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Afghanistan: The Avoidable 20-Year Disaster

120322-M-PH863-005 U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Leobardo Nunez provides security during a census patrol through a village near Khan Neshin, Afghanistan, on March 22, 2012. Nunez is an infantry automatic rifleman assigned to Alpha Company, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion. DoD photo by Cpl. Alfred V. Lopez, U.S. Air Force. (Released)

The Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR) released a report on Monday that laid bare many of the reasons for the spectacular collapse in August 2021 of America’s 20-year war in Afghanistan. The 148-page report provides exhaustive evidence of the many and compounding reasons for our failure, but the one cause that was not mentioned may have been the most critical: a whole-of-government arrogance in Washington.

It is crucial to understand that the debacle of August 2021, when the Afghan government and military dissolved before the Taliban’s advance  — and our two-decade war of frustration crashed into inglorious failure — was not merely the result of U.S. President Joe Biden bungling the withdrawal. Our disaster started within months of the war’s onset and persisted all the way to the final exit.

The new SIGAR report, signed by Inspector General John Sopko, continues the exceptional analysis and reporting of ground truth in Afghanistan that SIGAR began with their first report in October 2008. In that report, SIGAR’s first Inspector General, Maj. Gen. Arnold Fields, ominously warned that “the task of reconstruction in Afghanistan is an exceedingly difficult and complex issue.” That message, which if anything was an understatement, appears to have been vastly misjudged by every administration from George W. Bush through to Biden.

There are few who argue with Bush’s original decision to use military power in October 2001, as the Taliban had willingly provided aid and comfort to Osama bin Laden, the self-confessed architect of the 9/11 terrorist attacks against the United States. Bush’s initial military mission was appropriate, measured, and achievable: “These carefully targeted actions are designed,” the president said on Oct. 7, 2001, “to disrupt the use of Afghanistan as a terrorist base of operations, and to attack the military capability of the Taliban regime.” 

That mission was effectively accomplished by the spring of 2002, when the Taliban had been destroyed as a viable political entity and al-Qaeda was so severely damaged that it never regained its pre-war power. Bush had a golden opportunity in the summer of 2002 to order an end to the military mission, withdraw the troops, and transition to a diplomatic and humanitarian mission. There was no armed or organized opposition. The Afghan people themselves could have formed a new government of their choosing, in line with their historical and cultural norms.

There was never a better, more secure, or more ideal set of circumstances for a country with time and international backing to form a new government than what existed that summer. But here is where Washington’s hubris entered the picture. Instead of trusting these people to do the hard work necessary to govern themselves, we decided they were not capable and needed our help to get there. 

First, we kept our military force on the ground and directed every aspect of the forming of a government in Kabul. Americans took the lead in designing the country’s Constitution — one more in line with American culture than Afghan culture, helping to ensure its eventual failure. Unfortunately, that was only the first major failure. Others immediately followed.

Many in the Western world wanted to prove that democracy — in line with Western ideals and values — could be built anywhere and was in fact based on “universal values,” and they were eager to see their theories proven in Afghanistan. My first combat tour to the country came in 2005-2006. During that time I observed that the U.S.-led military mission was joined with numerous civilian agencies, USAID, and international aid groups — but their focus was on helping the Afghan government, military, and civil society to behave more like a Western democracy.

Apparently aware the effort was foundering, Bush changed the mission a year after my tour ended. On Feb. 15, 2007, Bush addressed the nation and gave a rousing speech, frequently interrupted by applause, on the future of Afghanistan. Bush announced he was asking Congress for $11.8 billion “to help this young democracy survive.” Then he made the fateful decision: “I’ve ordered an increase in U.S. forces in Afghanistan. We’ve extended the stay of 3,200 troops now in the country, for four months, and we’ll deploy a replacement force that will sustain this increase for the foreseeable future.”

