America’s war in Afghanistan successfully killed or captured most of al-Qaeda’s original senior leaders, destroyed their safe haven in Afghanistan, and helped prevent another 9/11-scale terrorist attack in the United States. But alongside those gains are the war’s failings: The Taliban and al-Qaeda reestablished safe haven in Pakistan, the Afghan state is weak and corrupt, the Afghan army is dependent on international support and its continued existence may be in doubt. The Taliban is resurgent, peace negotiations between it and the Afghan government have stalled, and jihadists are celebrating the American withdrawal as a victory for their cause.
These failings stemmed from strategic blunders committed by every commander in chief who oversaw the 20-year effort there: George W. Bush’s light footprint and war in Iraq, Barack Obama’s self-defeating doubts and withdrawal timetables, Donald Trump’s peace deal, and now Joe Biden’s withdrawal. These decisions helped make a bad situation worse and virtually assured that the future course of events in Afghanistan will reflect the Taliban’s interests more than the United States’. These errors share in common a failure to understand what America’s interests were in Afghanistan and how to achieve them at acceptable cost within the constraints imposed by external circumstances.
Bush’s Light Footprint, 2001–2006
Bush approached the prospect of war in Afghanistan predisposed to favor a light footprint, not just in military power but civilian resources and reconstruction assistance. He had campaigned against “nation-building” in 2000 and criticized the Clinton administration for using the military for humanitarian purposes. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld sought to transform the military by substituting high technology for manpower, which predisposed him to oppose manpower-intensive operations like peacekeeping or nation building. And based on a version of Afghan history then circulating in Washington that painted Afghanistan (inaccurately) as a legendarily xenophobic “Graveyard of Empires” hypersensitive to foreign involvement, Bush and many of his advisers believed that they had to avoid appearing like an imperial occupier at all costs.
The initial military campaign seemed to justify their beliefs in the efficacy of a light footprint. A small number of U.S. Special Operations forces and intelligence personnel embedded themselves with Afghan Northern Alliances forces and Pashtun militias to coordinate Afghan ground attacks with American air power. The U.S.-Afghan linkup was an impressive and successful improvisation: Operations started on October 7, 2001; Konduz fell on November 7, ending Taliban rule in the north; the Taliban government fell from power exactly a week later without a fight; and the Taliban was routed in its home territory of Kandahar on December 7. Operations against al-Qaeda at Tora Bora in Nangarhar Province in December 2001, and the Shahi Kot valley of Paktia Province in March 2002 appeared to be the last major operations of the war. Some scholars hailed the “Afghan model” as a new form of warfare for the 21st century.