What Really Went Wrong in Afghanistan

The Washington Post’s investigative series misdiagnoses the problem and devotes little space to the real mistakes.

In December, the Washington Post published “Afghanistan Papers,” a series of investigative reports on the war in Afghanistan based on thousands of pages of newly declassified transcripts of interviews by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) with some 600 U.S. officials.

Including an interview with me. As a former director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the National Security Council staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, I was among those interviewed by SIGAR. (As with most interviewees, my name was redacted in the published transcript. I am the unnamed NSC official here.)

I served on the NSC for two years, but they were only two of nearly 10 years I spent working on the war in various positions, including in the U.S. Army and the Central Intelligence Agency. As such, I welcome the media’s renewed attention to a war that has been neglected, ignored, and overshadowed for most of its 18 years. I also welcome the greater transparency brought by the publication of SIGAR’s interviews.

I strongly disagree with much of the Post’s analysis. Some of the Post’s investigative reports lack context, perspective, or depth. Some of the Post’s claims are simply false. The Post misdiagnoses what went wrong in the war, while the actual main mistakes of the war—Bush’s light footprint and Obama’s withdrawal deadline—get comparatively little mention.

U.S. officials did not systematically “lie” about the war.

The Post’s most dramatic claim is that U.S. officials were “at war with the truth,” and “misled” the American people about how the war was going. “Senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false,” it reported. The Post references one interviewee who “said it was common at military headquarters in Kabul—and at the White House—to distort statistics to make it appear the United States was winning the war when that was not the case.” The Post’s characterization of U.S. officials’ truthfulness led to a host of critics claiming that the government “lied” to the American people (see here and here and here for a small sample). 

This part of the Post’s analysis has been forcefully, and rightly, refuted. Pentagon officials denied the accusations (perhaps predictably). My former boss, Gen. Doug Lute, told NPR after the reports were published, “My experience with regard to collection of data and reporting on progress or lack of progress in Afghanistan is an experience of candor, of bluntness and speaking truth to our senior leaders,” not one of spin, disinformation, or deceit.  

Outside of government, Michael O’Hanlon, a scholar at the left-of-center Brookings Institution explained that, “The Washington Post did a disservice with this report,” he wrote, “there has not been a campaign of disinformation, intentional or subliminal.” He cataloged the many times U.S. officials publicly admitted the war was going poorly, including in the 2009 policy review (in which I played a small part) that concluded the U.S. was losing the war. 

Jonathan Schroden of the Center for Naval Analysis, who has been tracking the war for 12 years, similarly pushed back on the narrative that U.S. officials deliberately deceived the American people. He instead describes an “aggressive optimism and an overwhelming ‘can do’ attitude on the part of U.S. government officials” which sometimes was in tension with the unvarnished truth.   

Schroden, O’Hanlon, and others are right. In my decade of public service on the war (and in following it as a scholar ever since), I saw no systematic, malicious, or deliberate effort to lie to the American people. Indeed, I often saw the opposite, especially from desk officers, junior staffers, and younger officials who had no established reputation to guard. Senior officials sometimes couched their assessments in the cadence of official optimism that Schroden rightly indicts, but even that did not stop blunt assessments of the war during major policy reviews in 2008 and 2009.

Nation building was always supposed to be part of the war.

The Post’s second serious accusation—and one that no one else, that I have seen, has yet refuted—is that the United States bumbled through mission creep into a “nation building” campaign that was unnecessary and doomed to fail. Coupled with this is a claim that the war, rightly understood, should have been limited to killing the Taliban and al-Qaeda, and that anything aside from limited military strikes was counterproductive, wasteful, and foolish.  

“Within six months, the United States had largely accomplished what it set out to do. The leaders of al-Qaeda and the Taliban were dead, captured or in hiding,” the Post reported. 

But that is not a complete description of what the U.S. set out to do. A better description is that the U.S. set out to deny safe haven to terrorists in Afghanistan and to defeat al-Qaeda worldwide. President Bush said on September 20, 2001, that the United States was dedicated to “the disruption and to the defeat of the global terror network.” He said that “Our response involves far more than instant retaliation and isolated strikes . … And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism.” 

In Afghanistan this goal required killing and capturing militant and terrorist leaders and also building Afghan capacity to continue denying safe haven after U.S. forces left. Bush realized this, and said it explicitly, early on and repeatedly. In April 2002, Bush said in a speech at the Virginia Military Institute, “We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan train and develop its own national army.” Bush pledged in his 2002 State of the Union address, four months after 9/11, “We will be partners in rebuilding that country.”

