After paying little attention to Afghanistan for the past several years — as U.S. casualties numbered in the dozens while Afghan security forces lost thousands in combat with the Taliban — Americans are now gaping at the chaos unfolding in that country.
As Afghans who worked with the U.S. military and private contractors desperately flee Kabul, politicians in Washington are letting loose partisan recriminations over the failure of a nation-building project that cost more than $2 trillion.
The human costs are appalling. More than 2,300 U.S. military personnel died and 20,000 were wounded. At least 111,000 civilians have been killed or wounded since 2009, when the United Nations began systematically recording those figures. Millions of ordinary people have been displaced.
What appears to be a sudden collapse of the Kabul government was months, if not 20 years, in the making. That is not to say the Biden administration properly handled the withdrawal; the horrifying scenes playing out of our televisions suggest otherwise. But it may force Americans to face an uncomfortable truth about Afghanistan’s history: The project was doomed from the start.
At least that is what former Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev believes. The man who ordered the withdrawal of the Red Army from Afghanistan in the late 1980s told Russia’s RIA news agency that the U.S. and NATO “should have admitted failure earlier. The important thing now is to draw the lessons from what happened and make sure that similar mistakes are not repeated.”
In this episode of History As It Happens, Adam Weinstein, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, discusses why defeat in Afghanistan is an opportunity to fundamentally reassess the assumptions underlying U.S. interventionism.
An important question is at risk of getting lost in the bitter partisanship and second-guessing now consuming Washington from Congress to the Pentagon: Instead of asking how it could have been done better, the real question is why did anyone think it could succeed in the first place?
“I’ll never say the threat of trans-national terrorist groups doesn’t exist,” Mr. Weinstein said. “It is simply that we need to decide who we are as a country. Are we a country that is going to hemorrhage money and American lives indefinitely because we are not mature enough as a society to deal with the risk of a hypothetical terrorist attack that might kill some Americans?”
Among the stunning developments was the disappearance of Afghanistan’s security forces, which the U.S. spent $83 billion training and equipping. A number of possible explanations have been floated: Afghan soldiers negotiated in advance with the Taliban to quit fighting. Another argument points to the withdrawal of 17,000 private contractors who provided critical logistical support. But the fundamental reason may be more simple, Mr. Weinstein said.
One side — the Taliban — believed in its cause, and the other side — the Afghan military leadership — was no longer willing to fight. Thus, Afghan forces suffered thousands of casualties fighting the Taliban in recent years, but once the end was in sight they threw down their weapons. Why die for a lost cause?
“Folks inside the Beltway, and some journalists and analysts, will get very upset when a simple statement like that is made, but that is to some degree the reality,” said Mr. Weinstein, who served as a U.S. Marine in Afghanistan in 2012 in Uruzgan Province.
“The problem was in the Afghan government and senior leadership of the security forces. Those folks ran the government to their personal benefit,” said Mr. Weinstein, referring to hopelessly corrupt and inept officials known for, among other things, pocketing the salaries of ghost soldiers.
Listen to the full interview with Adam Weinstein by downloading this episode of History As It Happens.
For the perspective of a former U.S. diplomat who negotiated with the Taliban about what Afghanistan may look like under the militants’ rule, listen to this episode originally published in May.