Why the Afghan War Is and Always Will Be a Lost Cause

Revised March 4, 2021

Not surprisingly, with the Washington Establishment now back fully in charge of US foreign and military policy, the Trump Administration’s plan to end the US military engagement in Afghanistan on May 1st is being reconsidered. And right on cue, the Establishment’s cadre of armchair neocon Afghan "experts" came out with a report on February 3, 2021, titled: "Afghanistan Study Group (ASG) Final Report: A Pathway for Peace in Afghanistan." This document calls for a delay in implementing the Trump troop withdrawal plan and sets the stage for (once again) increasing US and NATO troop presence in Afghanistan. As has occurred many times over the last 20 years, the think-tank gurus who produce these reports got their purported objective for having US troops in Afghanistan and their recommended course of action backwards: the pathway for peace in Afghanistan requires the US to end its meddling in Afghans’ internal affairs and let the Afghan people resolve their own internal problems without foreign intervention. (Wasn’t this lesson the takeaway from the Vietnam War?)

Like prior versions of such documents, the ASG Report is a deception. Keeping US troops in Afghanistan for nearly 20 years now has not been about achieving peace among waring Afghan factions, avoiding a terrorist safe-haven, and advancing women’s rights. After al-Qaeda was driven out in December 2001 and Karzai was elected president in 2004, the real US mission in Afghanistan evolved into keeping a pro-US government in power in Kabul so the neocons would have a permanent military base (specifically Bagram Airfield north of Kabul) as a geopolitical asset in the region for use in their future wars. I exposed this mission creep in a previous article I wrote in 2019 based on the seven years (2008-14) that I lived and worked in Afghanistan – first as a governance advisor for USAID and then as a project manager in Kandahar.

However, the ASG Report had the fortuitous (albeit unintended) consequence of triggering two commentaries that I found to be on-point for exposing why continuing the neocons’ pursuit of maintaining a permanent military base in Afghanistan has become untenable – even for the hawkish bipartisan War Party now in control in Washington.

The first was an Opposing View Opinion in USA Today by Retired Brigadier General Don Bolduc published on February 25, 2021. General Bolduc "breaks ranks" with the retired flag officer corps and candidly acknowledges on the record that the US involvement in Afghanistan post-2004 has been a 17-year history of repeated failures of US political and military leadership. I find his viewpoint on this matter to be particularly informative and germane since General Bolduc – like myself – was involved in our country’s warfighting and nation-building endeavors in Afghanistan over many tortuous years. His criticism and mea cupla goes beyond anything revealed in the Washington Post’s Afghanistan Papers. Notably, no higher ranking officer has been similarly so forthright in acknowledging and accepting responsibility for the debacle that occurred under their leadership and command in Afghanistan.

Given General Bolduc’s experience from the 10 tours he served in Afghanistan (2001-13), he casts the Washington establishment’s desire for President Biden to renege on the Trump Administration’s commitment to remove essentially all US troops in Afghanistan in May this year to be a betrayal of the "men and women who did the work [in Afghanistan] under poor policy and strategy and an inadequate operational approach." Specifically, General Bolduc finds the ASG’s recommended course of action to be speciously reasoned in their report; and if implemented it will unnecessarily put more US soldiers’ lives at risk. General Joseph Dunford, the four-star commanding general in Kabul in 2013-2014 when the insurgency surged and civil disorder increased, served on the ASG advisory board. General Dunford apparently disagrees with General Bolduc’s risk/reward assessment and thinks keeping (and potentially increasing) US troops in the country going forward will somehow improve the situation – even though General Dunford himself failed to do so when he was in charge in Kabul and the US and NATO still had over 100,000 troops in the country. For not getting the job done as the CG in Afghanistan, General Dunford was promoted to become the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2015. (Why has Congress not held the litany of commanding generals in Afghanistan responsible for their failed policies, their "inadequate operational approaches," and their misguided advocacy for prolonging the war when year-after-year no progress was achieved?)

