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How America Can Avoid Another Afghanistan

Image: U.S. Army Flickr.

With the withdrawal of the last U.S. ground troops from Afghanistan, America’s longest war supposedly has come to an end.  That assumption, however, is one of several falsehoods that characterized Washington’s mission in Afghanistan. If the United States is to avoid repeating the Afghanistan debacle in some other locale a few years down the road, both U.S. policy makers and the American public must squarely face some painful truths.

The war has not truly ended yet:

Even as U.S. ground forces were completing their departure, the Biden administration ordered drone strikes against alleged terrorist targets and made it clear that future strikes were on the agenda.  One of the earliest attacks apparently killed at least 10 civilians, including several young children from one family.

Transforming a multifaceted military intervention into one using only airpower is not ending a war.  It merely makes the next phase of the Afghanistan mission into the kind of conflict relying on drones that Washington has waged for many years in the skies above such places as Pakistan and Somalia.  The tactic also generates enormous levels of anger and hatred among the populations in those countries that witness the deaths of innocents similar to the victims of the Biden administration’s errant drone strike in Afghanistan.  U.S. military documents that whistleblower David Hale leaked showed that up to 90 percent of people killed in drone attacks are civilians, not confirmed terrorists.

If U.S. leaders truly intend to terminate the U.S. military intervention in Afghanistan, they must end combat in all respects, not merely shift it to an air-only war.  A war waged from 20,000 feet is still a war—and an especially cruel, cowardly one.

The Biden administration’s execution of the withdrawal was a clown show:

President Biden’s conclusion that the U.S. crusade in Afghanistan should not, indeed could not, go on was correct. However, the implementation of the withdrawal reached unprecedented heights of ineptitude.  Administration officials obviously overestimated the staying power of Washington’s puppet Afghan regime, despite some troubling intelligence to the contrary.  But there were other, truly jaw-dropping errors. Abandoning Bagram air base before the evacuation of all Americans (and some Afghans who had collaborated with the U.S. occupation) was a tactical blunder that no competent first-year student at one of the service academies would have made. Sufficient U.S. troops for a rear-guard function needed to remain until all American citizens could be evacuated.  Videos of U.S. helicopters having to ferry diplomats from the embassy to Kabul airport, as well as the utterly chaotic scenes at that airport, constituted graphic evidence of an egregious logistical failure.

Biden should demand the resignations of the officials responsible for such a fiasco.  At the top of the list would be Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley.  As yet, though, Biden has refused to hold such individuals accountable in the slightest.  Instead, he portrays the evacuation as a whole as an “extraordinary success.”  To the extent that he concedes that there were glitches and problems at all, the president and his advisers try to shift the blame onto former president Donald Trump for the terms of the original peace agreement that he concluded with the Taliban.  That is shameful behavior, and the American people should not tolerate it.

The U.S. intervention itself was ill-conceived:

Washington’s Afghanistan intervention was doomed from the moment George W. Bush’s administration transformed it from a limited, punitive expedition to crush Al Qaeda and punish the Taliban for harboring that terrorist group into an amorphous counterinsurgency and nation-building mission. U.S. officials in three administrations repeatedly misled Congress and the American public by insisting that steady progress was being made transforming Afghanistan into a modern democracy with an effective government and a well-trained, highly motived military. The astonishing speed with which that government and military collapsed confirmed just how unrealistic were those assessments.

A comprehensive investigation should be conducted into the false assurances that so many civilian and military officials provided. Were those people simply incompetent and believed their own sunny propaganda?  Or were they systematically deceptive in an effort to protect entrenched policies as well as their own careers and reputations? The American people are entitled to know the answers and to hold the pertinent officials and former officials accountable.

It is imperative that both U.S. leaders and the American public face up to these truths, however painful they might be to accept. Denial is never an appropriate or useful response. The Biden administration can serve as a beneficial model for its successors by not indulging in self-serving fantasies about Afghanistan.

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at 19FortyFive, is the author of 12 books and more than 950 articles on international affairs.

Written By

Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute, is the author of 12 books and more than 900 articles on international affairs.  His books include (with Doug Bandow) The Korean Conundrum: America’s Troubled Relations with North and South Korea (Palgrave-Macmillan, 2004).



  1. Slack

    September 1, 2021 at 8:07 pm

    Heh, how to avoid another debacle???

    By looking before you LEAP.

    America by its very ESSENSE will ALWAYS be looking for military adventures abroad. It is the genghis of our age.

    Thus, before America attacks another country again ( after the Afghanistan fiasco), it better checked if its victim has access to indefinite support from a third side before plunging headlong into war.

  2. John Bonnar

    September 2, 2021 at 1:22 pm

    It is mind-boggling to me that three different Administrations/Presidents were ill-advised by so many in their Cabinets and the military high command. Since the US citizenry has gone into debt by these blunders and lost too many US lives, we deserve the truthful answers to these debacles.

  3. Harry_the_Horrible

    September 2, 2021 at 4:22 pm

    Don’t nation-build unless you actually have a nation to work with.
    In fact, ditch nation-building altogether. In the future, we should only do punitive expeditions. Get in, kill whoever we think needs killing, along with their friends, neighbors, supporters, and anyone who gets between us the people we’re trying to kill. Stack the bodies and leave.

  4. william

    September 7, 2021 at 1:02 am

    should also be looked into
    -how poppy harvests hit record highs as did worldwide heroine production while America in afghan.
    -how America was slipping warlords viagra and looking the other way s little boys and girls were being raped
    -how COIN as a military philosophy is substantively the same as ‘hearts and mind’ and no more successful now than it was then.
    -why did America allow a defeated enemy to retain its arms and thrn toss away its technological advantages by refusing to fight ant night and a host of other bad policies.

    i served in the usmc and loved my time in. recently I told my son not to enlist, america doesnt win wars anymore and it craps on its warriors while losing.

  5. Marina Teramond @ NMPL

    September 30, 2021 at 4:34 am

    Unfortunately, wars happen all over the world and, without any doubts, the Afghan War was truly global. I think it is one of the longest wars in the history of America and, of course, this war was accompanied by many factors and reasons but America made a lot of mistakes which entailed plenty of negative consequences and wrong actions. I absolutely agree with you that to prevent it in the future America needs to take many factors into account and change the strategy. I think that the main and significant thing in this matter is that the U.S. intervention itself was ill-conceived and it is so important for people to understand this verity because in another case the situation can turn out the same or more disastrous.

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