Foreign Policy Research Institute A Nation Must Think Before it Acts Afghanistan from the Ground Up
Afghanistan from the Ground Up

Afghanistan from the Ground Up

Access the Summer 2021 issue of Orbis here.

IN REVIEW, Bing West, The Last Platoon: A Novel of the Afghanistan War (New York and Nashville, TN: Bombardier, 2020).

On April 14, 2021, President Joseph Biden announced that by September 11, 2021—20 years to the day after the attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and Shanksville, PA—the United States would have withdrawn all its troops from Afghanistan. President Biden rejected the long-standing advice of his military officials that a full withdrawal should be “conditions based,” that is, depending on the strength of the Afghan National Army and the behavior of the Taliban. Instead, he recapitulated the conclusion he had reached a dozen years earlier when he visited Afghanistan, prior to being sworn in as vice president: “More and endless American military force could not create or sustain a durable Afghan government.” Now that he is president, he ended what his predecessor, among many others, termed the “forever war.”

The U.S.-Afghan War is the longest war that America has ever fought. It has lasted through the two George W. Bush administrations, the two Barack Obama administrations, and the Donald Trump administration. It has resulted in the deaths of 2,400 American service members, with countless more seriously wounded, and a cost to taxpayers of well over $1 trillion and perhaps nearly twice that figure. And U.S. troops continue to be killed, albeit in far smaller numbers than was the case prior to 2015.

It is arguable, however, that as early as summer 2002, when the Bush administration intensified its planning for an operation to unseat Saddam Hussein in Iraq, that the war in Afghanistan began to be lost. This was the case because, like all of the Bush administration’s national security apparatus, the Department of Defense (DoD) had begun to shift its priorities from Afghanistan to Iraq. That was why, in late August 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked me, his Under Secretary (Comptroller) rather than Doug Feith, his Under Secretary for Policy, to be the Department’s coordinator of civilian activities in Afghanistan. Feith had no issue with Rumsfeld’s decision—perhaps he instigated it—because he, like the secretary, already was consumed by the run-up to the Iraq War.

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