In other words, training Afghan security forces and rebuilding the Afghan government was, at least rhetorically, part of the mission from day one. Nation building was not a result of “mission creep.” The Post’s efforts to portray the war as effectively over within six months ignores Bush’s own description of what the war should look like and his deliberate plans to stay and broaden the United States’ involvement. Bush was as clear as he could have been that the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan would be long-term and would require more than kinetic operations against the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Nation building was not (and is not) doomed to fail.

Third, the Post also portrays U.S. nation building efforts as doomed to fail because Afghanistan was unsuited to democracy. “Washington foolishly tried to reinvent Afghanistan in its own image by imposing a centralized democracy and a free-market economy on an ancient, tribal society that was unsuited for either,” the Post reported, “U.S. officials tried to create—from scratch—a democratic government in Kabul modeled after their own in Washington. It was a foreign concept to the Afghans, who were accustomed to tribalism, monarchism, communism and Islamic law.”

Nothing in that sentence is true. 

Afghan leaders—not American officials—wrote a new constitution in 2004, one which established a highly centralized presidential democracy. The constitution was based, often verbatim, on Afghanistan’s 1964 democratic constitution, simply substituting “president” for “king.” When King Zahir Shah promulgated the 1964 constitution and oversaw democratic elections in 1965 and 1969, he presumably did not believe Washington was reinventing Afghanistan in its image or foisting a system on his people to which they were unsuited, because Washington had absolutely nothing to do with it. 

When Afghans brushed off the 1964 constitution as a template for a new one, they were the major players in their political reconstruction. Some international officials, including U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad and U.N. Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi, played advisory roles, but the limit of their influence was shown by how closely the new constitution adhered to its predecessor. Afghan leaders in 2004 were building on an earlier legacy of democratization, a legacy with which the Post was apparently unfamiliar when it falsely claimed Afghanistan was “unsuited” to it.

The Post is repeating a quasi-racist, or at least an “Orientalist,” notion by painting the Afghans as an “ancient, tribal society” opposed to supposedly Western values of centralization, democracy, and free markets. But there is nothing uniquely western about centralization, bureaucracy, political institutionalization, the rule of law, or consultative forms of governance like democracy, all of which are prevalent across wide swaths of Africa and Asia. The only truly “Western” innovation in Afghanistan’s new constitution is arguably its article on human rights—about which the Post makes little comment and which is hardly the root cause of what ails Afghanistan today. 

As with many developing societies in the 20th century, Afghanistan attempted to modernize on the model of successful, rich European states starting in the 1920s. The country made some humble progress by the 1970s, but a civil war followed by Soviet invasion and Taliban tyranny saddled the nation with an unfathomable burden of reconstruction. The depth of Afghanistan’s brokenness makes any effort at nation building extremely difficult and costly. But that is a complicated story and, for the Post, a narrative apparently not as satisfying as blaming everything on Washington’s ineptness.

We did too little nation building, not too much.

Fourth, the Post rightly catalogs enormous amounts of waste, fraud, and abuse with the money allocated to rebuild Afghanistan. But, in doing so, it wrongly characterizes the nation building effort as historically large and implies that the United States erred by investing too much in Afghanistan. “Since 2001, Washington has spent more on nation-building in Afghanistan than in any country ever,” it claims.

That depends on how we count. The United States has spent about $132 billion on Afghanistan reconstruction, which sounds like a lot. But it is crucial that almost none of that money flowed for the first five or six years of the American intervention. From 2001 to 2006, the United States did almost no nation building, despite what President Bush said in various speeches in 2001 and 2002. The gap between Bush’s lofty rhetoric and actual budgetary priorities is a source of lasting frustration for Afghans and confusion for analysts trying to understand whether the U.S. was doing too much or too little.

Early on, the U.S. focused its efforts almost exclusively on counterterrorism operations and tried to outsource nation building to the United Nations and European allies. The little money spent on civilian projects was almost entirely taken up by funding expensive, one-off elections in 2004 and 2005. 

The U.S. eventually took the lead in reconstruction efforts and substantial money started flowing after 2007. But timing matters, and the Post paid no attention to the errors of timing the United States made in Afghanistan. (The SIGAR interviews were mostly conducted between 2014 and 2017 and focus heavily on the Obama era.) In nation building, less investment earlier packs a bigger punch than more investment later: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The United States failed to invest the ounce, which is why we’ve been on the hook for the pound ever since.

The Bush administration went into Afghanistan determined to adopt a “light footprint” approach, which is why it deployed few troops and few civilians and spent little money on reconstruction early on, which was exactly the wrong approach. The Afghans were remarkably welcoming to foreign intervention in their country in 2001, an attitude that lasted well through 2004 and 2005. But in the absence of a serious international effort to rebuild Afghanistan, the Afghan government, army, and police languished, resulting in lawlessness and corruption in the provinces. That, in turn, enabled the Taliban insurgency to emerge in 2006.

