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David Petraeus Is Wrong: The Afghanistan War was Never Winnable

Afghanistan
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.

17 Comments

17 Comments

  1. RETNAVYSWO

    August 11, 2022 at 7:23 am

    If you want an idea of how Afghanistan could have been handled to make is a safer country, albeit still tribal, but not supporting of Al-Qaeda or the Taliban, read HAMMERHEAD SIX.
    It outlines the progress an Army Special Forces A-Team in a remote valley not much after the invasion. In summary the Reserve Captain and his team worked with and attained the trust of the local elders to establish a local self defense force and keep the above mentioned away. They used proven Counter Insurgency techniques the Special Forces are known for and pacified the area.
    What went wrong?
    Big Army got involved and quashed this avenue because Big Army was not going to take a back seat to Special Forces using a minimum of forces to pacify the country. Big Army wanted to use the Hammer Technique vice proven counter insurgency techniques. Of course the rest is history and we see how it turned out.
    The book is available on several used and new book sellers online and should be read.

  2. TG

    August 11, 2022 at 8:54 am

    Indeed, an interesting and thoughtful piece.

    However: “Afghanistan is tough to conquer.” Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that Afghanistan is pointless to conquer? That the reason that so many empires go there to die, is not so much the toughness of the Afghanis, as the fact that only incompetent and corrupt empires go there, and so of course they fail?

    But one man’s failure is another man’s profit. What did we achieve in 20 years in Afghanistan? Vast profits for a politically connected few. It’s not a bug it’s a feature. The pointlessness of the mission means that defense contractors can skim huge amounts without repercussion.

    Why then did we ever leave? I suggest that this could have been due to the Afghani population explosion. From 20 million at the start of the invasion, the population had doubled to 40 million now, and all dependent on US food aid. The population was slated to double again to 80 million in the next 20 years – and perhaps, just perhaps, the fixed costs of feeding all these people were projected to start cutting into the profits that could be extracted from this occupation?

  3. David Chang

    August 11, 2022 at 9:44 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Many people talk about tactic without thinking about strategy, and don’t talk about the differences of thought among peoples in different countries. But the difference of constitution thoughts cause war, and we lost Vietnam War.

    Although many people say that we cannot abandon Vietnam,
    but should we have total war? and what is the duty of people in Vietnam?

    God bless America.

  4. pagar

    August 11, 2022 at 9:51 am

    Petraeus, Obama and even bush never heard of a country called ‘pakistan’ obviously.

    Or perhaps they knew such a country existed in south Asia but thought it was in their pockets.Certainly, the CIA was all over that place since very moment soviets intervened in Kabul in seventies era.

    Pakistan smartly played bush, Obama and petraeus a double game uniquely of it’s own design, and the US smarts were none the wiser.Although a few pen pushers called Islamabad out on more than one occasion.

    Biden last year, or one year ago, decided to call it a day cuz he had bigger fish to fry.Thus US went from Afghanistan straight to ukrainistan.Or donbassnistan.

    Biden’s just anunder petraeus.

  5. C Miller

    August 11, 2022 at 11:44 am

    You didn’t mention what I think is the most important reason any effort in Afghanistan was doomed to fail: tribal allegiance over national allegiance.

    The further one gets from Kabul, the loyalty/allegiance of the population decreases. The folks in Kandahar, Herat and near the Iranian border have practically no allegiance to the Afghan nation.

  6. Jacksonian Libertarian

    August 11, 2022 at 12:17 pm

    I rarely agree with Davis, but here he is right but not for the reasons he is stating. The fact that Davis has to keep restating his credentials in every article is because his arguments can’t stand on their own. Truth is its own thing, and has nothing to do with credentials.

    The fundamental reason Afghanistan wasn’t winnable is because “cultures change at glacial speeds”. The corrupt authoritarian Islamic Culture of Afghanistan, cannot support Democracy, and because of this it cannot support Modern Civilization. The 1st World is the 1st World for fundamental reasons.

    There are 2 types of armies:

    1. Regime Protection Armies – created by Authoritarian Nations and designed to insure loyalty to the Regime.

    2. Field Armies – created by Democratic Nations and designed to defeat other field armies. (Field Armies easily defeat Regime Protection Armies, but can do nothing to defeat the Authoritarian Cultures that create them.)

    The Western objective (Nation Building) of creating a field army in Afghanistan was always doomed, as Islamic Culture cannot support a field army’s culture.

  7. Scottfs

    August 11, 2022 at 1:28 pm

    Of course it was winnable. If we pretty much killed everyone in the country.

    Other than that, no.

    Afghanistan, like all Muslim counties, is a theocracy. They don’t want democracy. They hate democracies.

    Unless it is a dircted threat to the United States, ignore these backwards countries.

  8. Bill Hocter

    August 11, 2022 at 3:07 pm

    Afghanistan was winnable in 2001 with the capture and immediate execution of Al Qaeda and Taliban leadership and fighters by the 82nd Airborne which prevented their escape to Pakistan. The US declared victory one month later and left Afghanistan to its well deserved misery under the tutelage of the UN which flew in a motley crew of peacekeepers from Muslim s*****les. 9/11 was avenged, we never invaded Iraq and the world was a different place.

  9. Dan Farrand

    August 11, 2022 at 3:58 pm

    If it is true that 9/11 was staged or conceived out of Afghanistan by Osama as a guest of the Taliban govt, then Our mission in Afghanistan was accomplished when we toppled that government at surprisingly little cost to ourselves.

