In the midst of the current impeachment of the US President, the Washington Post has published an investigative piece about America’s war in Afghanistan. The article is entitled “At War with the Truth.”
No words can describe the country’s continued involvement in Afghanistan since the early days of the 21st century. Officials believed at the start that the war was unwinnable. However, their statements to the public indicated that progress and victory would arrive soon. Hence, they have been not so much at war with their enemies, but rather fighting a war with truth itself.
Surprisingly enough, the United States found itself in this position before — during the Vietnam War. Although the buildup to the wars in Vietnam and Afghanistan are not similar, the way in which the United States handled itself during the conflicts is quite similar. Administration after administration has produced lies, hiding the fact that the United States was and is losing each war. When officials from both sides of history realized that the wars in Afghanistan and Vietnam were unwinnable, their only objective then became avoiding humiliation. No one from the Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon Administrations would want to be labeled as the ones responsible for America’s defeat in Vietnam. In the end, the fall of Saigon in 1975 represented enormous humiliation for the United States.
It is interesting that the “Afghanistan Papers” are not entirely different from the Pentagon Papers that were leaked in 1971. Scholars and researchers have long believed that US engagement in Afghanistan was getting nowhere close to a clear victory. So also was the case with Vietnam in the 1970s. This new document simply proves how much the US government is still misleading the country in reporting the actual facts in Afghanistan.
These are some of the similarities, at times drawn from quotes from interviewees, that highlight the core reasons why the United States is not “winning” the war in Afghanistan.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,”
The first issue was the lack of concrete understanding of the country itself, and the lack of a clear strategy.
When President Johnson escalated the Vietnam War in 1965, the sentence “winning hearts and minds” was used in several policy documents regarding strategies to win the war in Vietnam. “Winning hearts and minds” refers to the objective by both the South Vietnamese and United States governments to “win” the support of the Vietnamese public in countering the threat posed by the Viet Cong.
This was a critical mistake by the United States. Vietnam had harbored an anti-colonial stance ever since its independence from the French. They viewed the United States as another foreign imperialist power. Furthermore, people in South Vietnam were actively supporting Ho Chi Minh’s cause and were unhappy with the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem, the then president of the Vietnamese Republic (South Vietnam).
Afghanistan is similar. According to one of the interviewees, US officials lacked even the basic knowledge of the country and its people. This, coupled with the revival of the old US objective in Vietnam, that of “winning hearts and minds”, made the war unsustainable.
According to the Post article, then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld received a classified report from a civilian analyst that stated that an “enormous popular discontent” was beginning to build in Afghan citizens against the Afghanistan government, which they considered corrupt. The report also mentioned that the Taliban was rising, mainly due to support from Pakistan. Rumsfeld chose to bury the report.
It is complicated to assess the level of support that US forces are now receiving from the Afghan population. The difference from Vietnam is that the people of Afghanistan are not very fond of the Taliban. Yet at the same time, the Afghan people harbor a deep mistrust of the United States. Furthermore, there is no popular support for the US-backed Kabul government in Afghanistan.
It can be concluded that the United States has put the people of Afghanistan into a very uncomfortable position. Their support for the United States means potential retaliation from the Taliban. But supporting the Kabul government will not help to make their lives better. And supporting the Taliban would likely make their lives even more difficult.
What are we trying to do here? We didn’t have the foggiest notion of what we were undertaking.”
The people who had started, and some who are now overseeing the war in Afghanistan are, for the most part, familiar with the history of the Vietnam War. The failure of Vietnam is the result of vague military objectives from the start of the war. Secretary McNamara published a memorandum in 1965, in which he stated that 70% of the objective of the Vietnam War was to avoid the humiliation of a US defeat. That primary goal was not something that could be translated into military objectives. That did not help the military in waging the war.
Presidents Bush, Obama and Trump lacked a clear, cohesive strategy in winning the war in Afghanistan. Initially in 2001, President Bush stated clear objectives in sending troops to Afghanistan: to destroy Al Qaeda, displace the Taliban government of Afghanistan, and prevent 9/11 from happening again. Those objectives were more or less achieved in the first few months after the arrival of US troops. Successive military victories in 2001/2002 were promising signs, but then President Bush was sidetracked by another country, Iraq.
Besides becoming distracted by Saddam Hussein and his mythical weapons of mass destruction, Bush decided to keep US troops in Afghanistan to track down terrorists. This was a huge mistake on his part, as he effectively allowed the United States to invade two countries. By 2003/04, US forces were active in both Iraq and Afghanistan. In hindsight, this was a terrible decision. While the government was fixated on Iraq, the Taliban slowly regrouped and was reborn as an insurgency group.
Both President Obama and Bush failed to create objectives with attainable military strategies that would help the US in the war. Officials have not been able to even determine who their enemies are, who their allies are, and what their barometers are for achieving victory.
President Bush’s biggest blunder was engaging in two wars at the same time, while also engaging in nation-building activities in Afghanistan. President Obama made the mistake of reacting to the Taliban insurgency by sending counter-insurgency troops into the country, while relying on corrupt and dysfunctional Afghan officials. Obama’s self-imposed withdrawal deadline was the final nail in the coffin, as it provided the Taliban with the opportunity to simply wait for the date of the US withdrawal.
Lesson for America
Fallacious assumptions about Afghanistan, unnecessary nation-building, and lack of clear military strategies are the underlying causes of US failure in Afghanistan. There are more reasons, certainly, but these are the core failures that led the country into an unwinnable war. Sooner or later, the objective of the war would, once again, become that of simply avoiding humiliation.
There must be a Congressional inquiry into the failures of the war in Afghanistan, in order to ensure that future military engagements be scrutinized to the smallest details. First and foremost, military objectives need to be determined. And the US must never engage in nation-building without security and the cooperation of the host country.