For example, according to the Post’s own reporting, the United States underinvested in rebuilding the Afghan army and police early on. If the U.S. government had ramped up training between 2002 and 2006, “when the Taliban was weak and disorganized, things may have been different,” the Post quotes my former boss, Doug Lute, as saying, “Instead, we went to Iraq. If we committed money deliberately and sooner, we could have a different outcome.”

The same point holds for investing in Afghan institutions generally, a point I emphasized to the SIGAR investigators—I criticized our “dereliction of duty on developing capacity and building institutions”—but which the Post ignored in its analysis. The U.S. and its allies did almost nothing to rebuild the Afghan government until around 2007, and even then, efforts have been patchy, haphazard, and piecemeal. Some two-thirds of the $132 billion allocated to rebuild Afghanistan has gone exclusively toward the army and police. That left only around $40 billion for civilian reconstruction—and that was spread out over almost two decades. The U.S. spent an average of about $2 billion per year to reconstruct the most failed state on the planet.

The U.S. spent about as much on Kosovo, a tiny state with a population a fraction the size of Afghanistan’s and spent it immediately upon intervening there in 1999 without waiting five or six years. In Afghanistan, the U.S. spent too little, too late. Nation building efforts there have not gone well, clearly, but the problem is not that we tried and failed. It is that, initially, we hardly tried at all, and once we finally started to put out a serious effort our delay had made the situation dramatically worse.

We have a strategy. It’s a bad one.

Fifth, the Post claims that Bush and Obama alike failed “to devise a clear strategy with concise, attainable objectives.” More: “The interviews show that as the war dragged on, the goals and mission kept changing and a lack of faith in the U.S. strategy took root inside the Pentagon, the White House and the State Department.” This is a complicated issue, and I have more sympathy for the Post’s analysis here than for its other claims. The Post is right that the U.S. approach to Afghanistan has been marked by strategic ambiguity.  

But the problem is not that the United States simply lacked a goal or a strategy. It is that there has been a sharp disconnect between the United States’ declared policy and its actual policy choices. There was a persistent gap between the U.S.’s publicly declared goals, which have often been far-reaching and ambitious, and the revealed preference of its policymakers to do only what is minimally required to stave off immediate or catastrophic defeat. The result is a constant sense of failure and a persistent lack of progress towards long-term goals.

Despite Bush and Obama’s aspirational rhetoric about rebuilding Afghanistan, the U.S.’s actual policy choices as reflected in its budgetary and deployment decisions—what might be called its de facto strategy or revealed preference—prioritized killing and capturing jihadist militants while investing just enough in counterinsurgency and stability operations to preserve operational freedom for American counterterrorism forces.

This is a clear strategy, despite what the Post reports, though Bush and Obama can be faulted for not admitting it publicly, and it is not the strategy I recommended. American strategy aims to sustain an indefinite counterterrorism presence in South Asia to kill or capture militant leaders while avoiding a Taliban takeover in Afghanistan. By that standard, the policy is a complete success and is indefinitely sustainable. It is a strategy of “forever war.”

This is not a sign of failure: It is what U.S. policymakers have deliberately chosen because they will neither accept defeat nor pay the price of a more ambitious campaign to resolve the conflict. It is a feature, not a bug, of American strategy. It is not successful at defeating the Taliban, winning the war, rebuilding Afghanistan, or establishing conditions for long-term stability—because it is not trying to accomplish these goals. 

Conclusion.

Critics have suggested that approach has been tried and has failed, which is not true. They have also claimed that Afghanistan does not merit the level of investment required to make that strategy successful. I respond that Obama almost won the war, or at least drove the Taliban to the negotiating table, in 2012 following something close to the strategy I hoped for.

In the end, the biggest errors of the war were Bush’s light footprint, Obama’s artificially imposed withdrawal timeline, and everyone’s failure to mount a serious effort at reconstruction. The Washington Post published six investigative reports on the war and managed to say almost nothing about the strategic incoherence of Obama’s timetable. Similarly, across all six stories, the Post gave the misleading impression that the United States invested too much, rather than too little, in Afghanistan. There is much to learn from the United States’ intervention in Afghanistan, but the Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” don’t offer the lessons we need. 

Paul D. Miller is a professor of the practice of international affairs at Georgetown University and a senior nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He served as director for Afghanistan and Pakistan on the NSC staff from 2007 through 2009.

Photograph of U.S. troops as viewed through the cracked window of an armored vehicle by Wakil Kohsar/AFP via Getty Images.