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The 20-Year Descent to the Predictably Ugly Afghanistan Withdrawal

9/11 History
Operation Mountain Viper put the soldiers of A Company, 2nd Battalion 22nd Infantry Division, 10th Mountain in the Afghanistan province of Daychopan to search for Taliban and or weapon caches that could be used against U.S. and allied forces. Soldiers quickly walk to the ramp of the CH-47 Chinook cargo helicopter that will return them to Kandahar Army Air Field. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Kyle Davis) (Released)

As incoming Ranking Member of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, Rep. James Comer said last week he intends on holding hearings in 2023 to examine the Administration’s “botched Afghanistan withdrawal” and vowed to provide the American people “answers, transparency, and accountability.” America’s failure in Afghanistan was a two-decades-in-the-making process, however, and any effort to provide answers and accountability must include an exposure of the core problems over that timeframe and not simply how the final exit was executed.

First, it is crucial to recognize up front that the collapse that happened in August 2021 didn’t come as a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention to the war. Major errors were detected early and a number of analysts warned the war was unwinnable early. In April 2009, just three months into Obama’s first term, I wrote in the Armed Forces Journal that unless the president was ready to wage a large-scale “existential battle to exterminate the Taliban from both Afghanistan and Pakistan, adding another 12,000 or 30,000 troops will amount to trying to put out a house fire with a garden hose.”

As it was, I continued, the United States was “fighting against the Taliban, against remnants of al-Qaida, against provincial warlords, against drug kingpins, against common thugs, against Afghan culture and against history.” Trying to surge a relatively small number of troops to obtain the political outcome of turning Afghanistan into a stable democracy committed the U.S. to “a fight we can’t win.”

In September of that year, an infamously leaked classified assessment of then-commander GEN Stanley McChrystal claimed that unless Obama sent an additional 40,000 troops to Afghanistan – on top of the 17,000 Obama had sent in February – the US risked “losing the war.” One month later, I wrote a 40-page analysis that argued surging more troops would likely fail, arguing instead for the withdrawal of the majority of U.S. and NATO troops, transitioning to a small counter-terror operation.

Pointedly, I wrote that it would “be a tragedy of historic proportions if the United States expended the enormous resources in time, money, and human life currently being contemplated, but proved unable to succeed and were later forced to withdraw in a Saigon-esque humiliating retreat.” As we know, of course, the chaotic withdrawal from Kabul in August 2021 was eerily similar to the fall of Saigon. I was far from the only person warning of looming failure, however.

In October 2009, a senior State Department official and decorated combat veteran from the Iraq war, Matthew Hoh, publicly resigned his position in Afghanistan in protest to the Obama Administration’s conduct of a war that could not be won. In his resignation letter, Hoh wrote that the United States was little more than a “supporting actor,” in a tragedy of a then-35 year civil war “that not only pits tribes, valleys, clans, villages and families against one another, but, from at least the end of King Zahir Shah’s reign [in 1973], has violently and savagely pitted the urban, secular, educated and modern of Afghanistan against the rural, religious, illiterate and traditional.”

In an assessment published last month by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Hoh’s warnings proved prescient. The November SIGAR report explaining why the Afghan government and military fell apart in August 2021, the authors noted that, “the Afghan government’s high level of centralization, endemic corruption, and struggle to attain legitimacy were long-term contributors to its eventual collapse.”

In the 2001 Bonn Conference, the United States and allies brokered a new constitution for Afghanistan that featured a US-style presidential system. But owing to Afghanistan’s history and culture, the implementation of the system “raised the stakes for political competition and reignited long-running tensions between an urban elite eager to modernize and conservative rural populations distrustful of central governance.”

Every presidential election was, predictably, characterized by massive voter fraud, which served to undermine confidence in the government. By the time of the final presidential election in 2019, the population’s confidence in its government was so poor that “voter turnout was estimated at only 10 percent.” While there is much to find fault with the Biden Administration’s handling of the 2021 withdrawal, the reality is that failure had been baked in by that point and there was no “good” solution or clean withdrawal to be had. The one chance Washington had to end the mission in some order was lost in 2010.

