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Understanding Afghanistan’s Disappointing Outcome (Part III)

By Dr. Kelly C. Jordan
Faculty Member, Military Studies and National Security Studies

Note: This article is the third article in a four-part series about Afghanistan. This article will identify the main reasons why the U.S. failed to achieve its desired political and strategic aims in Afghanistan during 2001-2021.

Before analyzing the main reasons why the U.S. failed to achieve its desired political and strategic outcomes in Afghanistan, it is useful to first summarize the U.S. military goals in Afghanistan during 2001- 2021. These military goals supported the U.S. political goals of eliminating al-Qaeda forces and leaders and preventing Afghanistan from being used as a future sanctuary for threats.

US Military Goals in Afghanistan, 2001-2021

 Military GoalsAchievedNot Achieved
2001-2002– Eliminate al-Qaeda forces & leaders from Afghanistan – Eliminate Taliban regime & leaders  Required finding & arresting Osama bin Laden    Included eliminating Taliban  
      2003-2008– Defending central Afghan government – Defeat Taliban, al-Qaeda and affiliated forces – Stabilize situation in south and east – Build Afghan security forces – Request NATO assistance – Locate and arrest Osama bin Laden    Required finding & arresting Osama bin Laden        Included eliminating Taliban
2009-2014– Disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al- Qaeda in Afghanistan and in safe havens in Pakistan – Prevent al-Qaeda’s return to Afghanistan or Pakistan – Deploy 4,000 additional U.S. soldiers to train Afghan army & police force – Request more NATO assistance – Adopt time-based considerations      Osama bin Laden located & killed (May 2011)   Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) concluded      No longer included eliminating Taliban (2009)   OEF concluded
2015-2017– Attack U.S. enemies – Obliterate ISIS – Crush al-Qaeda – Prevent the Taliban from taking over Afghanistan – Stop mass terrorist attacks against America before they emerge – Adopt pragmatic goals & return to conditions-based considerations           No longer included eliminating Taliban
2018-2021– Support peace negotiations – Shift assets from killing Taliban leadership to defending posts – Streamline communications – Employ Special Operations Forces (SOF) selectively     No longer included eliminating Taliban
Chart courtesy of Dr. Kelly C. Jordan

Reasons Why the US Failed in Afghanistan from Expert Analysts

An analysis done by two expert scholars from senior military educational institutions, Larry Goodson of the U.S. Army War College and Thomas Johnson of the U.S. Navy’s Naval Postgraduate School, provides a useful explanation of the U.S. failure in Afghanistan. The authors identify several militarily related reasons why the U.S. failed to achieve its policy objectives and “win” in any meaningful sense in Afghanistan:

  • The U.S. found itself on the wrong side of “the ancient, often reinforcing ethnolinguistic, tribal, and religious cleavage lines that divide Afghan society,” which have bedeviled outsiders since the time of Alexander the Great.
  • U.S. strategy in Afghanistan was fragmented, unfocused, uncoordinated, and ineffective, and the U.S. strategic focus shifted to Iraq in March 2003. It was Iraq and not Afghanistan that was the strategic focus for much of the 2000s. The surge of 2010 was ineffective in reversing this strategic neglect and perhaps even exacerbated “the American march toward doom” in Afghanistan.
  • Military leaders and government officials “exaggerated and prevaricated so routinely that it became difficult” for anyone – including national security experts – to acquire an accurate understanding of the status and situation in Afghanistan. As a result, it was difficult for decision makers to make informed, effective strategic decisions.
  • While the U.S. ground mission began as a way to prevent Afghanistan from being a terrorist breeding ground, it slid into an effort for regime change, development, and nation-building. This effort lacked a viable plan and had little hope of success.
  • The U.S. tolerated Pakistan’s support for the Taliban. Pakistan provided the defeated insurgents a safe haven with easy access into Afghanistan. That refuge enabled the Taliban to regroup and return to Afghanistan on their own terms. The Taliban could take action at times and places of their own choosing, providing them with tremendous strategic flexibility.
  • By the end, the United States lost its willingness to lead and also failed to lead, despite going to Afghanistan to avenge 9/11 and involving NATO. 

In addition, the U.S. decision to make peace with the Taliban and withdraw its support toward the end of the conflict drained the Afghan army’s will to fight. These decisions also helped to lead to the Taliban’s victory.

