Why US lost its 20-year war in Afghanistan

AT GROUND LEVEL - Satur C. Ocampo - The Philippine Star

Standing firm on his decision to end America’s longest war by withdrawing the remaining US military forces in Afghanistan, President Joseph Biden this week made two significant public acknowledgments.

First, that the Taliban, which the US invasion in late 2001 had ousted from governmental power, won back that power much faster – within just weeks – than his administration had expected (within 18 months).

Second, that 20 years of US training of Afghan soldiers and providing them equipment and resources worth hundreds of billion of dollars failed to develop a military force capable of securing their country.

“We gave them every tool they could use. We paid their salaries. Provided for the maintenance of their airplanes,” Biden said.

“We gave them every chance to determine their own future. What we could not provide was the will to fight for their future,” he lamented.

“If anything,” Biden concluded, the developments of the past week “reinforced [the idea] that ending US military involvement in Afghanistan now was the right decision.”

Essentially, Biden’s statements summed up what current and previous US government officials have admitted as American failings, as reported last Thursday by The New York Times. Also last week, an opinion piece in The Guardian, written by a retired colonel in the US Army who had been deployed four times in Afghanistan, provided more revelations and biting criticisms on the US mishandling of the war.

But first, a few facts about the US war in Afghanistan.

In late 2001, US President George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan, in retaliation for the al-Qaida terrorist group’s Sept. 11 aerial attacks that devastated the World Trade Center twin-towers in New York and damaged the Pentagon. The invasion led to the overthrow of the government then led by the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group, which provided safe haven to al-Qaida’s Osama bin Laden.

After accomplishing the mission to disrupt al-Qaida operations and toppling the Taliban regime (that ruled the people through harsh means of interpreting the Koran), the US changed its goal in March 2002 into a “nation-building” project, as it expanded its “war on terror” in Iraq. Critics later called the project “unattainable” and the continuing war against the resurgent Taliban “unwinnable.”

Now back to the NYT report. Among the admissions made by the unnamed US officials are the following:

• Intelligence agencies had long predicted a final Taliban victory, but although they raised questions about the Afghan security forces’ will to fight without close American support, they did not predict their collapse within weeks. The consensus had been that the Afghan government could hold on for as long as two more years.

• In July, the CIA reported that the Afghan security forces and central government had lost control of the roads leading to Kabul, the seat of government. Its assessment: the government’s viability was in serious jeopardy. Yet the CIA resisted giving a clear prediction of how quickly the government could collapse.

• “Sharp disagreements” persisted, particularly between the CIA (directly under presidential authority) and the Defense Intelligence Agency (under the Pentagon). For years, the CIA had shown pessimism over the Afghan security forces’ training, while the DIA and other intelligence units within the Pentagon “delivered more optimistic assessments” on such training.

• Military and intelligence assessments saying that the Kabul government could hold on for at least a year before being overrun by the Taliban were based on a flawed premise: that the Afghan army would put up a fight.

That wrong premise was exposed during the Taliban sweep to victory. Most of the assessments had focused on how well the Afghan security forces would fare with the Taliban, an expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington pointed out. “In reality, they never really fought.”

• A historical analysis provided to the US Congress explained that the Taliban had learned from their previous takeover of the government in the 1990s. This led them to take this plan of action: first secure border crossings, commandeer provincial capitals and take control of the country’s north (where resistance to Taliban was relatively strong) before taking Kabul. And they did so.

• On the swift takeover of Kabul, with nary a shot, a former CIA analyst commented: “I am not surprised it was as fast and sweeping as it was. The Taliban certainly has shown their ability to persevere, hunker down and come back even after they have been beaten back.”

Moreover, the CIA analyst noted: “And you have a population that is so tired and weary of conflict that they are going to flip and support the winning side so they can survive.”

In The Guardian article mentioned earlier, the author, Daniel L. Davis, was categorical. He wrote:

“From the beginning, everything said about the Afghan war was a lie. For 15 years, senior US civilian and military leaders have been publicly telling the American people the war was necessary for US security, it was making progress and supporting an Afghan security force that was performing well.”

He cited the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction who testified before the US Congress that military intelligence reports were routinely “watered down” and “politicized” all the way up to the topmost authority.

“The illusion of success could be maintained so long as US and NATO military forces remained engaged,” Davis observed. But with the foreign military cover being withdrawn, the Afghan forces have proven “utterly incapable of defeating the Taliban offensive.”

“As awful as the security situation in Afghanistan today, it was a disaster almost two decades in the making,” Davis wrote. Saying the US should have admitted the truth long ago and ended the war even before the Bush administration exited, he recommended: “America must permanently cease waging ‘nation-building’ wars, restricting deployments abroad only to fights directly related to US national security.”

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