When Obama took office, the Taliban had an estimated 25,000 fighters and control of only a small number of local districts and no provinces. Had Obama ordered a phased withdrawal over an 18 month period, the Afghan government would have had time to get its house in order while still under the security umbrella of the U.S. and NATO, and in all likelihood, both the government and the Afghan military would have still been effective upon our final exit, which itself would have been conducted in a professional and orderly manner.

Maybe the government would have eventually fallen, maybe it wouldn’t have. But the egregious failure of both the Bush and Obama Administrations to end the war ensured that the U.S. would never win militarily and that whenever the end finally did come, it would be ugly and humiliating. That Biden took the political heat in ordering the withdrawal that Trump had set in motion at least confers some credit to them both. The most crucial lesson that America needs to take from the fiasco of our August withdrawal: don’t fight wars we can’t win and don’t need to fight.

Also 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.



  1. Michael Nunez

    December 15, 2022 at 11:41 pm

    Very true Afghanistan is torn by Tribalism, and for decades . That will keep Afghanistan from ever becoming a legitimate Nation , but the decision to go into Afghanistan was Dead Wrong. Special Opps like Seal team 6 and Delta would have done the Job of Destroying the Talibon but People like Cheney , Rumsfield , and Bush wanted more than revenge. They turned a what should have been done in 1 year into a Death Trap for young Americans for 20 years . Biden finished the Nightmare with another Nightmare at Kabul Airport where 13 US Marines were Killed because of Biden ” Directly ” , and then Biden goes after an innocent Iraqi family of 11 and has them Murdered , for what ? Way Too Many Americans have Died , Paid the Price with their Lives to just walk away from the Afghanistan Debacle . From Bush to Biden these so called President’s have ” Failed America ” , War Crimes fill each and every year the US was in Afghanistan, that must come out . We can never forget the Ones Who Paid with their Lives , the Murderers must be made to Pay …. !

  2. 403Forbidden

    December 16, 2022 at 12:22 am

    The august 2021 kabul withdrawal by joe biden was ‘botched’ but whay about jimmy carter’s interference or intervention.

    Afghanistan in the seventies saw rise in islamist movements which posed a genuine threat to the soviet union.

    The USSR in 1979 sent troops to suppress the rising green tide which sent carter into a frenzy.

    Carter, like biden, became a victim of his own midday nightmare or sun-overhead shadow decided that the soviet move meant they were aggressive killers stretching or reaching their arms to the US-owned persian gulf.

    Coinciding with carter’s self-inflicted nightmare, his national security adviser zbigniew brzezinsky who was an anti-soviet ultrahawk almost led or shove the US into ww3 with the soviet union.

    Just days before soviet troops moved to kabul, on nov 9 1979, brzezinsky received a call from his sidekick or aide at NORAD hq.

    A worked up william odom, then a colonel at NORAD, phoned brzezinsky and said a soviet missile was heading for either washington or oregon or maybe with warheads for both.

    Then again in june 1980, odom then a general phoned brzezinsky and said 200 soviet missiles were ‘on the way.’

    A second call informed brzezinsky that ‘more missiles were in the air & coming mighty quickly.’

    Brzez was about to call carter for authorization to unleash retaliatory strikes when a third phone call said ‘sorry, false alarm.’

    Biden needs to take a hard second look at carter’s botched presidency before sending more billions of dollars of advanced weaponry to the neo-nazis in kabul city of ukraine.

  3. Walker

    December 16, 2022 at 1:13 am

    It’s nice to see Davis write about something other that Ukraine and Russia. I can almost get behind him on this article. Afghanistan was doomed to fail. But I think he is missing the bigger picture. The American military is really good at winning wars. It is winning the peace that is the issue. You can’t force a government onto people who don’t want it or don’t care about it. It is one thing to fight a military, it is another to fight a population or an insurrection.

