Making Sense of Afghanistan

Making Sense of Afghanistan

As the Taliban retake control over Afghanistan while the United States completes the withdrawal of its military forces, some are asking, “How could this have happened?” Already, there are discussions of intelligence failures within the Biden administration and mutual recriminations between various parts of the national security establishment as to who is to blame for the apparent lack of preparation for the disengagement and for the likelihood of a government collapse. And what will be the impact on U.S. foreign policy moving forward, as well as the domestic debate within the United States about the role and efficacy of U.S. overseas interventions?

Over the past 20 years, questions about the way in which the Afghan operation was being conducted, what ought to be the end goals for U.S. and NATO involvement, and how to assess progress (or lack thereof) have been raised in the pages of Orbis. In the current summer 2021 issue, Dov Zakheim offered a review of Bing West’s The Last Platoon: A Novel of the Afghanistan War as a way to offer commentary (see, “Afghanistan from the Ground Up,” Orbis vol. 65, no. 3 (2021)).

The following is not a comprehensive set of every article or discussion on the subject that has appeared in Orbis, but a cross-section of items that are worth revisiting in light of the events of August 2021.

Thomas H. Johnson and M. Chris Mason, “Understanding the Taliban and Insurgency in Afghanistan,” Orbis vol. 51, no. 1 (2007)

Afghanistan is in danger of capsizing in a perfect storm of insurgency that mimics operations and tactics witnessed in Iraq. This article assesses this insurgency and the re-emergent Taliban. The common view of the Taliban as simply a radical Afghan Islamist movement is overly simple, for that organization has been able to build on tribal kinship networks and a charismatic mullah phenomenon to mobilize a critical and dynamic rural base of support. This support, buttressed by Talib reinforcements from Pakistan’s border areas, is enough to frustrate the U.S.-led Coalition’s counterinsurgency strategy. At the operational level, the Taliban is fighting a classic “war of the flea,” while the Coalition continues to fight the war largely according to the Taliban “game plan.” This is resulting in its losing the war in Afghanistan one Pashtun village at a time.

Larry Goodson and Thomas H. Johnson, “Parallels with the Past – How the Soviets Lost in Afghanistan, How the Americans are Losing,” Orbis vol. 55, no. 4 (2011)

This article assesses seven startling and unsettling similarities between Soviet strategies and tactics in Afghanistan during their Afghan war of 1979–1989 and American coalition strategies and tactics in Afghanistan since October 2001. It concludes with the implications of this dynamic. In particular, the similarities between Soviet and U.S. approaches to Afghanistan that focus on key population centers, reconciliation/reintegration, and the development of “Afghan” solutions to a variety of security concerns are extremely disturbing and, we believe, should be the focus of national attention and debate.

T.X. Hammes, “Raising and Mentoring Security Forces in Iraq and Afghanistan,” Orbis vol. 60, no. 1 (2016)

The effort to raise host nation security forces was central to the U.S. strategy in both Iraq and Afghanistan. The U.S. poured massive resources into both countries. Unfortunately, U.S. planners failed to understand the cultural and political environments in which these forces would have to operate. Thus, the United States attempted to build ministries and forces based on U.S. models that simply were not appropriate for those nations. Although the training teams successfully recruited, trained, and deployed almost a million Afghans and Iraqis, Iraqi forces have collapsed and the Afghans are struggling to keep the insurgents at bay.

David Betz, “Communications Breakdown: Strategic Communications and Defeat in Afghanistan,” Orbis vol. 55, no. 4 (2011)

The author reflects on our decade long conflict in Afghanistan and identifies what he considers a main contributor to the malaise. He believes it is a failure to communicate: a message of purpose which answers the oft-asked “why are we there?” question amongst Western audiences; a message of resolve on which Afghans can bet their lives that ISAF will remain there until the Taliban is beaten or compelled to reasonable compromise; and, a message of what success will look like which is accompanied by a compelling rationalization of the cost.

Austin Long, “Small is Beautiful: The Counterterrorism Option in Afghanistan,” Orbis vol. 54, no. 7 (2010)

Strategy is matching means and ends. If the ends desired in Afghanistan are about al Qaeda, the counterterrorism option is the best fit in terms of means. It is sustainable, always crucial in prolonged conflict, as it limits the expenditure of U.S. blood and treasure. This article fills a gap in the existing strategy debate by detailing what a counterterrorism option would be in terms of force structure and operations.

Dominic Tierney, “Fighting While Negotiating in Afghanistan,” Orbis vol. 57, no. 1 (2013)

America’s experience of fighting while negotiating in the Korean War and the Vietnam War offers valuable lessons for understanding the current peace talks in Afghanistan: the adversaries are averse to making concessions; violence is a bargaining tool; the fate of captives can derail negotiations; alliances may be strained; broader regional dynamics are critical, and the peace process is imbued with symbolism.

David T. Burbach, “Gaining Trust While Losing Wars: Confidence in the U.S. Military after Iraq and Afghanistan,” Orbis vol. 61, no. 2 (2017)

During unpopular wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the American public’s confidence in the U.S. military surprisingly rose to all-time highs. Confidence had been thought closely linked to battlefield success, so that increase was unexpected, and very unlike the crisis of confidence after Vietnam. Confidence can be better understood considering four dimensions: performance, professionalism, partisanship, and patriotism. The military has kept the public’s trust in part because, despite disappointing outcomes, it has not suffered organizational and professional breakdowns as happened after Vietnam. In addition, in the post-conscription era, expressing “confidence” is a low-cost way for disconnected citizens to express gratitude—even if they largely disagree with military preferences. Finally, a wide partisan confidence gap opened after 2003, suggesting that confidence increasingly reflects political identities rather than objective assessment of the state of the military.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a non-partisan organization that seeks to publish well-argued, policy-oriented articles on American foreign policy and national security priorities.