Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?

The following is the first in our series of collaborations with journals to feature guests posts from authors of recently published political science research in conjunction with ungated access to the article that is being discussed.

The guest post is written by political scientist Roland Paris, of the University of Ottawa (@rolandparis).  An ungated version of his article is being made available temporarily by Cambridge University Press here.


In the June 2013 issue of Perspectives on Politics, I have a review essay based on four books that offer insights into “what went wrong” with the international effort to stabilize Afghanistan after 2001.

The books, which are all excellent, approach the subject from different vantage points.  Astri Suhrke’s When More Is Less: The International Project in Afghanistan examines the internal tensions and contradictions of the overall international effort.  Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Little America: The War Within the War for Afghanistan focuses more narrowly on the US military and civilian “surge” in 2010 and 2011.  In Bazaar Politics: Power and Pottery in an Afghan Market Town, Noah Coburn conducts a micro-level analysis of the politics in one village near Kabul during the international mission.  Finally, Thomas Barfield’s Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History is a macro-history of Afghan politics and governance from pre-modern times to the present.

In spite of their differences, all of the books point to similar, underlying dysfunctions in the international mission.  The first dysfunction was the interveners’ inadequate understanding and knowledge of Afghan society.  Again and again, the authors point to cases of international action rendered ineffectual or counterproductive due to a lack of familiarity with the political and social environment. From the highest levels of decision making to the micro-dynamics of military patrols and aid projects, foreign organizations and officials seemed to be almost handicapped by their own ignorance of the country.

The second dysfunction was the persistent short-termism of international policymaking.  At each major juncture, decision makers seemed to reach for the most expedient fixes without fully considering the context or consequences of their actions.  This pattern was already visible during the 2001 invasion, when the United States paid Afghan militias to intercept fleeing Al Qaeda fighters in the mountains of Tora Bora, rather than sending American forces—a costly decision, since the militias turned out to be less than fully committed to the task.  Then there was the Bush administration’s lack of interest in devising plans for Afghanistan’s post-Taliban transition, and its eagerness to delegate this task to others, based in part on the assumption that the “problem” of Afghanistan had been largely resolved by the defeat of the Taliban regime.  Next came the UN-sponsored conference at Bonn, which produced an agreement for a political transition process.  This agreement, however, was reached “hastily, by people who did not adequately represent all key constituencies in Afghanistan,” as Brahimi, who chaired the meeting, wrote in a contrite essay seven years later.  With US and UN backing, moreover, the Bonn plan yielded a highly centralized system of government that was ill-adapted to the country’s needs.  Meanwhile, Washington had rejected the idea of deploying ISAF outside Kabul and refused to allow US counterterrorist forces to be used for “nation-building” purposes.  All of these actions reflected wishful thinking— or, more precisely, a dearth of serious thinking—about the viability and long-term implications of these decisions.

This mind-set continued in subsequent years.  As conditions worsened and the scale and scope of the operation slowly expanded, there was little reflection on the underlying assumptions of the mission.  When the US government, long distracted by the situation in Iraq, shifted its attention back to Afghanistan in 2008, decision making became more urgent, but was no less short-sighted. “Again and again,” writes Suhrke, “it was hoped that the latest change in strategy and personnel or increase in aid would be the silver bullet.”  I saw this for myself during visits to Kandahar and Kabul in December 2008 and January 2010.  Activity was intense, almost frantic, and driven by a sense that little time remained to “turn the situation around.”  But exactly how this would be achieved, and to what end, were never clear.  Even after President Obama entered office and conducted a lengthy policy review that resulted in a sharp escalation of US forces, these questions remained largely unanswered:  How would the United States convince the insurgency to capitulate or negotiate?  How would it persuade Afghan villagers to side publicly with ISAF and the Kabul government?  What, in short, was the purpose of the surge?  More broadly, why did the international operation, with its minimalist start and late escalation, seem so strangely out of sync with conditions on the ground?

If “strategy” is a plan of action designed to achieve a long-term or overall aim, there appeared to be little strategy guiding the international operation in Afghanistan.  Instead, reliance on a series of quick fixes seemed to substitute for strategic thinking—or tactics without strategy.  I conclude the essay by discussing the dangers of repeating these errors and drawing the wrong lessons from the Afghanistan episode.

You can access the entire essay for free until June 23, 2013.

10 Responses to Afghanistan: What Went Wrong?

  1. Mark K May 24, 2013 at 6:26 am #

    I’ll try to chip in another aspect. As that old Chinese general is reputed to have said: “When considering the political, one must consider the military, and the other way around too…”

    I’m approaching this back-asswards. You have heard about COIN, but little has been written addressing the question of why our military after Vietnam, took the manual out in the woods, dug a deep hole, and buried it. It didn’t work until Phoenix really got rolling, and that was bloody as hell. There, and else where, it destroyed men’s souls. I find this account a touch cynical, but only a touch. Adam Curtis “How to kill a rational peasant”. Blowtorch Bob was right, but we don’t like to think that way.