    To win such a war requires getting the population on board to what you want. You need the population to fight the insurrection for you. You can do this by stick or carrot, but the Romans found it works best to use both. You can win in some situations where the people like your ways and see you as a liberator. But if they don’t, using a carrot only isn’t the most effective. In such cases you need to be very tough against the population to get them to be in line. And then show them the advantages of doing so. It still takes time, effort and a lot of money. But the US is not really capable of such a feat. Using the stick is just not something we consider as acceptable methods. And for good reason, but that does limit the type of engagements we should stick our noses in or define what our goals are. In the case of Afghanistan, we should have just went in, wiped out the taliban and Al Qaida and left. Go to the locals and say. “Here you go.” Government if you can keep it. Would we have to go in again every so often if the Taliban take over? Maybe, but that is where we are now after years of trying to occupy a country that didn’t want our help and billions spent trying to do so.

    These are all lessons we should have learned by now.

  4. Commentar

    December 16, 2022 at 5:39 am

    Where did it all begin or start, this wretched botched experience or descent into hell.

    It all began when George h w bush proclaimed his delicious new world order.

    From 1991 to today, the US has been involved in starting 250 wars and conflicts, little known places, hellholes, oil-rich places and territories right next to rival nations.

    250+ conflicts.

    The result is the global blooming of terror groups, many of them taught firsthand by CIA and its various associates/brothers-in-arms,
    including NATO field task forces, foreign intelligence agencies like ISI and SAS.

    Last year, 23,000 individuals died in 8,000 terror attacks, many of the incidents inspired by US CIA tactics like using remote-control devices and/or attracted by persistent presence of US military personnel and advisers.

    The descent into hell clearly has been authored in Washington, as a chaos-filled world is just the perfect fertile ground to extend or impose US global influence.

  5. Neil Ross

    December 16, 2022 at 6:17 am

    “The most crucial lesson that America needs to take from the fiasco of our August withdrawal: don’t fight wars we can’t win and don’t need to fight.”

    Some readers no doubt will attempt to draw an analogy with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and whether or not Moscow (or Washington) will arrive at the same conclusion. Not entirely appropriate, I would think, given the number of Russian speaking people in the areas currently occupied by Russia. Time will only tell how that conflict will play out. And no doubt history will repeat itself in the future.

  6. HMark

    December 16, 2022 at 6:47 am

    Afghanistan, the historical cemetery of imperialist fantasy. Our own National wealth consumed there, our own dead, damaged and maimed personnel have contributed empirical data to that pyre.

  7. Dan Jensen

    December 16, 2022 at 8:50 am

    Calling it predictable is excising gross negligence which resulted in the death of many service people.

    It was a national disgrace and served to symbolize America’s rapid decline as a credible world power.

  8. TheDon

    December 16, 2022 at 8:50 am

    Just a way to spend money to politicians who will make no changes. Must need a new car. The ukrainians are fighting back. The afganistan people can’t unless our troops are there? Karzi made his choice. Deal with it.

  9. David Chang

    December 16, 2022 at 9:29 am

    God bless people in the world.

    Sir, you say: Why Should American Soldiers Die For Taiwan??

    At the time you cite some untrue news and reports, but your conclusion is right, and United States should make right policy based on the real situation and justice of God.

    The real situation in Taiwan Province is that we are living in one-China, mainland China and Taiwan Province belong to one-China in history. Because most people believe in socialism and evolution, so most people help Communist Party to occupy mainland China, and parts of China administered by two governments. The civil war of Republic of China in 20th century is part of socialism warfare, just like German, Vietnam, Korea, Afghan, Iraq, and Ukraine. Even more in Africa.

    And the thought of people in Taiwan Province is the same as people in Europe Union, Vietnam, Japan, Korea, Afghan, Iraq, Ukraine, and Africa. Most of the people don’t obey ten commandments, they believe socialism and evolution, even they rely on America soldiers, but they don’t fight by themselves. The more the U.S. military talk about their powerful military, the more most people rely on U.S. military. U.S. military officers ask Congress for the defense budget they deserve, but most people laugh at U.S. military as greed.

    General Mattis say the present China is like the Ming Dynasty of China, but what he don’t say is that people in the Ming Dynasty of China against one another, betray other, and destroy their own because they don’t Ten Commandments.

