The Obama Administration’s 2009 plan to temporarily surge troop levels in Afghanistan in order to stamp out the Taliban in western and southern Afghanistan was a great one. The big idea was to use those new troops and U.S. aid programs to partner with Afghan civilians and armed forces to build enough local security capacity to keep those areas under Afghan-government control. That is to say, the plan looked really, really great. The PowerPoint, if you got the chance to see it, was even better. A PowerPoint so good Washington think-tankers still talk about it in hushed, revered tones. It was filled with insights from brilliant people, dozens of counter-insurgency buzzwords, and lots of “outside the box” thinking.
And then, it was a complete, total flop. I know because I saw it for myself. In early 2011, I visited a small town in western Afghanistan, near the Iranian border, where new U.S. “surge” troops had liberated a village from the Taliban. Under Taliban rule, the terrorist group would force the village farmers to grow poppy, which the Taliban would take to finance their rebellion against U.S. occupation. After the surge, U.S. troops patrolled the town, but the Taliban continued to force the farmers to grow poppy to finance the rebellion. The only change seemed to be that the Taliban now paid better for the poppy. So the end result of the surge in this village was simply to better structure the trade that financed the enemy we were seeking to destroy. Not great.
The failure of the 2009-2011 surge should not have been unexpected. Administration after administration developed plan after plan for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and none of them worked. Why? For the same reason you can never write a successful plan to invent a perpetual motion machine. Because the task you are setting out to achieve is impossible, no matter how smart the planners are. Afghanistan wasn’t a failure of execution. It was a failure of hubris. America set a goal—to invade and occupy Afghanistan, and midwife it into a secure, sustainable, American-modeled democracy—that was not achievable. Beginning in the late 2000s, our intelligence analysts in Afghanistan knew this. They would tell visiting delegations that once the U.S. left, the Taliban would rule the country. During my visits there in 2011 and 2013, I was dumbfounded at the conflict between the CIA’s assessment and that of the Department of Defense, which continued to believe, year after year of failure, that the objective was possible if only the execution was reformed and refined.
One would think that the overnight collapse of the Afghan government and security forces on August 15 of this year would have finally broken the back of this American “execute better” thinking. But one month later, it is clear that, in fact, it did the opposite—it has given new life to the architects and cheerleaders of American military hubris.
The scenes from the Kabul airport, in the weeks following the Afghan government’s disintegration, were devastating to watch. The stories of young girls and human-rights activists desperately clamoring for a route out of a country about to fall under extremist rule were heartbreaking to hear. But the idea that the United States of America, a country located on the other side of the world from Kabul, could manage this unexpected collapse in a way that did not create panic and confusion, or be able to evacuate and find a home outside of the country for every Afghan that wanted to leave, is magical thinking. It is just as illusory as the now-proven fantasy trumpeted by war hawks that America could build and train an Afghan government and military that resembled ours.
There is no doubt that the execution of the effort to end our military presence in Afghanistan and evacuate our citizens and allies was imperfect. A mission that complicated does not happen without errors. But the final results are, frankly, extraordinary. The biggest human airlift in American history, moving nearly 124,000 people in two weeks, cannot, by definition, be judged a “failure.” And the mission is not over yet. A little over a week after the U.S. military withdrew from Afghanistan, the Kabul airport reopened for commercial flights and an additional 200 dual nationals, including American citizens and green card holders, were able to leave the country.
But still, critics and media outlets have spent weeks savaging President Biden’s team for the conduct of the effort. So, if evacuating 124,000 people isn’t good enough, then what did they think was missing? Many responded sympathetically to the images that plastered television and print—the chaos of the scenes broke Americans’ hearts and had an especially painful impact on those who served in Afghanistan. But how on earth could a few thousand troops and diplomats prevent any nation—let alone a nation of nearly 40 million people—from a descent into pandemonium after its citizens watched their public institutions disappear overnight, their president flee the country, and its 300,000-strong security forces lay down their weapons to a quickly advancing rebel force? This is the most egregious argument of the “execute better” crowd. It’s reasonable to argue the Biden administration should have seen the rapid collapse coming, but they could not have stopped a panicked mass rush on the airport. As one Taliban leader said, “If you hear the Americans are at the airport flying people out, how are you not going to go there?”
Other critics admit Biden couldn’t have prevented the chaos but suggest he should have “managed” it better. Given the outcome was 124,000 evacuated, this argument sets a suspiciously high bar for success. Certainly the stories of confusion over how harrowing it was for American citizens and Afghan interpreters to get to the airport were maddening to hear. But again, the question is whether the goal—efficient, hassle-free management of a mad rush to the airport amidst a city controlled by Kalashnikov-wielding religious extremists—was achievable. I would argue, strongly, that it was not. Even if Biden had put 10,000 troops in Kabul, without the Afghan government or army, we would not have been able to control an area much bigger than the airport. When your enemy controls 99 percent of the country you are trying to evacuate, the quality of the effort is, regrettably, more so in their hands than yours. Routes to the airport were blocked. Communication with those in hiding was difficult. That was distressing, but it was a predictable consequence of a city controlled by rabid extremists who wanted nothing more than to embarrass America. That’s simply a fact. And any critics who argue for seductively simple solutions, like holding onto Bagram Air Base as a second lily pad of control, are just feeding the beast of “great on paper, impossible in reality.”