When I returned for my second combat deployment in Afghanistan in 2010-2011, I was shocked by how much the country had deteriorated since my previous deployment. It was painfully clear that our policies had not merely failed to improve the situation, but had made things worse. I observed then that our military and civilian leaders were being dishonest about conditions, always promising that with a new strategy or new approach things would be different. They never were. 

Arrogance prevented our leaders from acknowledging patent reality, directly laying the foundation for our military failure.

In his just-released report, Sopko details the many mistakes made by the Obama, Trump, and Biden administrations, all of which seemed to build on each other, and I highly recommend reading that entire report. But the common denominator to all the failures Sopko highlights in the military, diplomatic, economic, and governance fields, was the hubris of American policymakers and generals. 

Their stubborn refusal to recognize the plans they had made were faulty, the turning of a blind eye to the reality that their plans weren’t succeeding, and their collective unwillingness to admit the truth, directly contributed to the 20-year debacle in Afghanistan. If we as a people fail to learn that lesson, if we fail to hold any military or civilian leader accountable for such avoidable failure, the chances are high we will see a harmful repeat in the future. 

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. Jim

    March 1, 2023 at 10:40 am

    The LESSON: nation building is almost always doomed to failure.

    At this point, Ukraine is a nation building exercise.

    You say, “No, it was already built, we’re just protecting it.”

    But look at the situation, at this point, without our support, the country would crumble. We’re paying for everything; salaries, pensions, food stuffs and military. Ukraine depends entirely on U. S. largess and would crumble without it…

    Everybody knows that.

    In addition Ukraine is corrupt on a level equal to or greater than Afghanistan or Iraq… is a pattern emerging?

    At this point, no matter what happens on the battlefield, the U. S. will be pumping money into Ukraine for the foreseeable future if not indefinitely…

    Ukraine will not be an independent, self-supporting country for decades… if ever.

    That’s the definition of FOREVER WAR… forever nation-building and a forever bottomless money pit… throwing good money into a rat hole… of futility… and ultimately, frustration… just like Afghanistan & Iraq.

    The arrogance… throw money at the problem… and it will work out… “I promise.”

    No, it will not… it will only drain our treasury, our credibility, and our standing in the world.

    Ukraine is the Iraq/Afghanistan redux of our time.

    Haven’t we learned our lesson… apparently not.

    Charlie Brown, Lucy, and the football, all over again.

    And the same frustration upon landing on our butt.

    But some people chuckle and say to themselves, “There’s a sucker born every minute.” … as they pocket your money… and walk away.

    Now, Zelensky, in an interview, is suggesting American boots on the ground are not far behind.

    Wake up!

  2. David Chang

    March 1, 2023 at 11:50 am

    God bless people in the world.

    “Universal values” is just like the religious thoughts of Kant, Hegel, Feuerbach, and Karl Marx, and Adolf Hitler. This is also the ancient Greek and Roman philosophy, ancient people think that people have value or price, but they opposed morality, so ancient Greece and Roman people think that they could claim certain rights to other people, which is also slavery in ancient Greece and Roman.

    So the Democrats-Republican party violate Ten Commandments,
    and Lincoln say: the judgements of LORD are always true and righteous all together.

    God created us, and we live in the grace of God, so we should not think of ourselves as some kind of value.

    God bless America.

  3. Andrew M Winter

    March 1, 2023 at 11:52 am

    Another Absurd Headline.

    What disaster is that? The one in which the United States Military got 20 years of practice in dealing with a foreign people in their own backyard with loss rates vastly lower than the loss rates BACK IN THE UNITED STATES to:

    Deaths due to DRIVING
    Deaths due to SWIMING
    Deaths due to ALCOHOL
    Deaths due to ALOCOHOL and DRIVING
    Deaths due to ALOCOHOL and SWIMING

    Can we PLEASE stop trying to make everything on the US does into a disaster or even a mistake! There is one thing the US gained out that that can not be priced at all.

    The ability to conduct HUMINT! We were there long enough to establish family connections locally. Many Senior NCOs had to refuse offers of arranged marriages in Afghanistan.