    So how do we win the next socialism warfare with the existing military in Asia or Africa?

    God bless America.

  10. Jim

    December 16, 2022 at 11:45 am

    Taking out or disrupting Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan didn’t require a full-on invasion… but with the outrages of 911… most Americans were on board, including myself at the time.

    Little known at the time & beyond, the Pentagon already had an invasion plan in the books… due to the view that the Taliban was incorrigible regarding certain objectives the Bush administration had toward Afghanistan.

    That required an occupation & pacification.

    Americans never knew that… they just thought revenge and get Osama bin Laden… understandably so.

    Afghanistan is a de-centralized tribal society… that had defeated the British & Russians in the late 19th Century… very tough & independent tribal people.

    Centralized government had always been tenuous, even under the King in the early 1970’s.

    To do “Nation Building” was bound to have problems.

    But Bush assured Americans it could be done.

    Why?… because Democracy was Universal… if Afghanistan didn’t have democracy… America’s democracy wasn’t safe… “they hate us for our freedoms.”

    I didn’t know the following until many years later:

    The claim that democracy is Universal and our democracy wasn’t safe with the existence of non-democracies is a Trotskyite trope.

    That’s right… Trotskyite… “Socialism isn’t safe until all big bad Capitalists are defeated.”

    American is the “Universal Nation”… is a way-station for this Trotskyite thinking. Yes, the intellectual justification for neocons was a Trotskyite construct… no surprise given that many neoconservatives originally were Trotskyite thinkers.

    This mind-set took over many, unbeknown to them.

    Even a Conservative like Victor David Hanson got sucked into this mind-set.

    Trokskyism was wrong about Socialism, it was Democracy and it’s wrong about quote “Freedom” unquote.

    “America doesn’t go searching for monsters to destroy” — John Quincy Adams

    It is still wise counsel, today.

    Trotskyites are wrong.

  11. Goran

    December 16, 2022 at 11:48 am

    Davis: “The most crucial lesson that America needs to take from the fiasco of our August withdrawal: don’t fight wars we can’t win and don’t need to fight.”

    Absolutely. That is why the U.S. should not participate militarily in Ukraine for example. It is not a war that the U.S. need to take an active part in. However, it is a great opportunity to showcase the American defense industry to potential buyers across the globe and if Ukrainians are given a good deal when provided these systems, everyone wins. Except perhaps Putin.

    It would also be a great way to get rid of hundreds of aging F16s, you let Ukrainians show the rest of the world how they can be integrated in any given nation’s air force, Ukrainians benefit, the U.S. benefits, potential buyers benefit from a real-time presentation. Trifecta.

  12. GhostTomahawk

    December 16, 2022 at 12:52 pm

    Daniel Lewis, you’re an idiot.

    They want to see why the WITHDRAWL was so bungled. Nothing more. Morons like you overcomplicate things so truth never sees the light of day.

    Why did the military run like cowards and leave our civilians behind? Why did the military flee like cowards abandoning billions in assets for our enemies and China to utilize against us?

    We need answers to this. This was a planned tactical withdrawal. Unfortunately, as long as the democrats control the senate and Barack Obamas people are controlling the white house we will never learn the truth.

    But the GOP might as well do their made for TV event and torpedo the DNCs next loser they’re going to impose on their voting base.

  13. Jim

    December 16, 2022 at 5:39 pm

    Ghost, the military did what they were ordered.

    Ask Biden the ‘whys’ because that’s where the order came from… as I remember, there were rumors the Joint Chiefs of Staff advised against an abrupt withdrawal (but I don’t for sure what happened, nobody does… except Biden and his closest advisers).

    So Biden gave the order to withdraw… the buck stops with him… period. And those who advised him to engage in an abrupt withdrawal are not likely to willingly come forth and volunteer their reasons… for why they advised him, as they did.

    Sure, I’d like an explanation, too… I think most Americans would like an explanation… the ‘whys’ are important.

    But lashing out at the author of the present article won’t get the answers you want.

