July 27, 2023

A Failure to Plan: Examining the Biden Administration’s Preparation for the Afghanistan Withdrawal

Afghanistan, Iraq, and Vietnam. One failure is a horrible accident; two failures are a tragic coincidence; three failures are a disturbing trend that shows the U.S. government is not learning from experience. As I discuss in Zero-Sum Victory: What We’re Getting Wrong About War, American troops fought valiantly in each war, but chronic policy and strategy errors squandered their service and sacrifices. Knowing these errors is the first step in fixing them. Failing to address these mistakes while hoping for better outcomes in future wars is a dereliction of duty. Fortunately, the U.S. government can make low-cost, high-payoff reforms to reduce the risk that future wars spiral into disaster.

First, the Afghan government failed to gain the buy-in of the Afghan people. Instead of a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, the Afghan government selforganized into a kleptocracy. Government offices were sold, often for vast sums, to the highest bidder in exchange for the license to recoup the money and turn a profit.

As Sarah Chayes points out, Afghan officials engaged in actions such as land theft, kidnapping for ransom, participation in poppy and other black-market activities, extortion, and looting U.S. and international taxpayer-funded donations. Afghan military and police officials siphoned the pay of so-called ghost soldiers and sold their soldiers’ food, fuel, and ammunition.

Afghan officials manipulated American and other military partners into targeting their personal and political rivals by providing false intelligence. These actions by Afghan officials pushed people into the arms of the Taliban and other insurgents who were killing American troops. By August 2021, many Afghans saw the Taliban as the lesser of two evils.

Second, the United States and Afghan governments grew complacent while the Taliban innovated. Through successive administrations, the U.S. government expected that military pressure on the Taliban, plus building the Afghan government’s capacity, plus diplomatic pressure on Pakistan would equal victory. The Afghan government, meanwhile, expected that the United States would stay forever, insulating them from accountability.

For a time, these approaches prevented the Taliban from overthrowing the Afghan government but never got us closer to a favorable and durable outcome.

For their part, the Taliban innovated militarily, politically, and diplomatically. Instead of attacking in massed-formations, they used guerrilla tactics, roadside bombs, and insider attacks. Politically they emphasized anti-corruption and swift and impartial justice; they instituted local taxation, issued a code of conduct, and started holding officials accountable for their behavior. Diplomatically, the Taliban reached out to many countries, including the United States, to persuade them that cooperation was possible.

The Taliban’s innovations gave them the upper hand over the Afghan government and may have convinced international officials that the Taliban had turned over a new leaf making it safe to strike a deal with them without any testing or accountability.

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