Post #308: The Afghanistan Debacle

An audio version of this blog is available at:

Over a nearly twenty-year period, the war in Afghanistan is estimated to have cost about $2.2 trillion and resulted in over 240,000 deaths, military and civilian, on all sides.  (I’ve put the relevant charts below from the Costs of War Project at the Watson Institute, BrownAUniversity.)  Now, as we watch the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan, we may pause—as we did on Vietnam in 1975—to wonder how things could have gone so badly after such an extraordinary investment of blood and treasure.  But in truth there’s no reason to wonder: Precisely because of the defeat in Vietnam, the underlying reasons for the Afghanistan debacle should have been anticipated, in fact were identified years ago, and should have dictated nonintervention or early withdrawal. We were warned, but presidents from George W. Bush to Donald Trump chose to continue the intervention just as presidents during the Vietnam war chose, despite numerous signs of failure in conception and not merely in execution. 

I’m just one observer, and far from the most expert, but I did note the warning signs some time ago. In October 2015 I wrote (Post #96, “We are now witness in Afghanistan to the same scenario US presidents confronted in Vietnam: public lies, private doubts.  While the US military is reassuring the public that Afghan forces are up to the task of defeating the Taliban, the situation on the ground is anything but reassuring.  Afghan government forces are in retreat, the ISIS organization in Afghanistan (many are former Taliban) is expanding operations, al Qaeda and Taliban forces remain strong, and US drone strikes continue to hit civilian targets.  The ‘endless war’ [Obama] sought to avoid is a reality—something he should have foreseen, and for all we know did foresee, years ago.”  But rather than withdraw from Afghanistan in the face of looming defeat, Obama did what Lyndon Johnson did in Vietnam: He increased US forces.

When the Washington Post published what it calls the “Afghanistan Papers” at the end of 2019, based on interviews that included many US civilian and military officials, we learned that the roots of failure had been widely known.  For example, John F. Sopko, who in 2014 served as special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, told the House foreign affairs committee that U.S. officials have routinely lied to the public throughout the war.  They exaggerated Taliban casualties, understated Afghan military success, and massaged data to show gains in Afghans’ education and health care— even though they “knew the data was bad.” “There’s an odor of mendacity throughout the Afghanistan issue . . . mendacity and hubris,” Sopko said in testimony. . .  “The problem is there is a disincentive, really, to tell the truth. We have created an incentive to almost require people to lie” (Washington Post, January 14, 2020).  And what US officials didn’t lie about, they classified, said Sopko: “It turns out that everything that is bad news has been classified for the last few years,” referring to the Trump administration (

I summarized the Afghanistan Papers in Post #250 (  Official lying and data manipulation are just two of the elements of decision making failure that are strikingly similar to what I found in the Pentagon Papers.  Among them:

  • Unwarranted optimism
  • Confusion of activity (money and projects) with impact
  • Lack of clarity about what winning means
  • Persistence in believing in nation building
  • Prioritizing military over economic and social needs
  • Failing to reflect on basic assumptions
  • Americanization of “their” war.

Jason Lyall, a Dartmouth professor and military historian, wrote: “In short, the tragedy revealed in the Afghanistan Papers was not only predictable but predicted. The bulk of our evidence points to the inevitable conclusion that failure, not success, should be the expected outcome for ambitious nation-building and counterinsurgency campaigns.”  True enough, but the failure goes deeper than that, and it has to do with American exceptionalism and hubris at the highest levels.  As Robert McNamara observed, years too late, in his memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam:

We did not recognize that neither our people nor our leaders are omniscient. Where our own security is not directly at stake, our judgment of what is in another people’s or country’s best interest should be put to the test of open discussion in international forums. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose.

Joe Biden will likely pay the political price for the failure of his predecessors to confront those disorders.

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  1. As someone who was involved personally in Afghanistan from 1988 to 1992, serving also as the Personal Representative of the Secretary-General in Afghanistan and Pakistan, I could not agree more with the views expressed by you my dear friend Mel. It breaks my heart to see the long suffering Afghan people subjected to all the most tragic developments. For too long they have been the victims of the proxy wars conducted by others in Afghanistan.

    1. Greatly appreciated, Benon. You have the valuable experience of having served in Afghanistan, so the pain you feel for the people is palpable. It’s most unfortunate that Biden et al. have chosen to blame the Afghans for not fighting harder when, as you say, they are victims.

  2. Mel,

    Strategists should gather to muse & recommend alternative Afghanistan scenarios. I am relieved this morning, not anxious. You are my remaining friend who is also strategically-oriented.

    Biden will speak within the hour. I would like him to say:

    My Fellow Americans,

    This evening I value your attention. For twenty years our nation has fought along side Afghan servicemen and civilians to suppress terrorists and the Taliban. Today we are in the final phase of withdrawing from that conflict after negotiating a settlement initiated by the prior Administration.

    The chaos of withdrawal evident on television networks appears tragic. However the process underway is one more episode in the ongoing political process transferring governing authority to the Taliban. Our negotiations the past two years envisaged the transfer, our military partner did not expect a precipitous change of governance.

