CHICAGO: The US government and military lacked the “will and the skill” as well as clear goals during its war in Afghanistan that ultimately led to its withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power.
These are the views of panelists who were participating in a webinar of the US Institute for Peace — an organization of the American government — tasked with conflict prevention and resolution around the world.
They said the US government had no clear idea of how to end the war in Afghanistan after it invaded in 2001. They argued that the failure to engage with the Taliban early on was because of the deeply entrenched thinking of military and political leaders whose objectives were limited to achieving a “zero-sum victory” and drive the Taliban out of power.
The US government had spent trillions of dollars on the Afghanistan war and reconstruction effort but still failed to achieve an inclusive and durable political settlement to the conflict, according to the USIP panelists.
The US invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 in the aftermath of September 11 with the objective to drive the Taliban out of power after they refused to hand over members of the Al-Qaeda terrorist group who were identified as responsible for the New York attacks.
In August of 2020, US civilian and military forces hastily withdrew from Kabul and other parts of Afghanistan culminating in the Taliban taking power in the country.
The US held direct peace negotiations with the Taliban in Doha, Qatar, that led to the signing of an agreement in 2020 stipulating the withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan and the start of intra-Afghan talks to end the violence and achieve reconciliation.
According to Tamanna Salikuddin, director, South Asia Programs at the USIP, and a former American government official who worked in Afghanistan, one of the key mistakes of the US was that it did not see a need to negotiate. “The real failure in Afghanistan was not to engage with the Taliban early on,” she said.
Salikuddin said the US government’s political and military branches did not appear to understand each other’s plans and priorities on the end goals in Afghanistan.
Agreeing with Salikuddin, Christopher Kolenda, a retired US army colonel and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, said the American government lacked a doctrine on how to deal with Afghanistan after the invasion.
He said the Taliban had two factors in their favor — the external actors that facilitated their logistics and bases in neighboring regions, and considerable internal support.
Added to that, he argued, the US-supported Afghan government had failed to win the battle of legitimacy against the Taliban inside the country. “And because of these two factors we started drifting toward failure even though we believed we were being successful,” he said.
“The US government lacked both the will and the skill to pursue a political settlement in Afghanistan similar to Vietnam and Iraq,” he said.
Masoom Stanekzai, a former intelligence and defense minister of the US-backed Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, argued that regional and international conflicts contributed to the current situation in the country.
He said that Afghan society was historically conservative but never radical. This changed with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s and US support for the Mujahedeen which led to the gathering of extremist groups inside the country.
Stanekzai said the US conducted its war on terror by excluding regional actors like Pakistan, who were important role players but often “played a double game during the years of the US presence in Afghanistan.”
He said Afghan government officials had met with Pakistan’s leaders over the span of two decades but there were no positive and tangible results from these talks that could assist in stabilizing Afghanistan. He attributed this failure to Pakistan seeing the warming of ties between the US and India as a threat to its interests in Afghanistan.
In addition, the Afghan government was hampered by internal and inherent weaknesses that contributed to the failed efforts to bring the situation in the country under control.
Addressing the inherent weakness of the US strategy in Afghanistan, Kolenda said “the US has no way of thinking about war termination beyond decisive zero-sum victory.”
He added that the nature of US operations in Afghanistan fostered “bureaucratic silos” that hampered the creation of a unified system to run the war and because of that type of thinking “we had nobody functionally in charge of our wars.”
“There was nobody in Kabul in charge of all US efforts on the ground,” he added.