The second notable commentary is Andrew Bacevich’s article in the American Conservative titled "After 20 Years, The Establishment Is Still In Denial About Afghanistan," published on February 10, 2021. In this article, Mr. Bacevich exposes the counterfactual presumption the ASG has to make to support its desired "stay the course" recommendation. He does this by posing this quandary: “Why the Taliban, which has been fighting to evict foreign troops from Afghanistan ever since 2001 (or since 1979 if you count the years of Soviet occupation) would agree to this arrangement (maintaining a permanent US troop presence in their country as the ASG Report advocates) is a bit of puzzle.”

Actually, the quandary for the "stay forever crowd" that Mr. Bacevich raises is an understatement of the history lesson that the authors of the ASG Report (like their predecessors over the last 20 years) have never learned. Working in field-level positions as an USAID contractor and living for years "on the economy" in Afghan guesthouses, I interacted daily with a cross-section of the Afghan society throughout the country. From this somewhat unique experience, I learned that ALL Afghans consider an essential aspect of their identity and national sovereignty – and a matter of great national pride and unity – to be the fact that no foreign power dating back to Alexander the Great in 326 B.C. has ever maintained military forces in their country on a long-term basis. (Remember, the only reason Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda confederates were in Afghanistan prior to 9/11 was because the CIA had sent them there to fight Charlie Wilson’s War against the Soviets, and they were permitted to stay as revered Muslim co-combatants who had helped drive out the infidels.) The ruins of Alexander’s ancient citadels sit atop of the highest points in Qalat, Ghanzi and Gardez in eastern Afghanistan. On my visits to these cities, I was often lectured by the governors, mayors, and other local officials with whom I met on how Alexander was thwarted by their ancestors in epic battles at took place in these locations.

As part of the post-9/11 non-Muslim Western “occupation forces,” I was typically informed of the Afghans’ inherent hostility toward foreigners within minutes after meeting the hundreds of Afghan acquaintances I made – regardless of their ethnicity, tribal affiliation, and education level. (This still happens when I occasionally get an Afghan Uber driver and we discuss the war!) The locals were happy to get the hundreds of millions in US taxpayer funds I was dishing out. But I was often warned, "Remember Alexander – don’t think about staying. The sooner you foreigners leave, the better for everyone."

This Afghan character trait is why the insurgency was never quelled despite the massive US and NATO war effort: as foreign troop levels were steadily increased from a few thousand in 2003 to nearly 140,000 in 2011, more Afghan patriots (who the US government and media deem to be "terrorists") joined the fight to drive out the occupying infidels as a matter of national sovereignty and pride. This sacred national tenet is why the Taliban and other regional warlords are fighting – and always will continue to fight – to drive all foreign troops off their soil and overthrow the US-installed and funded puppet government in Kabul. This mentality prevails throughout Afghanistan. In an ancient country with a 70% illiteracy rate, limited mass communications outside of Kabul, and daunting topography, life is lived according to ancient honor codes, traditions, patriarchy, and religious fundamentalism. Written documents (like purported peace deals) have little value, as does the well-intended efforts of NGOs. Change will come to Afghanistan but it needs to be organic – not imposed by foreign armies who are there to advance their own interests.

The ASG’s recommendations and its declared aspirations for transforming Afghanistan into a more modern society (like the umpteen prior self-serving “stay the course” think-tank reports) are illusions because they do not acknowledge the realities of Afghan history, geography, culture, and daily life. It is time to end the Washington Establishment’s deception: there is no light at the end of the tunnel in Afghanistan. The real truth is that a tunnel never even existed. The place was a foreseeable quagmire for a modern army. The rusting hulks of abandoned Soviet armored vehicles that liter the Afghan countryside are a testament to this reality. (Don’t they teach world history at West Point?)

Thus, I add my own in-country knowledge and real-world experiences to General Bolduc’s and support his admonition to President Biden to stick with the May troop withdrawal date set by President Trump. This course of action will end the betrayal of our troops and draw the right lessons from both Afghanistan’s history and our government’s 20-year debacle in the country.

Mr. Enzweiler is a Harvard MBA and MIT graduate who served in the US Air Force and has lived, worked, and traveled extensively in the Greater Middle East, including working as an USAID contactor and US Foreign Service (limited) Officer in Iraq and Afghanistan from 2007 through 2014. He is retired and lives in California and Mexico. He’s written a book critiquing US foreign and military policy titled, When Will We Ever Learn?