    Because the US did NOT try wage all out war as in Vietnam, the US earned respect there. THAT is worth every thing the US paid to stay there 20 years or even more had our feckless President not tucked his tail under and run like a frightened little child crying for his mommy.

  4. HAT451

    March 1, 2023 at 1:46 pm

    The job of military action is to neutralize threats to the USA. Attempting to build a nation, which does not have a Judeo-Christian foundation is like trying to build a skyscraper without a foundation. The first breeze and it topples. The nation building, consisted of coalition force nations in Afghanistan attempting to impose Western 21st century values on religious theocracy that mandated their society should remain in the 11th century.

    I agree with the author, in 2002, once those who supported the attack on America on 9/11 were no longer in power we should of left, with a stern statement, that if we were ever struck again, we would return, and this time we would return, to kick “arse” and not take any names. This was a situation where fear of us returning should our security is threatened or breached is a much more effective deterrent, regardless of who rules Afghanistan, and under what government they choose to live. The job of our government is to keep America and Americans safe, not attempt to rebuild the world.

    As to why we stayed, consider the hundreds of billions that were spent in the middle east post 9/11 on military and reconstruction. Then consider how much of that money ended up in the pockets of lobbyist and contractors.

  5. 403Forbidden

    March 1, 2023 at 3:53 pm

    Nation-building by USA ?

    Hey, take a look at mexico which is right next door.

    Why doesn’t uncle Sam build a real one in the country of drug cartels and bloody killings before venturing far abroad.

    Afghanistan (in 2001) was deemed a very easy target for US military like how luckless strangers were regarded by samurai warriors always looking to test how sharp their swords were in feudal-era Japan.

    After end of Cold War, US powered up a treadmill of war.

    See ‘U.S. launched 251 military interventions since 1991’ to understand why Afghanistan became a shooting range target for US military.

  6. aaall

    March 1, 2023 at 4:45 pm

    Shouldn’t the loss of focus on Afghanistan and the shift to Iraq been mentioned. Nothing was going to work after that. Also, why include the Biden Administration in the Bush/Obama/Trump list? Joe had to deal with the Trump/Pompeo surrender and drawdowns. Not any good options after that.

  7. ATM

    March 1, 2023 at 6:56 pm

    On carful reading of the IG report: The most important problem that no one even wants to admit exists is US corruption in the nation building process. All the IGs as of Vietnam point it out, but there is no will to take the splinter out of our own eye. And here we go again with Ukraine. We may win the war but Ukraine will be as ugly as Afganistán in it’s own way.

  8. Tallifer

    March 2, 2023 at 8:43 am

    This article is an excellent history lesson, but it also highlights why the American support for the Ukraine shall succeed: the Ukrainians are already democratic, civilized, patriotic (instead of tribal), working to scrub out corruption, oriented toward the West, and technologically proficient. The parallels between America supporting Britain in the second world war against evil are exact.

  9. ZaSu

    March 2, 2023 at 9:09 am

    Old Generals remind of football coaches who can always tell you how tovwin any game they are asked about along with the old saying about only having a hammer which makes everything nails.
    Ask a General and he is always ready to go to war and tell you how to win….

  10. Simon Beerstecher

    March 2, 2023 at 9:18 am

    The truth is the West cannot fight wars or change countries because of our values,the very values we try to engender in others prevent us from propagating those values forcibly.Not so in China..the Uigher population is testament to a system of forced change unthinkable in the West. Sadly the last thing a war needs are Western values of human rights etc.Trying to fight wars within these parameters is just complicating and extending the pain of a backward societies own path to development.I believe in moral relativism.War has the habit of degrading both parties moral and ethical standards,it is without honour or value , war when fought can only be sucessful with “the gloves off”,our liberal ,mostly educated population is not cut out for that.We see that in Ukraine we laud Ukraines ability to fight but refuse to give them full hearted support,we need to decide one way or the other.In my view Ukraine because it is fighting for a cause on its own soil will prevail provided they are given the proper tools of war.

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