The U.S. Failure in Afghanistan Was Not the Withdrawal

World Politics Review

This past week, the House Foreign Affairs Committee held hearings on the Biden administration’s controversial withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Retired Gens. Mark A. Milley and Kenneth McKenzie, who both served in leadership roles under President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump, testified and faced questions from congressional leaders from both parties. In explaining Washington’s failures in Afghanistan, Milley told Congress that the U.S. “could not forge a nation.” He has previously stated that the U.S. had “lost the war.”

The hearings are not related to Congress’ bipartisan Afghanistan War Commission, which is investigating the entire 20-year period of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and whose report will be released later. Rather, they are an effort by congressional Republicans to draw negative attention to the Biden administration’s foreign policy in the runup to the November presidential election. As such, the hearings have become a renewed focal point for political narratives about blame. But they also create an opportunity to consider counterfactual hypothetical scenarios that could expand our understanding of the U.S failure in Afghanistan.

For many Democrats as well as Republicans, the mishandling of the withdrawal is seen as a moral blight on the U.S., which having first broken Afghanistan then walked away. Even for the majority of U.S. citizens who believed leaving was the right thing to do, the chaotic nature of the withdrawal itself and the failure to adequately protect Washington’s Afghan allies during and after the withdrawal have caused concern. A separate U.S. State Department report from 2022 traced the roots of the botched evacuation to the policies of both the Biden and Trump administrations.

Many criticisms from both sides of the aisle are well-founded, regardless of which of the two men battling for the White House this year are perceived to bear the greatest blame. When the U.S. announced its departure in 2021, it caused a swift collapse in the morale of the Afghan army, allowing the Taliban to sweep across the country. Since their takeover, repression is severe, food insecurity is rife, and women and girls face ongoing and worsening gender apartheid. The problems have been compounded by the Biden administration’s continued freeze of Afghanistan’s national reserves as well as crippling sanctions that have thrown the population into greater poverty. Amid these dynamics, al-Qaida has a resurgent presence in the country, as does the Islamic State, whose Afghanistan-based offshoot—the Islamic State-Khorasan, or IS-K—was responsible for the attack in Moscow that killed at least 137 people Friday.

But the deeper blame here with regard to the U.S. failure to improve the lives of Afghans and secure the region against terrorism can’t reasonably be pinned on either Trump or Biden. That’s because the problem wasn’t the failure to build a nation, win a war, stay longer or leave sooner, but rather the fact that the U.S. was never the right actor to create or oversee a sustainable peace once the immediate conflict with the Taliban ended in 2002. The decision to remain in the country fighting a counterinsurgency, rather than step back and allow the United Nations to take over, was taken by neither Trump nor Biden, but by then-President George W. Bush soon after 9/11. This meant Trump and Biden both inherited a lengthy “war” in Afghanistan that could have and should have been a multinational peace operation almost from the start.

Milley is right: The U.S. military is not good at nation-building, defined by political scientist James L. Payne as “the use of ground troops to support a deliberate effort to establish democracy.” But nor are most other invading countries good at it, which is why, Payne argues, “nation-building” conducted by the invader that topples the previous regime so often fails. In fact, political science research shows that international involvement on the side of a government to fight insurgencies, which frequently occurs once a regime is toppled, usually lengthens, broadens and complexifies the very civil wars that are often the impetus for such interventions.

But this doesn’t mean that international support to rebuild a society after toppling a repressive government is itself a bad idea or that the U.S. couldn’t have made it happen. In fact, there is a different paradigm for post-conflict societal reconstruction that actually has an excellent track record: peace-building under U.N. auspices. Such missions take as their starting point U.N. involvement as a neutral actor that does not back either side of a conflict but rather supports peace. According to research by the Rand Corporation, compared to the U.S. or other invading countries, this recipe more often than not actually works.

The problem in Afghanistan wasn’t the U.S. failure to build a nation or win a war, but the fact that the U.S. was never the right actor to create or oversee a sustainable peace once the conflict with the Taliban ended in 2002.