According to another expert, historian and analyst Carter Malkasian, the U.S. misjudged the impact of the 2001 victory over the Taliban and did not fully appreciate just how important an effective Afghan army would be to its own success. During the window of opportunity that existed in Afghanistan between 2001 and 2005, U.S. leaders accomplished too little in building an effective Afghan army and police force and establishing a viable, legitimate replacement government for the Taliban.

Consequently, the U.S. lost the opportunity to take advantage of the situation, and the existing divisions within the population hardened. Also, the Taliban was not engaged in negotiations, and the willingness to compromise dissipated. These conditions coalesced to provide the opportunity for the Taliban to reemerge.

Responsibility for these developments is shared between the U.S. and the Taliban. Building a small Afghan army slowly and shifting its strategic focus to Iraq in early 2003 caused the U.S. to redirect its attention and limited resources away from Afghanistan. The options to help Afghanistan were therefore reduced.

Having regrouped in Pakistan and excluded from any negotiations, the Taliban’s successful 2006 offensive transformed it. The Taliban went from being a defeated movement to a vibrant, viable alternative to a corrupt national government-sponsored by a detested foreign occupation, catalyzing resistance and revitalizing the war.

Other Reasons and Contributing Factors to the US Failure in Afghanistan

One of the most important reasons for the U.S. failure was the initial U.S. approach of treating al-Qaeda and the Taliban as being one and the same. Combat actions intended to destroy al-Qaeda, the group responsible for the 9/11 attacks, were effective and were viewed by many people as being justified.

However, using the same approach for the Taliban – which had not participated in the 9/11 attacks – created animosity, hardened internal resistance, and drove the undecided towards the Taliban. It was not until 2009 that the U.S. removed the elimination of the Taliban as one of its primary political and strategic objectives. The U.S. determined that it could tolerate the continued existence of the Taliban if the organization conducted itself appropriately and was willing to conform to U.S. expectations, a condition that was further modified in 2020.

In terms of completing the destruction of al-Qaeda, the effort to hunt down Osama bin Laden took far too long. It was completed on May 2, 2011, having taken almost 10 years. By the time bin Laden’s death took place, the U.S. had become too heavily invested in nation-building to simply walk away from Afghanistan, falling victim to the sunk-cost fallacy.

Reasons Why the US Failed in Afghanistan from a Strategic Analysis

An enlightening way to better understand Goodson and Thompson’s assessment of Afghanistan is to conduct a strategic analysis using the widely accepted Lykke Model of Strategy. This model is often used in our online master of arts in military studies.

The Lykke Model has four elements:

  • Means – the resources
  • Ways – the manner in which the Means are used
  • Ends – the desired outcomes
  • Risk – the relative level of balance among Means, Ways and Ends

The higher the level of balance among Means, Ways, and Ends, the lower the level of strategic Risk and the better chance the resulting strategy has of producing success. That is especially true when a strategy is evaluated in terms of feasibility (the strategy’s ability to be accomplished with available means), acceptability (the benefits are justified by the costs), and suitability (the ability to attain desired end).

In terms of Means, the U.S. shifted its attention to Iraq in 2003 and reduced the amount of resources (especially troops) allocated for Afghanistan. However, the argument that more troops would have allowed the U.S. to succeed in Afghanistan is not necessarily valid.

The U.S. allocated sufficient military resources to Afghanistan to accomplish its primary goal of eliminating al-Qaeda by the end of 2001, indicating that this goal had the proper resources and that those resources were used correctly to reach the desired end. This aspect of the U.S. strategy demonstrated an appropriate level of balance among Means, Ways, and Ends and a relatively low level of strategic Risk, indicating that it should have been successful, especially when evaluated in terms of feasibility, acceptability, and suitability.

The goal of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for future attacks against America became linked to establishing a democratic government in the country, which was an objective that could not be achieved by military means alone. This goal required a substantial number of troops, far more than either the U.S. or its NATO allies were willing to provide, which highlights the aspect of Ways.

By providing too few troops to Afghanistan, ground troops were stretched too thin on the ground and asked to do too much. The allocated resources were used in indiscriminate ways that exacerbated the situation and strengthened the appeal of the Taliban to many people in Afghanistan, especially those who had previously been undecided about supporting the Taliban. This actually helped to increase the Taliban’s Means.

