Why did America go into Afghanistan and why did we leave? Without going into the long history of invaders beginning at least 2,500 years ago and instead focusing on the comparatively recent involvement of the United States beginning in 2001, we can have a relatively clear understanding of our motives.
After the al-Qaida network based in Afghanistan attacked us on September 11, we demanded that the Taliban controlled government, which was heavily influenced by al-Qaida, turn over bin Laden. When they did not do so, we began bombing Taliban bases that may have belonged to the al-Qaida network. With air support and as few as 2,500 US troops, an Afghanistan faction was then able to take control of the country away from the Taliban.
At this early stage in 2002, it looked like we had achieved at least part of our objective. Although we had not captured bin-Laden, we had at least removed the government that had given him and the al-Qaida network a base of operations.
From this point things did not go well. The government failed to be able to unite the countries diverse war lords. Taliban and al-Qaida fighters reemerged. Seemingly endless bloodshed ensued despite U.S. troop levels reaching 100,000. We tried training the government forces to take over the bulk of the fighting, but with each attempt of ours to pull back the Taliban gained ground. It became clear that we needed to commit more US troops to the fight or let the chips fall where they may. After 20 years, over 6,000 Americans and tens of thousands of Afghans had been killed. We had spent over 2 trillion dollars. The decision was made to leave.
What went wrong? Although we helped to rebuild Germany, Japan, and South Korea after those wars into three of the world’s strongest democracies and economies, notice that we still have 34,000 troops in Germany, 55,000 in Japan and 28,000 in South Korea. The level of commitment has been on an entirely different scale. When we decided to leave Afghanistan there were around 2,500 troops in the country. Americans never understood the level of commitment required to turn Afghanistan into a pro-western democracy. This lack of understanding was a failure of our government to tell us the truth of what was happening in Afghanistan. If we were not going to engage with a higher level of commitment, then we should not have forced the Taliban form power. However much we did not like the Taliban controlled government of Afghanistan it was in power because it had won the fight to be in that position. Removing it from power just started the fight all over again.
Why was our departure such a chaotic mess? The rapid take over of the country by the Taliban during the last days leading to our departure was a surprise to many of us, not just the public, but also to many analysts, military leaders, and politicians. Those that recognized the likelihood of such an outcome to America’s departure were not able to influence the decision making.
In hindsight, it looks obvious that the tribal coalition of warlords and officials in control throughout the county, no longer supported by the American war machine, would make deals with the likely winner of a continued bloodbath. We thought we had time to get out before Kabul fell but were dead wrong.
Now that we are out, what happens? We have shown our inability to understand the situation in Afghanistan so making predictions about the future seems ironic. Nevertheless, we try. Afghanistan has not been ruled successfully since the Persian Empire until around 300 BC. The Taliban will have a difficult time controlling what goes on in the nation of close to 40 million people. There are multiple factions and opportunities for radical groups to gain a foothold of operations. Pakistan, Iran, and China are directly affected by instability in Afghanistan. They will likely continue and escalate their involvement there. America will need to respond to their actions and to the instability of the country that will not stop at borders. In Afghanistan or out, will need to be involved for decades.
What did we gain by leaving? Although we will be engaged it will not be at the previous level. This will free up our political, military and treasure to be more engaged with other pressing international threats. Many of those threats come from China. We have been beefing up our political and military capabilities in the East and South China Sea. Now we will have additional resources for this effort.
Did we learn any lessons? We learned a lot about fighting, making, and using weapons and the limits of their use. How we understand and remember what did not work and why will change history. As a species, we tend to swing from one extreme position to its opposite, intervention to nonintervention. It is much harder to examine clearly what is happening now and make decisions based on the reality that is before us rather that reacting to the last thing that occurred.
There is a great need to have mature responsible leaders that can see through the politics of the moment and make decisions based on the best information and advice they are given. We need the highest parts of ourselves to elect and support such individuals. Ultimately it is us that are responsible for what happens next.