April 25, 2021

We Got Afghanistan Wrong, but There’s Still Time to Learn Something

By Dr. Jason Dempsey

President Biden was right to reject the recommendations of the Afghan Study Group and to order the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan. It was clearly not an easy decision, as it involved going against the recommendations of many current and former military leaders who were heavily invested in the conflict. With this difficult decision should come some introspection about the limits of military power and the danger of simplistic narratives of American capabilities, but initial responses suggest that this will not be the case.

We have already heard a lot about "conditions-based" approaches and all that Afghanistan might lose with our withdrawal. Notably missing from those arguments is any acknowledgment of how inefficient and ineffective our nearly 20-year-long military-led endeavor has been, how our efforts thus far have fed into Afghanistan’s dysfunction, and why we should not expect "more of the same" to lead to better outcomes now.

Instead of building a force that fit Afghanistan, we built an Army of mini-me’s

I spent a total of nearly two years in Afghanistan during my U.S. Army career, first serving in conventional infantry units and later as an advisor to the Afghan military, interacting with members of the Afghan army and police across six provinces — during which I've seen up-close how the U.S. military's approach can blind us to what really matters on the ground. Right now, we have less than five months before the announced pullout date, so the question of what we got wrong isn't just self-criticism: It's a necessary, and urgent, step to insuring we best use the remaining leverage we have now and after we withdraw troops from Afghanistan. And maybe, even at this late date, help to accomplish the goal of a country able to resist Taliban domination.

“You have the watches, we have the time” is a popular phrase among veterans of the war in Afghanistan. Attributed to a member of the Taliban, the saying highlights the difference between Taliban patience and an American desire to win quickly and go home. It is most often used as an excuse for our lack of progress in the war: a verbal shrug of the shoulders that implies there was nothing the military could have done to overcome this implicitly political dynamic. Yet it was not politicians, but U.S. military commanders who for years pushed short-term solutions to the war, while using profound-sounding statements like this and vague assertions that "COIN takes time" to cover for the failure of our approach.

Read the full article from POLITICO.

  • Commentary
    • August 3, 2022
    Sharper: Middle East

    President Biden’s recent Middle East tour was vital in presenting U.S. foreign policy in the region. Other geopolitical developments including the killing of al Qaeda leader A...

    By Anna Pederson, John O'Malley & Arona Baigal

  • Video
    • August 2, 2022
    Richard Fontaine discusses Pelosi trip to Taiwan

    Richard Fontaine joins BBC World News to discuss U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi's recent trip to Taiwan amid tensions with China. Watch the full interview from BBC....

    By Richard Fontaine

  • Commentary
    • Foreign Policy
    • May 31, 2022
    The World Is Still Failing Afghan Women

    The contrast between the bravery of these Afghan women and the slinking cowardice of the international community could not be starker....

    By Kelley Eckels Currie & Amy K. Mitchell

  • Commentary
    • May 11, 2022
    Sharper: The Authoritarianism Challenge

    Autocratic leadership is on the rise globally. Even in democratic nations, leaders are eroding checks on their power and weakening institutions. The use of illiberal technolog...

    By Anna Pederson

View All Reports View All Articles & Multimedia