Afghanistan War- the 20 years- what were we doing there all these years?

You can refer to the first part of this two part series Afghanistan War, the background. We humans have short attention spans and they are growing shorter with time- thanks to the myriad number of distractions we have today. Afghanistan is already at the backburner of media’s attention since there is more relevant and recent news to cover.

However, I had decided to write an unbiased fact based report on the war in September and hence delivering on that commitment to myself. I have plethora of things to do but making the time to do this before the issue of Afghanistan completely vanishes from our memories.

I ended the first post on why America had attacked Afghanistan in 2001 (at that time, most of the region was governed by Taliban). This part will focus on what we were doing in those 20 years we were there.

A quick lesson on US military before we proceed further. US military has six branches (the sixth “Space Force” was added recently)- Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force, Coast Guard and the Space Force. All the branches other than the Coast Guard fall under Department of Defense (DOD). Coast Guard falls under Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Donald Rumsfeld in 2001, then Secretary of Defense (also called SecDef- the highest executive of the Department of Defense) had the strategy of killing the bad guys and leaving thereafter. His thought process was that if it is required to come back to kill more bad guys 10 years later, he will come back again. He was not interested in “nation building” or establishing a fully functioning democracy in Afghanistan. He probably knew intuitively that “killing the bad guys” is the strength of US Military. Most of the bad guys had been killed or had fled Afghanistan for greener pastures in their safe havens in Pakistan. Then, what were we doing there in 2002 and beyond?

Photo credit: US Marine Corps. By Sgt. Samuel Ruiz

It seems that there were a couple of reasons we stayed back in Afghanistan. The first reason was the lesson from the Soviet War (I also talk about the history in Afghanistan War, the background.). After the Soviet War had ended, Afghanistan had fallen into a disarray and Taliban had eventually taken over the country. The US and its allies feared that if they left, there will be a Taliban comeback and the country will fall again into their hands. The second reason was “what does the country in the hands of Taliban mean for the United States and its allies”. The argument went like this- when the Taliban was in charge, they harbored Al-Qaeda (an international terrorist organization), which lead to September 11 attacks. If the US left Afghanistan in December of 2001 and the Taliban made a comeback, it would be fatal to US homeland security. Hence we stayed there, trying to ensure that the Taliban did not make a comeback.

But Taliban did make a comeback eventually and why did that happen? You can find the answers to those questions in various sources. I read the book called “The Afghanistan Papers” by Craig Whitlock. You can also find the answers in President Obama’s book “A Promised Land”. In addition to these sources, you can watch a bunch of documentaries and war movies. I am citing the sources so that it is clear that I am not inventing any facts here. I think the latest documentary on Netflix- “Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror” is highly recommended. If you like movies more than documentaries, I recommend “The Outpost” as a great watch. “The Outpost” is about the outpost in Kamdesh I talk about in my previous post Afghanistan War, the background.“12 Strong” is also a good one but is not as well made as “The Outpost” and appears to be more Hollywoody than it needs to be. This one shows the sequence of events in October of 2003 when a group of 12 US soldiers was sent to Afghanistan to work with the “Northern Alliance” to fight against Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Also, there is a docuseries on Netflix called “The Medal of Honor”, episodes 2 and 8 of which are connected to the events in “The Outpost”.

Now that I have provided a lot of the sources, you can dig most of the details yourself. I will provide more of a summary below as to what happened in the 20 years. The United States and it allies were constantly fighting insurgents. The term “insurgents” refers to “the bad guys” coming back into the fighting ring. These bad guys were always growing in numbers instead of decreasing, despite a lot of them being killed. Here I refer to another movie called “War Machine”. “War Machine” is an interesting (for the lack of a better word) take on the Retired Army General Stanley McChrystal, who had to hand in his resignation to President Obama after an article about him and his team appeared in “The Rolling Stones” magazine. This happened when he was in charge (on ground) of the The War in Afghanistan. There is a scene in the movie where “Brad Pitt” who plays the character of the general says this- “Let’s say you have ten insurgents. Huh? Now, let’s say you kill two of ’em. Now, how many insurgents do you have left? Hmm? Hmm? Well, you’d say eight, of course. Eight. Right? Right? Wrong! In this scenario, ten minus two equals 20. Let’s say the two insurgents you just killed, uh… each had six friends or brothers or some such, who are hovering on the brink of… of joining the insurgency. They’re thinking about this insurgency thing. “Looks interesting. But, you know, for one reason or other, not for me.” But… So, then you go and kill their friend. Now you’ve just made up their minds for ’em. Those hovering friends are now full, paid-up members of the enemy. Yeah. And so, in the math of counterinsurgency, ten minus two… equals 20.” I think this is a great example of why counterinsurgency is so hard to win.

