its forces after 2014. After that point, some U.S. officials called the situation an “eroding stalemate”—an oxymoron. Moreover, Ghani’s domestic legitimacy and grip on the political system had become shaky, and he remained dependent on foreign aid and military support.
Once Biden decided to withdraw, there were two plausible outcomes to the war that might have taken hold. In the first scenario, the Taliban would gain ground, sparking a protracted battle to control cities, which would possibly have devolved into a multifactional civil war. In the second scenario, which is the one that materialized, the withdrawal would provoke a crisis of confidence among Afghans, leading to a rapid collapse of their government and security forces. It would have been difficult for the United States to predict the likelihood of the second scenario because it depended on accurately evaluating how a vast number of Afghans would feel about continuing their fight—a measurement the U.S. had little capability to make.
There was always a risk that the chaos that blighted the denouement would have occurred in any withdrawal. Some critiques of how the Biden administration handled the pullout, including several leveled by Ackerman, are fair. But by dwelling so much on what happened during 15 days in 2021, his book implies that the principal failures had to do with how the United States got out of Afghanistan, rather than how it got in—and what it did while it was there. What the final days show most of all is the hollowness of the Afghan government and the security institutions that the United States tried so hard to build over two decades. If the story that Americans come to tell themselves about the Afghan war focuses not on those realities but on the organization and timing of the U.S. exit, it will distract them from the war’s most important lessons: there is a limit to what American money and willpower can achieve, and the best way to avoid having to get out of an unwinnable war is to avoid getting into one.
- LAUREL MILLER is Director of the Asia Program at the International Crisis Group. From 2013 to 2017, she served as Deputy and then Acting Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan at the U.S. Department of State.