U.N. personnel can help create peace by solving credible commitment problems, and they can help keep peace by providing inducements, persuasion and, if needed, coercive measures to enforce agreements. Beyond simple peacekeeping, democratic, rights-based institutions are also generally part of the peace-building recipe, but under U.N. auspices they use home-grown, culturally appropriate models rather than those imposed by specific Western powers. And the use of armed force in such missions is generally limited to that required to protect civilians from armed groups or the government. These strategies, when conducted by the U.N. rather than invading foreigners, have been shown to be extraordinarily effective across numerous U.N. missions using various indicators of success. This is a completely different paradigm from the counterinsurgency approach adopted by the U.S. in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Despite the current narrative of failure, the U.S. actually won the initial Afghanistan war, routing the Taliban quickly in late 2001 and early 2002 with help from a coalition of nonaligned Afghan tribes, the Northern Alliance. But then the U.S. threw itself behind the Western-styled, U.S.-funded Afghan national government while continuing to hunt terrorists in violation of U.N. human rights standards and conducting low-intensity “warfare” against the Taliban, which by then had become an insurgency. In so doing, the U.S. became a party to an ongoing civil war it couldn’t ever win and created a perception by the Afghan people that their national government was being propped up by the West. Under these circumstances, it was no surprise that the national government fell when the U.S. withdrew.

Imagine, however, a counterfactual history where the U.S. removed the Taliban but then immediately pivoted to supporting a truly multinational U.N. peacekeeping and peacebuilding force comprising not just Western troops but troops from the Global South—as was actually requested by the Taliban at the time, and again in 2009. In this scenario, the U.S. would have allowed the U.N. to negotiate an inclusive power-sharing agreement between the Taliban and a new Afghan national government when the Taliban was on the back foot, with Washington rallying funding and troop contributions from other U.N. members. The resulting large, inclusive, mostly non-Western U.N. peacekeeping mission would have overseen reconstruction in culturally sensitive ways consistent with both Afghan cultural normsand international human rights standards, and based on the will of the Afghan people. The U.S. would have leveraged the unprecedented international sympathy it enjoyed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to rally support from moderate Muslim-majority countries and Islamic scholars to conduct international trials of captured terrorists. The venue for those trials would have been a U.N. Security Council-initiated special ad hoc tribunal using processes the U.N. had mastered in trying crimes against humanity in Rwanda and Yugoslavia.

In that scenario, many problems could still have arisen. But the U.S. military would never have been stuck in a quagmire unsuited to its training and job description; Afghanistan’s rural countryside would not have been ravaged by drone warfare for two decades, throwing sympathy back to the Taliban; the U.S. government would not have besmirched its own reputation in the Muslim world through extrajudicial executions and detainee-abuse scandals, providing recruitment material to the likes of ISIS; and the Afghan army would have been less dependent on U.S. backing from the start.

The events of August 2021 were made inevitable not just by the Biden administration’s hurried evacuation or even by the Trump administration’s sidelining of the Afghan national government in its 2020 negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, but also by the 20 years of counterinsurgency that preceded the withdrawal. Rather than allowing the U.N. to broker, enforce and build on a sustainable peace, the U.S. sided with one belligerent in what became an ongoing civil war. By the time Biden took office, as described in the White House’s own 2023 report on the evacuation, he felt his hands had been tied.

This is not to say Trump and Biden did not make meaningful choices. Trump could have avoided throwing the national government under the bus. Biden could have reversed Trump’s timetable, begun the evacuation sooner or extended it over a longer period. And his administration could still do much more to streamline red tape for Afghans and assist many more to reach the United States.

But if the overall U.S. record in Afghanistan was a failure, it wasn’t a failure to “win a war” or “forge a nation,” but rather to build a postwar peace starting in 2002. That failure of imagination was inherited by both of the presidents being blamed in these congressional hearings now. By expanding their imagination now, analysts and U.S. citizens can draw smarter lessons for future interventions.

Charli Carpenter is a professor of political science and legal studies at University of Massachusetts-Amherst, specializing in human security and international law. She tweets at @charlicarpenter.

The U.S. Failure in Afghanistan Was Not the Withdrawal