Another criticism is that Biden didn’t get “everyone” out. Biden left “hundreds of Americans who wanted to be rescued trapped behind Taliban-controlled lines,” tweeted my colleague, Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK). This argument also has real problems. First, recall that the Biden Administration recommended Americans in Afghanistan leave the country no less than 19 (19!) times before the collapse. They made this warning over and over because they knew it would be very difficult and dangerous to evacuate Americans after our withdrawal. This doesn’t mean that the president doesn’t have an obligation to do every single thing in his power to get every American out of the country, even the American citizens who ignored these warnings. What it does mean is that the blame for the difficulty of the post-collapse extradition doesn’t fall entirely on his shoulders.
The “don’t leave anyone behind” argument also suffers from a lack of sincerity. In the history of warfare, never has there been an expectation that the departing force take with it everyone who will suffer under the new regime. I hate the fact that women and girls and former Afghan government employees are going to be targeted for abuse by the Taliban. For many, Taliban rule—like the rule of regimes in North Korea or Turkmenistan or even Saudi Arabia—will be violently repressive. But this is one of the greatest tragedies of war: There is no way to help every single person at risk. There aren’t enough countries willing to accept hundreds of thousands of legal refugees. And, most unforgivably, many in the Republican “leave nobody behind” crowd are also part the xenophobic “keep all immigrants out” crowd. They want all the Afghan women to be evacuated but want none of them to proceed any further than an airplane hangar in Qatar.
The most recent argument by the “execute better” crowd is that America could have stayed indefinitely, because this option somehow became a much less costly and risky attraction in 2021. The new perfectly fitting shoe is the “keep 2,500” plan, in which the 2021 troop levels (or maybe just a little more) would be enough to protect the country.
But remember, the reason only 2,500 U.S. troops were in Afghanistan when Biden entered office was because former-President Trump had signed an agreement with the Taliban in which the U.S. agreed to draw down to this number and complete the withdrawal later in the year, in exchange for the Taliban’s promise to stop attacking our forces. If Biden had reneged on this deal, there would be a ferocious response from the Taliban. Two thousand five hundred troops would have never been nearly enough to repel the reaction from a jilted Taliban. Those forces would have been gravely at risk. Nevertheless, some former officials continue to promote this plan—often the same officials who have been constructing failed plans for the last 20 years.
Second, during the past several years, the Taliban had continued to gain control in the less populated provinces of Afghanistan. They had begun gobbling up so much territory so quickly during the Trump Administration that the U.S. abruptly stopped publishing maps showing the areas of the country under Taliban control. By the summer of 2021, the Taliban sat on the outskirts of several major urban areas. Heavy fighting and sieges of major population centers were coming, whether we wanted it or not. We now know how feeble the Afghan forces were once the fighting moved to the cities and how unwilling many were to fight. To properly defend against the sieges, the U.S. would have needed tens of thousands more troops to help the Afghans. The idea that a few thousand Americans, holed up safely in a few bases, would have magically transferred the will to fight to the Afghans called on to defend urban areas in close combat is just another version of “execute better” hocus pocus.
The Danger of Military Adventurism
Of course, the real desire of most in the “execute better” consensus was for America to just stay. They bristle at the phrase “forever war.” They tell themselves they don’t believe in staying in Afghanistan forever. They say they want to stay until we finish the job (which is defined as establishing an American-style representative government and American-style unified military command that can purge the Taliban from the country). But if we couldn’t accomplish that goal in 20 years—the longest U.S. war in history—why on earth would things change after another five or 10? The goal is impossible, which is why the PowerPoint slide reads “stay until Afghanistan is stable,” while reality writes it as “stay forever.” It’s worth reminding Americans, who overwhelmingly support Biden’s withdrawal plan even if they don’t love how it looked on television, that this is the real agenda behind much of the evacuation criticism.
But this agenda remaining hidden isn’t the most worrying danger of allowing the “execute better” argument to go uncontested. No, the true danger is casually coming to a collective American conclusion that the messy withdrawal was simply a failure of planning, rather than an inevitability given the circumstances handed to Biden and his team. There are some military missions that cannot be completed, no matter how smart the planners are. This lesson must be learned, or else we will be destined to suffer more Iraqs and Afghanistans.
Finally, it is worth noting that none of this means that America cannot be a force for good in the world. Our experience in Afghanistan is not a reason to disappear from global engagement. Just because this big thing—building a stable, secure Afghan democracy—was not possible, does not mean every big thing is impossible. But, to the extent there is a broader lesson to be learned, it is a relatively simple one: Military adventurism, as a means to remake a country in a far-off place very different from America, is almost always a bad idea that cannot be set right by better design. There are all sorts of different projects—like contesting Chinese expansionism, or giving non-military aid to organic local democracy movements, or being a force for economic empowerment in the developing world—that are at the same time difficult and achievable and good for American security.
There are plenty of negative consequences of our withdrawal from Afghanistan, but there are plenty of positive consequences as well. The greatest benefit for the United States is that the energy and money and manpower that has been devoted to a failing mission in Afghanistan over the past 20 years can now be directed toward these more achievable and worthwhile goals. But only if we cure ourselves of the “execute better” mentality connected to military intervention, so America never again gets distracted from achievable goals by another impossible Afghanistan-like mission.
Chris Murphy is a senator from Connecticut.