Ten Reasons Why America’s Afghan War Lasted So Long and Ended So Disastrously

One thing is certain: The U.S. military succeeded in arming the Taliban (captured military equipment; photo from The Guardian)

W.J. Astore

The headlines claim America’s war in Afghanistan has finally ended, but of course no war ends just because someone claims it to be so. The Afghan people will be living with the chaos and destruction of this war for decades to come, even as mainstream media pundits in the USA and at the Pentagon pivot quickly to new wars or rumors of war in China, Africa, Iran, and elsewhere.

The Afghan War, I’ve argued, was never America’s to win. The U.S. military had the watches but the Afghan people had the time, as the saying goes, and unless U.S. forces stayed there forever (as retired General David Petraeus advised with his empty talk of “sustainable, sustained commitment”), the Taliban or indigenous forces like them were always going to prevail. After all, it’s their country, their culture, their people, and they want to live their way, free of foreign interference, whether it’s British or Russian or American.

That said, why did America persist in a lost cause for two decades? What explains this debacle? If we can explain it, perhaps we can avoid similar catastrophes in the future. 

In that spirit of optimism, here are ten reasons why America’s Afghan War lasted so long and ended so disastrously:

  1. Lack of a military draft in the USA. No, I’m not advocating for a return of the draft. But because there is no draft, because America allegedly has an “all-volunteer” military, most Americans pay it little mind, including the wars it fights, no matter how long they last.
  2. Related to (1) is the Pentagon’s practice of isolating Americans from the true costs of war. Elsewhere, I’ve called it the new American isolationism. We are simply encouraged not to look at the true face of war and its many horrors. Isolation from wars’ costs, I’d argue, acts to prolong the killing and dying.
  3. Related to (1) and (2) is the lack of a sustained anti-war movement in America. When there’s no draft and little exposure to war’s horrors, there is neither the cause nor the outrage needed to generate a significant anti-war movement. The lack of a strong anti-war movement serves to prolong Pentagon folly, which is fine with the Pentagon, as long as budgets for war continue to increase.
  4. Related to (2) and (3) is extensive Pentagon lying, which is abetted by mainstream media propaganda. The Afghan Papers in 2019 revealed how the American people had been lied to repeatedly about “progress” in Afghanistan, but those revelations came late, and most Americans, isolated from the war, paid them little mind anyway.
  5. Politics. It seems like every decision about Afghanistan was driven more by U.S. domestic politics than by realities on the ground. Firstly, the U.S. invaded as revenge for 9/11, even though the Taliban wasn’t responsible for that attack. Attempts by the Taliban to surrender or to turn over Osama bin Laden were rebuffed. Later, Barack Obama and the Democrats cynically turned the Afghan War into the “good” war as opposed to the badly botched Iraq War of Bush/Cheney. Obama persisted in fighting the Afghan War partly as a way of showing his “seriousness” as U.S. President. Trump inherited the war, thought about ending it, then decided he’d prosecute it even more vigorously than Obama did, after which he decided to negotiate with the Taliban without bringing the war to a conclusive end. Biden inherited that mess, a mess he’d helped to create as Obama’s Vice President, and is now being blamed for a chaotic withdrawal, even as he tried to tie the war’s conclusion to the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It’s a sordid record with plenty of cynical manipulation by Democrats and Republicans alike. In Washington, the war became a political football, tossed about willy-nilly with plenty of unforced fumbles resulting. 
  6. Solipsism.  Everywhere we go, there we are. Did the Afghan people even exist in the minds of Washington officials?
  7. Profit. Endless wars generate boundless profits for a select few. As General Smedley Butler noted in the 1930s, war is a racket. Many warrior-corporations got very rich off the Afghan War. Most in Congress willingly went along with this: they were getting paid too. Hence Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning about the military-industrial-Congressional complex as a vastly powerful entity. It only gains strength as war is prolonged.
  8. Poor strategy. You simply can’t deliver a “government in a box” to Afghan peoples destabilized by decades of war exacerbated by foreign meddling and manipulation. Creating well-armed “national” police and security forces, meanwhile, is a great way to build an authoritarian police state, but not a participatory democracy. Did the U.S. spend so much time creating police and military forces in Afghanistan because that is what the Pentagon and its various mercenary camp followers understood best? If so, the effort still failed spectacularly.
  9. Dereliction of duty. The U.S. military knew it was losing the war. It hid the truth by massaging metrics and by lying repeatedly, including to Congress. Senior commanders were never held accountable for these lies. Indeed, the two most famous U.S. commanders, David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, were fired from their jobs for reasons unrelated to lies and lack of progress in this war.
  10.  Too many guns brought to a knife fight.  The U.S. military used massive firepower in the cause of limiting American casualties. Afghan casualties didn’t matter. But every time a drone strike hit a wedding party, or a Hellfire missile generated “collateral damage,” more Afghans turned against America and its military occupation.