    This will soon pass. I have instructed our military to modify their mission in view of changes on the ground to minimize casualties and continue evacuation of our allies and provide assistance to Afghans seeking our help. The situation is fluid, I expect to consolidate this withdrawal with our allies, both international and in Afghanistan in the coming days.

    Consistent with my previous statements…….


    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Mel, I agree, of course, with your basic analysis but feel the conclusion– “open discussion in international forums”– is “pissing in the wind” (or do I mean “blowing in the wind” as they used to say.)
    You quote John Sopko, the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan, someone I’ve known personally for 25 years as an indefatigable investigator and fearless truth teller,. His group made 52 very detailed and largely actionable public quarterly reports to Congress, trailed the money, published investigations of generals and lesser mortals concerning sugaring evaluations of war efforts, had boots on the ground in Afghanistan, and drew ongoing “lessons learned”. The website documents it all. .
    But, SO WHAT?? Was there a Fulbright or Morse or Mansfield who took up the case? Was there a regular protest in Lafayette Park or downtown Milwaukee? Hardly a peep.
    What’s amazing to me is that we’re out after a mere 20 years. If the drone manufacturers and their ilk had tried a little harder, I’m pretty sure they could have prolonged the suffering even more. Once we’re in, it’s too late.

    1. Thanks for citing the crucial SIGAR project. As you say, “once we’re in, it’s too late.” I was just reading Steve Coll’s interview in the New Yorker that calls for a “sustained, smaller deployment” rather than withdrawal. That’s nonsense, but very much within the Vietnam Syndrome of believing that continued warfare will lead to a “better” outcome, especially if nobody notices.

  4. Another excellent post, Mel. Thank you. And also thanks to the commentators who have responded with additional observations. So what’s left? One predictable political response for sure: “Who lost Afghanistan?” Yes, the specter of China Past returns and will needlessly haunt our nation seeking negative publicity to enrich future elections. —GLEN.

  5. Dear Mel:

    As a combat veteran of the Vietnam war, I am heartsick at all the waste: the lives lost; the wounded; the refugees you name it… .

  6. Mel, I agree 100 percent but also ID a more basic cause – the insatiable need for the care and feeding of the war industry and contractors. Every 10 years we can expect a new threat that will justify a new mobilization.

    Sent from my iPhone


  7. Hi Mel:

    Great post, as usual. But I wish to build on this, in an email I was about to send to David Harries.

    Your third paragraph nails the problem of politicians everywhere, especially authoritarians, who play up the

    positives (real or hoped for) and ignore the negatives that reflect on their leadership. For straight-shooting,

    we rely on intelligence analysts, political scientists, journalists, and others with no fear of speaking out,

    and the risk of being called a far-out worry-monger.

    But there is a larger problem of not embracing the very worst scenario, frequently adjusted. I started

    to think about this when watching an interview with Admiral James Stavritus a couple days ago, when the

    interviewer asked if the military had a worst-case scenario for Taliban takeover. Stavritus replied that they

    did have such a scenario, depicting takeover in 9-12 months (if I remember correctly, although possibly less,

    but you get the idea). As repeated by many observers in the past few days, no one had any idea that the

    takeover would be done in nine or ten days. What is missing is a Very Worst Case Scenario frequently adjusted

    to reflect dynamic reality. But this is not confined to the military and Afghanistan.

    I can think of three other cases of under-estimating that should be considered:

    – COVID-19: I’m familiar with all or most scenarios (including three extensive ones by several long-time futurists)

    that did not consider something like the Delta variant and anti-vax sentiment by a substantial part of the public

    and by several state governors (and that’s in the US). Delta is still getting a grip on the former “developing” world

    (esp. SE Asia), and what about a post-Delta variant that is even worse and cannot be stopped by present vaccines?

    – Climate Change: John Holdren of Harvard has recently noted that all estimates of climate change have

    fallen short of what is really taking place now. I agree.

    – The Jan 6 Insurrection. No one imaged that such an event could happen, despite intelligence that something was


    So what to do?

    – Mike

    PS: During lunch, I read a review of The Long Game (Oxford U P, Aug 2021, 432p) in The Economist (7-31-21, p.69), by Rush Doshi of the Brookings Institution

    and advisor to Biden on his National Security Council, who argues that China’s grand strategy “aims to achieve global supremacy by 2049, when the

    Communist Party hopes to celebrate 100 years in power.” Seems overly cautious to me, and that China will clearly be in the lead by 2029. Autocracy and

    4x the US population have a huge advantage; the US and UK are too polarized to accomplish much, with big bucks regressives blocking or canceling progressives.

    Your comments? DH? MS?

    1. Thanks, Mike. I certainly agree that failure to consider very-worst-case thinking is a problem, and it’s probably a universal disorder. Bureaucracies engaged in developing options typically don’t want to displease the boss with calamitous projections, so even the “worst case” isn’t too far removed from the (preferred) middle option of carrying on. As for the China prediction of 2049, I don’t buy it and I think it’s careless. Like so many of its kind, it slights China’s many domestic weaknesses, from environment to repression, as well as potential adverse repercussions from presumed great plans such as the Belt and Road Initiative. I have no predictions about 2049 or 2029 or even 2022. But I see a Chinese leadership with many worries about security, and not one unconstrained and on the march. It’s my next book subject, just so happens.

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