    Petraeus and McCrystal were fooled on the reasons it worked in Iraq. They thought they had managed to do it with some targeted killings here and there with JSOC, but . most of the butchery was done by the SOI and Shia militias, and they didn’t even want to tell us about it. Bottom line, COIN only works in a certain narrow range of conditions and even when you have them its takes a long time and is expensive in many ways. Not worth it unless one intends to stay. Colonialism. In a place so culturally different as Afghanistan, generations. Like the Philippines.

  2. Joe May 24, 2013 at 8:55 am #

    While I agree with the analysis it doesn’t address the more fundamental question, ‘would any strategy have worked?’ Or at least any practical strategy? First we must do what has not been done, which is define what success looks like. Then, can you plausibly get there with the assets in place, and the resources we are willing to commit? My conclusion is that no course of action we would have reasonably followed would have achieved a result worth the price.

  3. jonathan May 24, 2013 at 11:06 am #

    My comment is a variant of Joe’s, but phrased more in the context of IR thinking: to what extent does the social construct of Afghanistan limit the ability to effect change, both from the outside and from within?

    We could know more. We could be more sensitive to cultural expectations and values. But that culture doesn’t appear capable of moving substantially. It seems drawn to a form of stasis in which authority devolves to family/clan/tribal units except when gathered for specific purposes. I left the intractability of dealing with people who want to impose non-modern conditions. In that context, dealing with the Taliban except on minor issues – where they see benefit to themselves – seems more equivalent to dealing with the Khmer Rouge and that proved impossible (except in alternative universe scenarios).

  4. Fabius Maximus May 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm #

    This post (I have not read the articles) raises a deeper question. The factors leading to our defeat (failure to attain most goals) in Iraq and Afghanistan are common to most wars by foreigners against local insurgencies — and the reasons why since WW2 the record of such interventions is of almost total failure.

    There are several studies on this, all agreeing with the general conclusion. These interventions tend to repeat the errors of the previous ones (cites available upon request).

    So the larger question concerns our failure to learn. Why did our military leaders and geopolitical experts not know the odds (based on the 50 years of failure)? Why did they repeat the mistakes so common in these interventions?

  5. Joe May 24, 2013 at 2:57 pm #

    I think an additional factor, and a darker one, is that both Iraq and Afghanistan were wars of revenge. Our actual motivation in both cases was to inflict pain on those who inflicted pain on us. In the case of Iraq, it was the unfinished business of the first Iraq war, followed by a plot (with some follow through) to assassinate GHW Bush. GW Bush, and the holdovers, were itching for a way to smack down Saddam Hussain, and 9/11 provided the pretext to do so.
    Afghanistan was, of course, the haven for the AQ who perpetrated the attack on American soil, 9/11. Our purpose there was to destroy AQ and those who sympathized and/or enabled them. So our principal objective in both wars was not political in the sense that we would bring about democracy or stability or some other tangible end-point, but simply to vent our anger with brutal force on those who wronged us.
    Therefore, the war will be over when we have collectively decided that enough is enough. What happens in either country afterward is of minor concern, even though we might
    wish for something likeable.

  6. Mark K May 24, 2013 at 8:26 pm #

    W. was openly advocating transforming the ME with “democracy”, Joe. It was a major selling point. He really believed it.

  7. sgtsabai May 26, 2013 at 11:01 am #

    I had a good conversation with a contractor from Afghanistan on R&R in Thailand back in 2006. He said then that we had lost. The people actually welcomed us at first, but due in large to our government’s ‘representative’s’ lack of knowledge of Afghanistan and it cultures and morays they wanted us out. Many of the posts above have it right, all the lessons learned have been the wrong lessons. I have listened to many Vets from Iraq and Afghanistan, change the names of the countries, and the stories they tell are the same ones we told, when anybody would listen, after returning from Vietnam. A damn shame.

  8. jesus mercado May 26, 2013 at 1:08 pm #

    Amen. While most Americans are well-meaning in hoping that our involvement in a foreign country’s development towards a Democracy, our history is replete with all the failures of our attempts at “nation-building”.

  9. Mark K May 26, 2013 at 3:55 pm #

    Here’s a piece that one could almost substitute “Afghanistan” for “Iraq”. More a thought-provoker than an analysis, but it’s an attempt to get to the root of the “problem”.

  10. marcus September 13, 2013 at 2:55 pm #

    Whom American are fooling….they fought both war for there personal intrest…in Iraq for oil and in Afghanistan for there large accesses of oil and gas reserve on Caspian sea and break Pakistan into four parts….they failed in both mission…now they are aiming to get accesses through Syria war…who were behind 9/11?? Very basic question…everyone will say Alquida… Wait a minute…they why the hell they are supporting al-quida in syria and lybia…. The answer is was insider job…