Looking at these ten reasons, facing them squarely, is tougher than it sounds. Addressing them is even tougher. Some suggested reforms:

  1. A return to a military draft that picks the most privileged sons and daughters of America first. Start with the families of Members of Congress and the Executive Branch. Fill out the ranks with anyone attending the Ivy League and all private prep schools. And fight no war without a Congressional declaration of the same. (If this all sounds like nonsense, because you “know” the rich and privileged won’t allow their sons and daughters to be drafted and to serve in harm’s way, then you should also know from this that America’s wars since 1945 are dishonest as well as avoidable.)
  2. Face the true costs of war. Any expenditures on war should result in an immediate tax hike on the richest Americans (those in the top 10% of wealth). Casualties of war, whether of U.S. troops or foreign innocents, should be aired on national media in a manner similar to the New York Times’ coverage of 9/11 victims in 2001.
  3. Anti-war voices deserve at least an equal hearing in the mainstream media as pro-war ones. Indeed, anti-war voices should be amplified to provide a humane balance to pro-war ones.
  4. Given the evidence of consistent Pentagon mendacity, whether in Vietnam or Iraq or Afghanistan and elsewhere, the default position of the mainstream media should be supreme skepticism. At the same time, information about war should be declassified and shared with the American people so that informed decisions can be made about the war’s true course and progress toward victory (or lack thereof).
  5. War, the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz said, is the continuation of politics by other means. By this he didn’t mean that war should be defined and driven by an internal politics focused tightly on partisan advantage. War may be too important to be left to generals; it is also most assuredly too important (and deadly) to be left to partisan politicians striking tough guy poses.  Coda: Any politician making noises about putting on “big boy pants” and similar bellicose nonsense shall be handed a rifle and deployed immediately to the front.
  6. Before waging war with or against a people, those people should be recognized as, well, people, possessing their own unique culture, mindsets, and abilities.
  7. Taking the profit out of war is perhaps the best way of ending it. If America must wage war, it should be a non-profit operation.
  8. Strategy at the highest level should be agreed upon by the American people and be explicable by the same. Americans should be able to explain “why we fight,” with clear ideas about ending the war quickly, i.e., an exit strategy.
  9. Military officials caught lying to the American people, whether before Congress or elsewhere, demonstrate a lack of integrity and should be fired with loss of all future benefits. More serious lies shall result in prison sentences.
  10. Any war that requires U.S. military forces to use massive firepower merely to tread water against much weaker enemies is a lost war from day one. Using sledgehammers to kill gnats is never wise, no matter how much Americans like to sling sledgehammers. 

For any self-avowed democracy, a politics based on honesty, equity of burden-sharing, and humane values among citizens is a must. If America is to wage war, which I would prefer it not do, except in those rarest of cases when America is directly attacked or imminently in danger, that war’s causes and goals should be debated honestly and fully, with the burden of warfighting shared fairly.  A quick cessation of hostilities should be the goal.

Ultimately, you wage war long, you wage it wrong, should become the byword of U.S. policy now and forever.