Let’s take a minute to explain what counterinsurgency (CI) is, as opposed to counter terrorism (CT). Counterinsurgency is working with the community so that the circumstances in the community change to such a degree that new bad guys don’t appear and the old bad guys are either killed or they change into a new good way of life. Counter terrorism, on the other hand, is mainly thwarting the plans of terrorists (bad guys) by either taking them down using force or by intelligence and preventing bad things from happening. Counter terrorism has a smaller footprint while counterinsurgency requires a big commitment to nation and community building, in addition to fighting with the enemies. President Obama in his book talks about the fierce debate that happened on the topic of additional troop deployment. Biden (then Vice President) was insistent on the CT strategy with a troop deployment of 20,000. The military, on the other hand wanted 40,000 troops because according to their analysis, CI was the only way to win the war. President Obama was in the middle, even though he always appreciated the then Vice President Biden’s sole voice of dissent. President Obama did hit a compromise and sent 30,000 troops eventually.

Here is another reason why it was very difficult to win this war- Pakistan. Pakistan is a sovereign country so the United States and its allies cannot wage a war there. However, the borders between Afghanistan and Pakistan are porous and all the militants have to do if they want to, is to wait out in Pakistan while the troops returned back to their home countries.

And then the waste of money and corruption. The book “The Afghanistan Papers” dives into great details on the wastage of resources and money in the war and how all that money in the war corrupted the Afghan Government (not to say they wouldn’t have been corrupt in the absence of this money). There is another movie called “War Dogs”, which though focuses on a couple of Americans trying to make money from the war, did a good job of showing how money flowed in the Afghanistan War.

Then there were other reasons which prevented a successful “nation building” from happening (including creation of a strong Afghan Armed forces- army and police)- deep differences in culture (western allies versus local Afghans), low literacy rates, mistrust, consumption of opium amongst local men and legacy of a decentralized governance or no governance (people in rural areas could not understand why the President sitting in Kabul had any say in their lives, given they had lived for generations without any central Government support).

Did any good come out of this war? This is a more subjective question than an objective one. People have different opinions on this, especially for its effect on Afghanistan. Here is what I will say- this war seemed to be an unwinnable one to begin with. So, in that context, it was a waste of human lives and resources to a great extent. However, there is a silver lining (albeit at a great cost). There are several metrics which had improved in these 20 years (according to research by the Brookings Institute). Some of these metrics will automatically deteriorate during this new Talibani regime. However, some portion of the Afghan population (mostly urban/ semi-urban) has tasted a better way of life and would like to get back to it. They might be able to organize from within and govern themselves hopefully in a better way than they governed themselves in the 90s. The job of governing a country should always be in the hands of people who live there and not in the hands of outside forces to begin with. I hope that an internal revolution would lead to better governance in Afghanistan at some point in future.

The harder question to answer is if any good came out of it for the United States and its allies, at the expense of thousands of lives lost and trillions of dollars spent. This cannot be answered right away. We will find out in the coming years if the United States is safer from external terrorist threats than it was in the last twenty years. And someone will have to quantify the quality of life of the family members of the dead veterans and the mental and physical health of the surviving ones. And we cannot forget the opportunity cost, what would have happened if we had used these trillions of dollars elsewhere and none of the citizens were killed, injured or traumatized by the war. I will let the experts weigh in on that.

Thanks for reading!