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David Petraeus Is Wrong: The Afghanistan War was Never Winnable

Image: U.S. Army Flickr.

Was Afghanistan Winnable? As we approach the one-year anniversary of the collapse of the Afghan government and army to a relatively weak Taliban army, there are still few willing to examine the mainly self-inflicted causes for America’s 20-years-in-the-making military defeat. Some, however, cling to the myth that the war could have been one “if only …” There may not be a better example of those who led in Afghanistan and now seek to blame others for the disaster than former general and CIA Director, David H. Petraeus. 

(Editor’s Note: See the author of the piece, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, on C-SPAN discussing this article in Washington Journal.) 

Afghanistan is Tough to Conquer

He’s not alone, of course, as the Washington Post exposed in 2019’s The Afghanistan Papers that there was a veritable parade of generals, admirals, and senior civilian leaders that systematically lied to the American public about the war’s progress, virtually throughout the conflict. But owing to Petraeus’ central position in what was alleged to have been the positive turning point in the war – the so-called “Afghan Surge” of 2010 – what he said at the time he was in command and what he’s saying now is especially noteworthy.

On Monday, Petraeus published an extensive analysis in The Atlantic of the one-year anniversary of the war’s end. In this piece, he argued that the United States made a number of blunders – even allowing the possibility of his own slight mistakes – that led to the failure, but his main point was that America’s military loss was avoidable. America’s military loss, he wrote, “did not have to be this way at all,” (Emphasis his.) 

The foundational mistake, he claimed, was “our lack of commitment.” The U.S. never “adopted a sufficient, consistent, overarching approach that we stuck with from administration to administration.” There were three main reasons the U.S. failed to win the war, Petraeus offered: the first being a “lack of strategic resolve,” second U.S. “unwillingness to commit the resources required” to win, and third “our failure to appreciate fully and deal with adequately the country and region in which we were operating.” 

The only exception, he volunteered, was under his command when he had “finally established the right big ideas and overarching strategy.” Petraeus argues that despite then-President Obama approving the general’s strategy, Obama effectively sabotaged the progress Petraeus had accomplished when the president was more interested in “exit seeking” than in winning. The problem with such claims is that they are undercut by the reality of what actually happened.

Petraeus today argues that Obama undercut the military strategy when in June 2011 Obama announced the beginning of the withdrawal of surge forces. What Petraeus conveniently fails to mention is that in 2009 he fully supported the president’s timeline. Jonathan Alter reported in 2010 on the inside process of how the president decided on supporting Petraeus’ surge idea. Alter recorded the critical exchange:

Inside the Oval Office, Obama asked Petraeus, “David, tell me now. I want you to be honest with me. You can do this in 18 months?”

“Sir, I’m confident we can train and hand over to the ANA [Afghan National Army] in that time frame,” Petraeus replied.

“Good. No problem,” the president said. “If you can’t do the things you say you can in 18 months, then no one is going to suggest we stay, right?”

“Yes, sir, in agreement,” Petraeus said. 

Was There a Winnable Outcome for Afghanistan?

Far more importantly, however, was my own observations of the truth and experience on the ground in Afghanistan during Petraeus’ surge. As I wrote in an extensive analysis of the Afghan war during my 2010-11 combat deployment as an Army Lt. Col., Petraeus routinely claimed progress where there was none, and ignored whole categories of inconvenient information or data that contradicted his preferred positive narrative. 

“Senior ranking U.S. military leaders,” I wrote in that February 2012 report, “have so distorted the truth when communicating with the U.S. Congress and American people in regards to conditions on the ground in Afghanistan that the truth has become unrecognizable.” In the report, I catalogued years of public statements Petraeus made that were inaccurate or untrue, many of which included a direct contrast to what I had personally observed in combat zones during my deployment to Afghanistan during Petraeus’s time in command.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the post-2021 withdrawal claims made by Petraeus and other American architects of the failed war, is the claim that they only needed more time, that the “lack of strategic resolve” by the U.S. government undercut success, or that there were insufficient “inputs.” Nothing could be further from the truth. 

In the Armed Forces Journal in 2010, more than a decade before we withdrew from Kabul as the Taliban occupied the capital, I wrote that absent “a major change in the status quo that currently dominates in Afghanistan, the U.S.-led military effort there will fail to accomplish the president’s objectives and, despite our best effort to spin it otherwise, we will lose the war in Afghanistan.” In a piece called The Afghan Mistake written before Obama approved Petraeus’ surge, I explained in detail why the surge would not work. 

It was always clear why our war would not succeed in Afghanistan, and it had nothing to do with “inputs” or “strategic resolve.” The country of Afghanistan is so vast, that it would have required many hundreds of thousands of troops to properly secure it – and the presence of that many foreign troops would only have succeeded in turning even more of the population against us faster and to a deeper level. 

Afghanistan Policy

U.S. Marines assigned to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit fire M4A1 carbines during an exercise on the flight deck aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) in the U.S. 5th Fleet Area of Operations, Feb. 8, 2019. Kearsarge is the flagship for the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group and, with the embarked 22nd MEU, is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in support of naval operations to ensure maritime stability and security in the Central Region, connecting the Mediterranean and the Pacific through the western Indian Ocean and three strategic choke points. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Casey Moore)

But there were fundamental reasons that weighed even more heavily. Too many in the population were historically inclined to view any foreign military as “invaders” and would thus never support us. The government of Afghan that we installed was incurably corrupt (and we didn’t help the matter by refusing to hold them accountable for known corruption). 

We tried to form an Afghan national army largely out of men that had never served in the military and had little motivation to fight the Taliban. But perhaps most critically, we knew that Pakistan had been supporting the Taliban leadership from the beginning of the war. So long as significant proportions of the people remained against our military, the government could never rid itself of massive corruption, the army couldn’t form quality fighting men, and we could never stop the material and political support of the Taliban from Pakistan, the war was unwinnable. 

It wouldn’t have mattered if we had stayed another two decades, so long as those fundamentals were against us, we would succeed only in throwing away billions of dollars per year and losing the blood, lives, and limbs of our service members – but never won. That was true in 2009 when I first wrote that, in 2010, in 2012, and nearly every year thereafter, all the way through the final withdrawal on August 30, 2021.

It’s time we accepted the patent truth that we tried to accomplish the unattainable, and predictably failed – and avoid believing the myths told by the architects of the failure that we can win “next time” if we just do it better.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis.

Written By

Daniel L. Davis is a Senior Fellow for Defense Priorities and a former Lt. Col. in the U.S. Army who deployed into combat zones four times. He is the author of “The Eleventh Hour in 2020 America.” Follow him @DanielLDavis1.