Debunking the Myths of the War in Afghanistan
All militaries craft narratives to help them understand and explain their wars. At their best, these stories can help divine important lessons learned, capturing hard-won battlefield wisdom. But at their worst, they can evolve into myths that distort reality and dodge accountability. In failing or inconclusive wars, such myths can also help a military avoid culpability and protect its deep-seated belief in its ultimate competence, honor, and professionalism. Now that the war in Afghanistan seems headed toward a negotiated settlement and the potential withdrawal of most if not all U.S. troops, the myth-making for America’s longest war is about to begin in earnest. But we are already hearing several myths start to emerge in the U.S. military about the war, which need to be debunked before they become part of the accepted narrative about this largely failed conflict.
“We did our job, but the civilians didn’t do theirs.”
This myth has long been a U.S. military trope in not just Afghanistan, but in Iraq as well. Successful counterinsurgency operations are said to require a whole of government approach, and few would argue that U.S. interagency efforts were anywhere close to sufficient. But this myth contends that the U.S. military did most things right in its part of the war, and that failure only resulted from the fecklessness of other U.S. government agencies. This myth neatly absolves the military of any need to assess its own performance. Wars, after all, are the primary realm of military expertise — and after more than 17 years of effort, the U.S. military has failed to defeat the Taliban in this war. There are many reasons for this failure, but the military bears significant responsibility for a substantial number of them: constantly shifting main efforts, confusing and inconsistent strategies, an unconscionable number of revolving-door commanders (13, including one of this column’s authors), and ever-changing but mostly incoherent command structures throughout the war. In nearly all of these cases, senior U.S. military leaders recommended courses of action that civilian policymakers approved, not the other way around. None of the multiple military shortfalls stemmed from civilians not doing their jobs, and no additional influx of civilian talent into Afghanistan would have changed any of these crucial decisions or the principal ways in which the war was fought.
“We were micromanaged, and fought with one hand tied behind our backs.”
This myth harkens back to the years after the Vietnam War, when many in the U.S. military made the same bitter argument. If only civilian policymakers had let military leaders run the war as they saw fit, the claim goes, the U.S. military would have defeated the enemy long ago. This exculpatory myth was effectively discredited after Vietnam (most brilliantly by Andrew Krepinevich, a retired Army lieutenant colonel), and it needs to be refuted once again for Afghanistan. This myth contends that winning in Afghanistan required looser rules of engagement, unrestricted use of U.S. firepower, and unlimited troops for as long as was necessary to secure a decisive victory. Civilian meddling ostensibly forced military commanders to give up all their advantages with top-notch troops and modern weaponry to fight lightly armed guerillas at their own level. But the U.S. military failure to crush the insurgency with firepower in Vietnam should have decisively ended that argument — and the disastrous results of the 1979 Soviet invasion and subsequent nine-year occupation should have been the final nails in that argument’s coffin. Despite the Soviets’ totally unrestricted use of massive firepower and the resultant deaths of untold numbers of Afghan civilians, the final outcome was a humiliating defeat for Moscow. There is no reason to expect that the United States would have achieved a better outcome by waging a similarly unconstrained war. There’s also a deeper reason to reject this myth. In the United States, elected officials have the right to determine how the nation’s wars are fought, even if those in the military disagree with their approach, since they alone are accountable to the American people. This myth risks eroding these bedrock principles of U.S. democracy and civil-military relations.
“We should have ‘gone big’ early.”
This myth suggests that the United States did not win the war because it had too few troops in Afghanistan during the early years, and thus missed its chance to dominate the country before the Taliban could regroup. Yet deploying a massive number of troops into Afghanistan at the beginning of the war would have caused far more problems than it might have solved. The initial light-footprint presence kept U.S. troops from being seen by the Afghans as an occupation force, a reminder of the then-all-too-recent Soviet occupation. In those early days, the Taliban posed a minimal security threat, the Afghan people were actively engaged in their nascent democracy, and a lasting political settlement seemed possible. For reasons that had nothing to do with American troop levels (such as the untimely rotations of key U.S. military and diplomatic personnel), these promising opportunities were squandered. A larger U.S. force wouldn’t have done much good, and could have made things far worse by increasing popular support for the Taliban and thereby accelerating its resurgence.
“We should have kept the surge going in Afghanistan until we won.”