    Perhaps if we had not been so casualty shy and had committed the forces and aggression to the Toro Boro operation, we might even have killed Osama then.

    The most reasonable thing to do then was leave, with a handwritten note left on a table in whatever passed for the governments house in Kabul, saying we would be back from 40,000 feet if more acts against us originated out of Afghanistans guests.

    What was the political purpose of staying. Was it part of some neocon fantasy about using Afghanistan as basing aimed at both Russia and China ?

    No idea. When we allowed our afghan clients to write apostasy laws into their “constitution” I knew we had really lost the plot.

    What a waste of lives and money and the veritable destruction of the US Army as a combat force.

  10. 403Forbidden

    August 11, 2022 at 11:40 pm

    Afghanistan was an unnecessary military adventure by George bush.

    Bush’s real target was Iraq, so the foray into Afghanistan was just a warm-up exercise.

    Bush’s dad did same thing with panama. Panama was the de facto curtain raiser for the first gulf war.

    Clearly, US believes in the way of war. This is being extended to today’s world by Biden.

  11. David Chang

    August 12, 2022 at 12:47 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Democracy is wrong, so we are republic state.

    Freedom not to be under moral truth is also wrong and cause war only.

    It is also wrong to hate Muslims, every people in the world should worship Creator and obey Ten Commandments.

    God bless America.

  12. David Chang

    August 12, 2022 at 10:29 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Mr. Huntington and Mr. Fukuyama are wrong.
    There is no war between East and West, counterinsurgency war is not real, but the war between Creation and Evolution.

    “History testifies to the ineptitude of coalitions in waging war. Allied failures have been so numerous and their inexcusable blunders so common that professional soldiers had long discounted the possibility of effective allied action unless available resources were so great as to assure victory by inundation. Even Napoleon’s reputation as a brilliant military leader suffered when students in staff colleges came to realize that he always fought against coalitions–and therefore against divided counsels and diverse political, economic, and military interests.

    Primarily the Allied task was to utilize the resources of two great nations with the decisiveness of single authority.

    Dwight David Eisenhower”

    God bless America.

  13. Michael Yon

    August 12, 2022 at 12:45 pm

    Sir,

    I write today from Holland and no longer from Iraq, Afghanistan, and other wars in which I have spent so many years. As you can imagine, dark days lay ahead. I spend much of my time these days tracking migrant invasions through Africa, Colombia, Mexico, and slopping onto our streets. Now I am with Dutch Farmers — they are being destroyed like our farmers across America. Please see my recent two hour interview with Jordan Peterson, and my hour with Dr. Chris Martenson.

    As for the debacle in Afghanistan, I and many others were in the middle of it. I started writing from Afghanistan in 2006 that the war was being lost, and then I flew back to Iraq.

    As for Dave Petraeus and Afghanistan — terrible shit show.

    I do respectfully submit that you might read what Petraeus wrote. He actually agrees with you – that Afghanistan was not winnable. But, as he also notes, Afghanistan could have been “managed,” if not won, with a modest and sustainable commitment, and that that would have been vastly better than the devastating situation in Afghanistan under the Taliban, with the economy having collapsed, over half the population on the verge of starvation, girls and women prevented from going to high school and college, Al Qaeda’s Emir living (until two weekends ago) in a house controlled by the Acting Minister of Interior, and the Islamic State carrying out near-daily attacks – not to mention the US leaving behind over 160,000 former battlefield interpreters and their family members entitled to a Special Immigrant Visa.

    Anyway, I stay on the frontlines. American still has a hear-beat. I am American. Time to deport FBI from my Florida.

    Iraq, Afghanistan, Thailand, Hong Kong, and more…so many years of war and struggle.

    We have just begun.

    Respectfully,

    Michael Yon
    Fellow American

    https://michaelyon.com/dispatches/gates-of-fire/

  14. Montieth Stewart

    August 13, 2022 at 2:51 pm

    What did we get tactically from leaving Afghanistan? When working at CENTCOM, we used travel maps from Barnes and Nobles until the region was passed back to us from Langley. Today, we have mainframes of data, blanket HUMINT on the ground and surgical tactical coverage from the safety of the horizon. Zawahiri is dead because we pulled out and harnessed that HUMINT. Numerous great Americans are alive today because we pulled out and no longer read/hear the weekly reports of individual SMs killed in a firefight or roadside bomb. I concede, the execution of the pullout was abysmal. Would not have happened as it did if completed during winter months.

  15. Andrew M Winter

    August 13, 2022 at 5:14 pm

    Winnable? War? I am still having a real tough time calling something that caused only about 1 KIA per DAY a “war”.

    NATO and the US suffered higher casualty rates, at home, due to these four things.

    Alcohol related traffic accidents
    Alcohol related deaths in swimming accidents
    simple car accidents
    and…
    Training Accidents.

    What war was actually being fought over there?

    It may have been a PR campaign that occasionally got violent but I have a hard time branding it as a WAR.

  16. Doug

    August 17, 2022 at 2:18 am

    Just as with Vietnam the Afghan excursion was unwinnable.
    The French showed that the Vietnamese could not be defeated and the Russians showed that the Afghans could also not be defeated.
    So many lives lost for no sensible reason

  17. Shannon Brown

    August 19, 2022 at 12:57 am

    Thank you for this. Well said.

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