  14. JBones

    December 16, 2022 at 5:41 pm

    Wow, I was starting to worry about the messiah of the “Russia is really winning” club. He’s been awfully quiet lately! While I don’t agree with him about the Ukraine War, I’m sincerely glad he’s okay.

  15. aaall

    December 16, 2022 at 6:35 pm

    If the cake was baked by 2010 and Pompeo/Trump basically surrendered in 2020, and our idiotic Senate rules allowed Republicans to slow walk State and Defense appointments in 2021 how could the result have turned out better. “Botched” assumes a materially better result was possible.

  16. Yrral

    December 17, 2022 at 9:15 am

    Ukraine is just as corrupt as Afghanistan,you figure what will also happen ,we armed Afghanistan against Russia,then occupied Afghanistan,sound familiar with Ukraine

  17. Goran

    December 17, 2022 at 11:53 am

    The major difference between assisting Afghanistan vs assisting Ukraine is the capacity of civil society to transform itself into a modern democracy. Unfortunately, tribal politics still feature prominently in Afghanistan while Ukraine can be shaped into a strong democracy with limited corruption as it adopts needed reforms on its EU membership path. With that in mind, and not requiring U.S. troops on the ground, there are zero arguments to compare Afghanistan and Ukraine in this context. Ukraine is already a success story, its population has made a decision to adopt modern norms and even as many may still die, Ukrainians will not be Moscow’s bitches ever again. The only unknown is how many more people have to die before Putin understands that.

  18. Arash

    December 17, 2022 at 1:14 pm

    “Ugly Afghanistan Withdrawal”

    Also known as decisive defeat!

    America’s explicit goal in Afghanistan was to remove Taliban and yet Taliban is still in charge. This is as clear cut defeat as any in human history and yet even this more open minded American author cannot bring himself to admit that and instead is playing with words.

    America is militarily defeated in Afghanistan and wider Middle East and that is on top of cultural and Civilizational defeat it has suffered pretty much everywhere.

    When most other people look at the US these days they see nothing but an empire that doesn’t want to let go of it’s hegemony and has nothing to offer to them anymore but bullying and degeneracy.

    Even American people Themselves are increasingly more and more dissatisfied with the state of affairs in the US. From state/corporate censorship to constant onslaught on American traditional values as well as European stock that made that country.

  19. Jim

    December 17, 2022 at 2:01 pm

    Troskyite thinking claims to be “Universal,” whether for Socialism, Democracy, or ‘Freedom’.

    None of the above ideas are safe until it’s opposite is totally defeated… according to Troskyism.

    This idea came to the United States through Neoconservatism.

    The Neoconservatives worked to inculcate this ideology across a broad swath of American thought via the idea the U. S. is the “Universal Nation.”

    One of the avenues of creating this mind-set in America is through Universal Nation’s ideological cousin… American Exceptionalism.

    “… We’re so special we have to impose our specialness on everybody else… whether they want it or not.”

    (Did you know Stalin was the first person who coined the term “exceptionalism” as applied to America in order to mock or ridicule the United States… hard to believe, today, but it’s true.)

    To make the world all one ideology or condition is a never ending quest which can never be satisfied… unless you rule the world… there will always be nation-states that don’t measure up to the purity of an ideological construct.

    That’s the key.

    Neoconservatism is really a fig leaf or facade for dominating the world… ruling the world.

    Our republic (and our individual rights enshrined in the Constitution) is not well suited to rule the world… it takes an Empire… all have fallen at the end of the day.

    Empires tend to treat their subjects the same as foreigners without distinction (there are echoes of that with the present day open borders situation where non-citizens get the same benefits as citizens).

    Don’t fall for the “Universal Nation” pitch… it’s the opening justification for the U. S. ruling the world.

    It’s a dressed up & camouflaged version of Trotskyism.

  20. Goran

    December 17, 2022 at 8:05 pm

    Jim: “Neoconservatism is really a fig leaf or facade for dominating the world… ruling the world.”

    Ordinary Afghan citizens watched in horror as the U.S. withdrew, and some even tried to cling on to the last departing planes out of Kabul. The American role in Afghanistan can hardly be portrayed as an attempt to dominate and rule if the average Moe tried to get his kids to leave with departing forces.

