The “Afghanistan Papers,” published by The Washington Post, should be the center of public debate for what they reveal about our longest war. Because the media are chasing the shiny objects of impeachment and election primaries, what should be one of the most important debates since Sept. 11, 2001, is not happening.
The “Afghanistan Papers” are built upon a report by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. That report, which is comprised of about 400 interviews of military leaders, soldiers, diplomats and Afghan government officials, sought to reveal the lessons we learned from that war.
The Post’s reporting about the papers concludes that U.S. generals and top government officials intentionally lied to the American people to mislead us about what they claimed were successes we achieved in the war. Our military leaders insist that there was no campaign of intentional lies. There is some truth in each of their positions.
Two presidents insisted on nation-building as a strategy. Because nation-building has nothing to do with victory in war, judging the latter by criteria for success in the former — such as how many Afghani troops are trained or how many girls are in school — required compliant generals to delude themselves and lie to the public.
The results of 18 years of war in Afghanistan are all too clear. The undefeated Taliban control about half the nation, nation-building has utterly failed and nothing has been accomplished that won’t evaporate the moment our forces withdraw.
Nearly 2,400 U.S. troops have died in combat and more than 20,000 were wounded. We have poured about $1 trillion into Afghanistan, trying to build schools, roads, dams and power plants. Much of the money was wasted in the corruption that engulfs that nation.
There is little we have to show for our sacrifices because we never understood Afghanistan’s tribal society, its culture and the profound influence of its Muslim religion.
In his first presidential campaign, George W. Bush criticized then-President Bill Clinton’s nation-building efforts in Somalia and said that he, as president, would stop nation-building.
Then came 9/11 and our righteous military action against al Qaeda and the Taliban. President Bush decided to pursue the type of nation-building we had failed in from Vietnam to Somalia.
The most profound delusion Mr. Bush and his generals suffered was mistaking the Taliban for an insurgency. In Afghanistan, like the Soviets before us, we were the insurgents.
The late David Galula, a French officer who had learned counterinsurgency in China, French Algeria and Malaysia, wrote the most profound work on fighting insurgencies titled, “Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.” He defined an insurgency as a protracted struggle, conducted methodically, in order to gain both intermediate objectives and the overthrow of the existing order.
Afghanistan’s existing order consisted of its millennia-old tribal culture and the Taliban overlay. By Mr. Galula’s definition, our the nation-building strategy in Afghanistan amounted to an insurgency.
Instead of understanding Mr. Galula’s writings, and the history and intensely Muslim culture of Afghanistan, our political and military leaders conducted what they characterized as a counter-insurgency.
Gens. David Petraeus and James Mattis co-authored the counterinsurgency — “COIN” — strategy for Iraq and Afghanistan that was a derivative of our strategy that failed in Vietnam. COIN’s goals were to provide local security to Afghanis while enabling them to build a Western-style democracy.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, David Petraeus and other generals I met with frequently were always cautiously optimistic about Afghanistan. But because three successive presidents have insisted on pursuing it, our military leaders were unable — or perhaps unwilling — to persuade them to abandon their obviously failing strategy.
Afghanistan, roughly the size of Texas, has a population of about 37 million spread widely across its territory. During the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-89), the maximum Soviet troop strength was about 120,000. The most U.S. troops in Afghanistan at one time numbered about 100,000. There were too few Soviets to conquer Afghanistan and far too few U.S. troops to provide security to locals that our COIN strategy required.
If we have learned anything in 18 years, it is that the Afghanis didn’t want the democracy we were selling because it is incompatible with Islam. The Taliban and al Qaeda characterized our forces as insurgents — “crusaders” in the medieval sense — who would rob the populace of their Muslim religion and replace it with Christianity.
Our military and political leaders also lied to themselves about the role of Pakistan and other nations that support the Taliban and, in Pakistan’s case at least, al Qaeda. For years the Taliban have been funded and supplied by Pakistan, Russia and China. Since 2017, Iranian commandoes have fought alongside the Taliban.
Mr. Trump has always said he opposes nation-building but has no strategy to replace it. He is reportedly considering withdrawal of 4,000 U.S. troops in coming months. We should withdraw most of our ground forces from Afghanistan, but we have to plan for the aftermath of withdrawal.
As long as we don’t destroy the enemy’s ideology, Afghanistan will return to its pre-9/11 nature as a safe haven from which terrorists can mount attacks against the West. After we withdraw, we should leave behind sufficient intelligence assets and special operations forces to find terrorists when they gather. Those forces, along with our spy satellites and cruise missiles, will have to deal with the lingering threat.
• Jed Babbin, a deputy undersecretary of Defense in the George H.W. Bush administration, is the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”