Nearly 20 years after 9/11, American combat forces have departed Afghanistan, where 2,312 U.S. soldiers lost their lives in a war costing the U.S. government more than $2 trillion. The Taliban have the momentum on the battlefield and are threatening to regain control of the country, even as the U.S. and Afghan governments keep telling their publics a resolution requires a political settlement. Questions naturally arise about lessons to be learned. Here are just a few that American foreign policy decision makers need to consider.

Afghanistan Intelligence Losses

American soldiers wait on the tarmac in Logar province, Afghanistan, on Nov. 30, 2017. Washington’s lack of a strategy for wrapping up its combat operations in Afghanistan often strengthened the determination of the Taliban to prevail on the battlefield. Rahmat Gul/Associated Press, File

• Clear and realistic aims are the first prerequisite, along with an accurate assessment of the enemy. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan – we didn’t know what we were doing,” according to Gen. Douglas Lute, the White House czar for Afghanistan under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. After routing the Taliban and al-Qaida in late 2001, different U.S. government agencies (and NATO allies) pursued a potpourri of often-conflicting or unrealistic policy goals in Afghanistan: to create democracy; improve the status of Afghan women; set up a strong central government (unprecedented in Afghan history) and a Western-style judicial system; end drug production and/or selling, and develop a modern infrastructure.

Afghanistan is known for good reason as the “graveyard of empires” (Russian and British), but American hubris led virtually every U.S. military commander and senior civilian official to publicly argue progress was being made in building Afghanistan’s governmental authority and democracy. President Biden’s decision not to continue the U.S. military role in Afghanistan “with no reasonable expectation of achieving a different outcome” finally introduced some realism.

• Large-scale foreign assistance can have unforeseen and counterproductive effects. Political legitimacy – that is, the popular  acceptance of state authority – is the key to a counterinsurgency campaign. However, the dominant role of the U.S. and NATO states often served to undermine the legitimacy of the Afghan government. In a country averse to foreign domination, the Taliban adeptly portrayed the Afghan government as a foreign puppet. Moreover, Afghanistan’s capacity to sustain major infrastructure projects was limited, and many fell into disuse, contributing to popular disillusionment. A flood of foreign aid fueled corruption and created a kleptocratic state, undermining governmental legitimacy.

• To prevail against a popular insurgency, governmental unity is key and cannot be imposed by foreign states. Abdullah Abdullah, the chief Afghan negotiator in the “peace talks” with the Taliban, recently underscored the urgent need for the fractious Kabul government to overcome its political divisions if there is to be some hope of negotiating a peace settlement. That warning, however, came too late to have much effect.

• Be strategic. Washington did not have a strategy for wrapping up its combat operations, and consequently, missteps by successive U.S. presidential administrations have undermined the Afghan government and often strengthened the Taliban’s determination to prevail on the battlefield. The February 2020 U.S.-Taliban Agreement had no provision for a long-term cease-fire. The U.S. pressured the Kabul government to release 4,600 Taliban prisoners to get Afghan peace talks started (and then only after a year had passed).

Meanwhile, Afghan army and civilian casualties have climbed, while the Taliban has taken control of much of the countryside. For average Afghans, these events look like a rising Taliban tide. Afghan army units are surrendering without a fight, having lost confidence in their leadership. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned the Trump administration in its last months against a hurried and uncoordinated withdrawal, lest Afghanistan become “once again a platform for international terrorists to plan and organize attacks,” a warning that remains valid today. Although the 2020 U.S.-Taliban agreement provides that Afghanistan will not be used by terrorist organizations to attack the U.S. and its allies, this was largely a fig leaf for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. In reality, the ties of belief and kinship make the Taliban largely inseparable from al-Qaida.

Questions remain about Afghanistan’s future. One for Americans is whether we are ready for a national conversation about our country’s role in the world.

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