There’s No Business Like War Business

W.J. Astore

Among my many weak spots is economics and business. I took exactly one course in college on macroeconomics. I took dozens of courses in math and engineering like calculus, statics, dynamics, fluid mechanics, thermodynamics, biomechanics, you name it. Then I switched academic specialties and became a historian of science, technology, and religion. Again I took dozens of courses in various branches of history, but again my one economics course remains my brief exposure to that world. And I took it as a freshman forty years ago!

Economics has been on my mind lately because so much of what passes for national military (a redundant phrase) strategy in the U.S. is really about making money. Profit. Capitalism, pure and simple. Moving products, expanding markets, diversifying portfolios, and so on. There’s no business like war business. It’s a capitalist’s dream.

In this rich vein of greed-war, I urge you to read Christian Sorensen’s 5-part series on the military-industrial-congressional complex at Consortium News. (Here’s a link to part 5, which also includes links to the previous four parts.) I really like the way he begins Part 5:

Without looking at military adventurism through the lens of the corporation, analysts are bound to produce error-filled studies. For example, one analyst contended in an interview on The Real News Network, “Military force is almost never going to achieve your political aims. The Americans learned this in Vietnam. They’re learning it in Afghanistan. They’re learning it in Syria… So [President Barack] Obama supporting the Saudis and Emiratis in Yemen is a sign really of incoherence on the part of the United States.”

Far from incoherence, the behavior actually is quite rational. A variety of conflicts, disparate and some seemingly futile, is precisely the aim. Conflict itself — producing untold mountains of profit for war corporations and Wall Street — is the goal.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. You can’t look at U.S. military-national “strategy” today through a purely strategic lens or one informed solely by military history (as I’m tempted to do). Clausewitz, Jomini, and other classical military theorists won’t help you much. You need to look to Wall Street, to economics, to how capitalism works. You have to look to business cycles, profit, markets, portfolios, diversification, and similar concepts. You have to recognize war is a special kind of business, one that America is very good at because we specialize in it. War and weaponry may well be our leading exports.

Again, I’m tempted as a former engineer and as a professional historian who’s studied strategy (at Oxford no less) to try to make sense of U.S. national-military strategy in logical terms informed by history, Wrong approach! The right approach is to follow the money. Think not of “war as a continuation of politics” but of war as a continuation of capitalism, a special kind of disaster or death capitalism. Remember too to think in terms of portfolios and diversification of the same, after which U.S. policies make all the sense in the world.  More conflict means more weapons sales means more money.  The same is true of arms races in the false cause of deterrence.

An early example from my life. When I was a young lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force, circa 1985, I wrote a paper on the B-1 bomber and the strategy of “manned penetrating bombers.” In plain speak (plane speak?), the Air Force was spending loads of money on a high-tech swing-wing plane loaded with avionics which would in theory enable it to penetrate Soviet airspace and bomb targets directly. This made little sense to me, nor did it make sense to President Jimmy Carter, who had cancelled the plane as unneeded. After all, B-52s could carry highly accurate cruise missiles and launch them from outside of Soviet airspace, and for much less money.

But the B-1, like any major weapon system, had powerful friends in Congress, since Rockwell International had spread production of the plane and its components to as many Congressional districts as possible. When Ronald Reagan became president in 1981, he quickly reversed Carter’s decision. It wasn’t about strategy. It was about business and profit justified in the name of sending a tough message to the “Evil Empire.” Meanwhile, the Soviet Union collapsed a few years later and the U.S. was stuck with 100 B-1 bombers it didn’t need. Time has proven it to be an expensive plane to maintain, and one that’s never been used (fortunately) on the mission for which it was designed.

The U.S. has a lot of weapons like the B-1 bomber: expensive, unreliable, redundant strategically, and ultimately unneeded. It doesn’t make much sense, until you realize it’s all about making money, moving product, inflating threats, and keeping the cycle going, again and again, wars and weapons without end, Amen.