This myth suggests that the United States pursued the right strategy in 2009 and 2010, when it almost tripled the number of U.S. troops fighting in the Hindu Kush — but that President Barack Obama doomed the strategy from the outset by announcing that the surge would end in 18 months. While this was certainly a strategic misstep that enabled the Taliban to wait out the surge, an open-ended U.S. troop commitment would not have ultimately fared any better. As long as the Taliban could seek sanctuary in the Pakistani tribal areas, they could simply withdraw to safety whenever U.S. military pressure increased and return to the offensive in Afghanistan whenever conditions were more favorable. An indefinite surge with large numbers of U.S. troops would have been militarily irrelevant as long as this enduring external sanctuary provided an easy escape valve. Moreover, an open-ended commitment of such a large number of troops would have in all likelihood been politically unsustainable in the United States (as well as in Afghanistan).
“We should have invaded Pakistan and cleaned out the Taliban sanctuaries.”
While this myth may be appealing to tactical commanders responsible for winning immediate battles, its effects would have been fleeting. U.S. forces could not have occupied the Pakistani tribal territories indefinitely, and tribal dynamics meant that these areas would likely have reemerged as safe havens for the Taliban after U.S. forces departed. Moreover, the operational and strategic consequences of invading Pakistan would have been completely and utterly disastrous. Any form of U.S. invasion would have pushed Islamabad squarely onto the side of the insurgents, and could have quickly swung several of its regional allies such as Saudi Arabia or China against the United States. The Pakistani government would have immediately cut off U.S. access to all supply routes and airspace through its territory, the principal lifelines that supplied virtually all U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Islamabad would also have felt immense domestic pressure to send its military forces to confront U.S. forces on its territory, which could have rapidly escalated into an all-out regional war. An enraged Pakistan might have also retaliated by covertly providing nuclear weapons technology to U.S. adversaries and nonstate actors around the world. Any possible tactical benefits of disrupting Taliban sanctuaries would have been short-lived at best, and immediately eclipsed by the massive and long-lasting strategic repercussions that would have undercut all manner of U.S. regional and global interests, especially if it escalated into a far deadlier war.
“We would have won in Afghanistan if we hadn’t invaded Iraq.”
There is no question that the war in Iraq placed an immense drain on Washington’s time, energy, and resources for almost a decade. The war in Afghanistan was a secondary priority and an economy of force mission at least until the troop surge of 2009 and 2010. But there is absolutely no guarantee that the United States would have achieved its objectives in Afghanistan even if it had been the only war fought during that time. More resources and attention from Washington might have had some positive effects during the austere early years in Afghanistan, like more rapidly developing new Afghan security forces (though the U.S. military generally has a terrible track record doing so at scale) and enabling a greater emphasis on rebuilding the nation. But absent the war in Iraq, the U.S. military might have gone in too big too early, or concentrated too heavily on killing or capturing the enemy at the expense of protecting the population (as it did in Iraq). More U.S. attention and resources might have also created perverse effects, especially given the long-standing U.S. tendency to impose American solutions on every problem rather than helping Afghans develop their own solutions. Counterfactuals are always tricky, of course, since it is impossible to know how different scenarios would have played out. The U.S. military might have been able to defeat the Taliban and support a stronger Afghan government if it hadn’t been distracted by the ever-worsening war in Iraq. But given the acute Afghan sensitivities to foreign occupation, the existence of sanctuary areas in Pakistan, and the broad political objectives in the 2001 Bonn agreement, it also quite possible that the United States would have failed to meet its objectives even absent the decision to invade Iraq.
The war in Afghanistan is not over yet, but as the outlines of a potential U.S. withdrawal take shape, U.S. military leaders will soon be left to think long and hard about what went wrong. They will need to be ruthlessly and relentlessly objective in assessing their own performance, in order to ensure that they learn the right lessons. Spinning myths that absolve the military from all blame would be both dishonest and fundamentally corrosive to the military profession. After Vietnam, the U.S. military failed to dispassionately analyze the lessons of its failure in that long and bloody war. Instead, it buried the past and allowed myths to be promoted that obscured the real causes of the military defeat. Today’s generation of military leaders and their troops paid the price of those myths, as they were thrust into two irregular wars for which they were almost wholly unprepared. As they confront the looming end of the Afghanistan war, today’s leaders must not repeat the same failure. They need to confront these emerging myths through a dispassionate accounting of what went right and what went wrong, before their distortions take hold and are passed down to the next generation of warriors.
Lt. Gen. David W. Barno, U.S. Army (Ret.) and Dr. Nora Bensahel are Visiting Professors of Strategic Studies at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and Senior Fellows at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies. They are also Contributing Editors at War on the Rocks, where their column appears monthly. Sign up for Barno and Bensahel’s Strategic Outpost newsletter to track their articles as well as their public events.