Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Policy

The Top Five Debriefing Questions About Afghanistan

| July 09, 2021

How to make sense of Washington's longest war ever.

As it draws to an ignominious close, the long war in Afghanistan stands as a stunning indictment of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. The war was waged by two Republican presidents and one Democrat—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump—and none of them managed to win or end it. The U.S. military never devised an effective strategy for prosecuting the war and never explained to their civilian overseers why their stated war aims could not be achieved. Instead, they repeatedly offered upbeat forecasts they knew were false. Had it been left to them or other representatives of the foreign-policy Blob, we'd still be toiling on with no end in sight and no prospects for improvement.

But don't just blame the U.S. Defense Department. It was our civilian leaders who gave the military an impossible mission and refused to take responsibility for the war's strategic direction. Congressional leaders kept authorizing funds to keep the war going without asking tough questions about the prospects for success, even as evidence that the war was not going well began to accumulate. Diplomats, development experts, and the public at large never came to terms with the fatal contradictions in the U.S. effort and refused to accept there might be limits to what U.S. power could accomplish. Those who favored disengagement have little to be proud of either, insofar as they failed to convince the relevant officials or the broader body politic to heed their advice until now.

In the face of a collective failure of this magnitude, perhaps the only benefit one can salvage is to learn the right lessons from a bitter experience. To do so requires asking the right questions and pursuing answers to them in a candid and brutally honest fashion. In that spirit, therefore, I offer my "Top Five Questions About the United States' Afghan War." I’ll hazard a few conjectures about each one, and I hope they all receive sustained attention in the future. If we hope to avoid similar errors down the road, a serious effort to understand why the United States failed is essential.

  1. Why did the United States (and NATO) imagine they could turn Afghanistan into a modern, Western-style democracy?

​​​​​​​The United States invaded Afghanistan in response to the Sept.11, 2001 terrorist attacks. The primary goal was to capture terrorist Osama bin Laden and as many senior al Qaeda leaders as possible. Because the Taliban government refused to turn bin Laden over, toppling them became part of the mission too. Once the Taliban were ousted and melted away, however, the United States and its allies took on the quixotic task of trying to turn a poor, deeply divided, mostly illiterate, and war-torn country into a centralized, Western-style, liberal democracy. The prospects for doing so successfully could not have been bleaker, yet the United States embraced it with a sense of hubris that now seems breathtaking. Whatever noble intentions it may have had, this ambitious effort at social engineering in a country Americans barely understood was doomed to fail. Why didn't the United States understand this from the start?...

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Walt, Stephen M.“The Top Five Debriefing Questions About Afghanistan.” Foreign Policy, July 9, 2021.

The Author

Stephen Walt