Book Reviews

Why the US lost the Afghan War

Updated on: Dec 06, 2021
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Craig Whitlock’s book The Afghanistan Papers looks beyond the rhetoric to delve into all that went wrong

While there is little dispute that the United States lost the Afghan War, the jury is still out on why it lost. Many believe it is because the military might of the United States has waned and its super-power status much eroded. Some claim it lost because of a lack of determination while others attribute it to the legendary fighting capabilities of the Afghans, who are supposedly indomitable. The truth, as is to be expected in such cases, has proved elusive.

Author Craig Whitlock, a US journalist having had a first-hand view of the Afghan War, has pursued the matter with singular determination. The result is a book that seeks to look beyond the obvious, the platitudes and the Washingtonian rhetoric that have dominated discussions on the Afghan War.

Whitlock believes the fundamental problem was Washington’s muddled objectives in invading Afghanistan in late 2001 in response to the 9/11 attacks on American soil. “Military strategists are taught never to start a war without having a plan to end it. Yet neither [President George] Bush nor anyone else in his administration publicly articulated how or when or under what conditions they intended to bring military operations in Afghanistan to a conclusion”, the author observes.

“We had no coherent long-term strategy,” said British Gen. David Richards, who led US and NATO forces from 2006 to 2007. “We were trying to get a single coherent long-term approach - a proper strategy - but instead we got a lot of tactics.”

The desired end game in any military operation is indeed the most crucial part of strategy; without that there can be no measure of success or closure. The author seems to suggest that the limited aims of the Afghan War as enunciated by President Bush were not definitive and did not envisage a time frame.  President Bush merely voiced two objectives: “to disrupt al-Qaeda’s use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.”

When asked how long the war might last, President Bush said: “This battlefront will last as long as it takes to bring al-Qaeda to justice. It may happen tomorrow, it may happen a month from now, it may take a year or two, but we will prevail.”

Initially, the US military operations in Afghanistan were spectacularly successful. Aided by the redoubtable Northern Alliance fighters, Kabul was rapidly wrested from Taliban control, the al-Qaeda disrupted and Osama bin Laden put to flight and the Taliban hounded out of the country. Yet, after a couple of years into the war it became clear that things were not settling down. Whitlock’s book is a long account of all that went wrong.

“I have no visibility into who the bad guys are in Afghanistan,” the author quotes the then US Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld as complaining. The basic problem was that the continuing fighting in Afghanistan showed no signs of ending even after the al-Qaeda had been destroyed and the Taliban ousted. Unending fighting continued in many parts of the country, particularly in the districts near the Pakistan border.

It soon became clear things were not going the way Washington had hoped. The author quotes Rumsfeld as noting: “We are never going to get the US military out of Afghanistan unless we take care to see that there is something going on that will provide stability that will be necessary for us to leave.”

It was soon obvious that a withdrawal of US and NATO troops would facilitate the return of the Taliban. That is in fact what eventually happened.

To prevent that kind of outcome, Washington’s strategists came out with various plans, including a grandiose one to establish a thriving democracy in Afghanistan’s political wasteland dominated by tribal, ethnic and sectarian identities. It never worked.

The author is right when he writes: “On a broader level, the United States had jumped into the war with only a hazy idea of whom it was fighting - a fundamental blunder from which it would never recover.”

However, there are many who would dispute the author’s subsequent argument that the Taliban was not the real enemy and should not have been taken on: “The Bush administration made another basic mistake by blurring the line between al-Qaeda and the Taliban…Al-Qaeda was primarily a network of Arabs, not Afghans…In contrast, the Taliban’s preoccupations were entirely local.”

Today, however, a growing number of US strategists believe that more than the Taliban, Washington’s biggest mistake was not recognising or doing anything about Pakistan’s enduring role in the conflict. But that is another story. Whitlock’s book is not about that.

( Indranil Banerjie  is an analyst, freelance journalist and woodworker)

About the Book

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War”

Craig Whitlock,

Simon & Schuster,

Pages 346. Price: US $30

Check the book out on Amazon

Published on December 06, 2021

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