  21. David Chang

    December 17, 2022 at 10:11 pm

    God bless people in the world.

    People who oppose Mr. Davis, why do you want to murder people only but forget morality?

    The democracy and progress that Presbyterian, Frankfurt School, Ivy League, and Democratic Party talk about are the democracy and progress that Ancient Greek, Society of the Jacobins, Communist Party and Nazis talk about.

    But the meaning of democracy progress is not obeying Ten Commandments, so people who believe democracy and progress cause the people trade and wars in Africa, Europe, Asia, and America from ancient to the present.

    Because people murder people, we have to help other peoples.
    But people should confess and repent to God humbly.

    So peace agreement between America, Europe, Russia, and Ukraine is not as good as Abraham Accords, or Moses Accords, or Jesus Accords.

    Even each people is professor, doctor, police, soldier, lawyer, judge, or king, but we are under God. The judgements of God are always true and righteous all together.

    God bless America.

  22. Jim

    December 18, 2022 at 12:54 pm

    Goran, it’s not the withdrawal (I didn’t approve of the way we ended up withdrawing… but I didn’t get a say).

    Goran, I suppose you wanted to stay in perpetuity… indefinitely?

    The issue is that we went into Afghanistan without an exit plan and ended up in a failed Nation Building exercise, wasting lives (American & Afghanistan) and money for twenty years.

    And, yes, the occupation & pacification of a foreign country is an example of Neoconservative thought & agenda.

    As it turned out, there were pie-in-the-sky schemes about mining various minerals and oil & Gas transit pipelines from Central Asia… rule the world type schemes… neocon schemes.

    Bush didn’t give a fig about the ordinary Afghanistan or even the ordinary American soldier.

    Bush & Cheney were motivated by neocon ideas of dominating Central Asia… pure power politics…

    Pure neocon pap… and look what it got us.

    An extraction or disruption of Al Qaeda and the terror networks in an identified and limited time-line with an exit strategy would have avoided all the death…

    Goran, your weak justification makes me think you’re either a Neoconservative or a simple, weak-minded warmonger… always sucking up the lies people tell you.

    Sounds like you’ll be a cheerleader for whatever war neocons cook up next in their scheming, fevered brains… every time the idea comes up.

    Falling for the same lies neocons tell over and over… about how noble and high-minded their ideas are.

    Remember, when you see a neocon move their lips… you know they’re lying… they want to rule the world.

    Be better than a bellicose simpleton who wants to rule the world… remember, you, personally, won’t have any say at all… no matter how badly it goes.

  23. Goran

    December 18, 2022 at 7:21 pm

    “I suppose you wanted to stay in perpetuity… indefinitely?”

    No, tribal mechanics are too entrenched in that society and the withdrawal was unfortunately inevitable even as the secondary goals were not achieved. However, my point is that making a parallel between Afghanistan and Ukraine doesn’t work, as Ukrainians don’t expect us to protect them, all they are asking for are tools to defend themselves. How is providing defensive capabilities to a UN member state an evidence of the supposed American desire to dominate the world?

  24. Jim

    December 19, 2022 at 9:22 am

    Goran, the article is about Afghanistan, so my comments are directed @ Afghanistan… a perfect example of neocon thinking and action.

    And neocon failure… have there been any admissions from neocons about Afghanistan? Not that I’m aware of, and that’s par for the course… they never admit their failures… indeed, they probably don’t see it as a failure because they got their “Regime Change” operation and spent a whole lot of money… dead American soldiers is just a cost of doing business in their world-view.

    However, since you bring it up, with Ukraine it’s not a snap shot in time, but the culmination of a 30 year project… the U. S. senate has known of this project and supported it all along… without telling the American People.

    If members of the U. S. Senate had the courage of their convictions… they would have told Americans of their plans… a public debate… at least would put it on the table.

    Although, that certainly would have tipped off the Russians… can’t have that can we.

  25. Yrral

    December 20, 2022 at 9:34 am

    Goran, when have the US ever turn a whore like Ukraine into a housewife, Zelensky is corrupt to the core,

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