So, a strategic analysis indicates that there was not a good level of balance among the Means, Ways, and Ends in Afghanistan regarding the U.S. strategic objective of preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for future attacks against America. The lack of balance created an unacceptable level of strategic Risk that reduced the chances of success for the U.S. strategy significantly.

The analysis also suggests that allocating too few troops resulted in them being used indiscriminately against both al-Qaeda and the Taliban. That decision by U.S. leaders created an unacceptable level of strategic Risk that virtually ensured the failure of U.S. strategy by worsening the situation and strengthening the appeal of the Taliban to many in Afghanistan.

Using the Lykke Model shows that allocating insufficient Means (too few troops) to Afghanistan led to them being used in Ways (somewhat indiscriminately) that undermined efforts to achieve the desired Ends (preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for future attacks against America). Ultimately, the resulting strategy was neither feasible nor suitable for the U.S. and unacceptable in terms of the cost required to achieve the benefits for the Afghans.

An Analysis from a Former Department of State Desk Officer and Historian

An insightful analysis by historian and former Department of State desk officer Gregory Roberts reveals a similar inability of the U.S. to balance means, ways, ends, and risk in Afghanistan. The U.S. decision to not involve itself in essential nation-building from the very beginning allowed the nation-building effort to be outsourced and proceed ponderously. It also absorbed increasing resources while the U.S. hunted for bin Laden (contributing to the sunk-cost fallacy impact on decision-making), masked the tremendous challenges associated with this task, and obscured realistic assessments of the U.S.’s ability to create a realistic end state in Afghanistan.

Roberts’ assessment concludes that the U.S. strategy for preventing Afghanistan from becoming a haven for future attacks against America was neither feasible, acceptable nor suitable. Roberts highlights these flaws in strategy to account for why the U.S. was not successful in Afghanistan.

Reasons for the Failure of the Afghan Army

The U.S. partnered with Afghanistan in the War on Terror. It is important to include the reasons for the failure of the Afghan army in this assessment of the U.S. failure in Afghanistan.

From an Afghan perspective, U.S. support was essential for their military to continue opposing the Taliban. The U.S. provided the Afghan army with warfighting superiority over their Taliban opponents, but in ways that were quite unusual for Afghan culture. Throughout its history, Afghans had been successful using more traditional and less technologically dependent methods.

The American way of fighting relied on highly technologically dependent methods, using interdependent units, and employing technologically advanced weapons and software. It was also dependent upon an efficient, effective, and reliable logistical system to support and maintain a style of fighting based upon expending high levels of resources across a broad area of operations. These aspects were alien to the Afghans, and while it was remarkable that they learned how to fight this way as well as they did, it was never natural for them or their preferred way of doing so.

While it is necessary to acknowledge that the Afghan army bears a level of responsibility for the ultimate outcome, U.S. decisions since 2020 (including the February 2020 peace deal with the Taliban and the April 2021 decision to withdraw U.S. troops and support) caused the Afghan Army to lose its will to fight and essentially stop fighting altogether. The loss of reliable air, intelligence, and logistical support was particularly detrimental, especially given how the U.S. trained the Afghan army to fight.

Lacking such support, Afghan army units were – or at least felt themselves to be – powerless. As a result, some units surrendered, and the Taliban defeated others.

In one Afghan commander’s assessment, the Afghan army was “betrayed by politics and presidents,” which exacerbated the army’s own weaknesses and made it vulnerable. That feeling of betrayal resulted in the Afghan army’s defeat and the Taliban’s victory.

Part IV of this series will discuss the lessons that can be learned from the situation in Afghanistan.

Dr. Kelly C. Jordan is a retired U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, and he is currently a full-time associate professor of military studies and national security studies. Dr. Jordan received his B.A. from the Virginia Military Institute, graduating with academic distinction and as a Distinguished Military Graduate. He holds a M.A. and a Ph.D. in military history from The Ohio State University and is also a graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. As an academic, Dr. Jordan is an award-winning professor who has served on the faculties of the United States Military Academy at West Point, the United States Army Command and General Staff College, the United States Naval War College, and the University of Notre Dame. As a scholar, he is the author of numerous military history and leadership studies publications.

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