The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Kabul fell one year ago. Here are the lessons we should learn.

A destroyed structure in a former U.S. military outpost in Afghanistan's Ghazni province. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

On Aug. 16, 2021, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction released a report: “What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction.” The report was overtaken by the news, as only the day before the Afghan government had collapsed and the Taliban rapidly seized power. But one year later, it is a document — based on 13 years of work, mountains of data and more than 760 interviews — worth studying carefully.

“The U.S. government has now spent 20 years and $145 billion trying to rebuild Afghanistan,” it begins. It added up all the other costs, including $837 billion on warfighting, 3,587 U.S. and allied troops dead, no fewer than 66,000 Afghan troops dead. But, the report notes, “if the goal was to rebuild and leave behind a country that can sustain itself and pose little threat to U.S. national security interests, the overall picture is bleak.”

Why? What explains how so much energy, effort, blood and treasure yielded so little? The report lists many reasons — incoherent strategy, lack of patience, unrealistic expectations, insufficient monitoring — all of which shine a light on specific failures. One of the report’s conclusions is that U.S. goals were often contradictory. For example, the United States pumped billions of dollars into the economy while trying to end corruption. It wanted to weaken warlords and militias, yet would also rely on them when it wanted to establish security quickly. It wanted to end opium production, but not take away farmers’ incomes.

But these do not feel as if they get at the core of the problem. After its defeat in 2001, the Taliban regrouped and steadily gained ground from approximately 2005 onward. The report documents that “enemy-initiated attacks” rose from about 2,300 in 2005 to almost 23,000 in 2009, and never again dropped below 21,000, despite various changes in U.S. strategy, tactics and troop levels.

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A civilian adviser to the military on Iraq and Afghanistan, Carter Malkasian, wrote a book that I believe comes closest to providing an overarching explanation. “The Taliban exemplified something that inspired, something that made them powerful in battle, something closely tied to what it meant to be Afghan,” he wrote. “In simple terms, they fought for Islam and resistance to occupation, values enshrined in Afghan identity. Aligned with foreign occupiers, the government mustered no similar inspiration.”

The United States was the outsider, in the middle of a complex civil war in Afghanistan, and the new Afghan government was never able to gain the legitimacy it needed. It was seen as massively corrupt and utterly reliant on America — and both charges were true. When a government has internal legitimacy — think of Ukraine today — foreigners can help it effectively. But when it lacks internal strength and support, outside help often weakens its credibility.

To that, one can add all kinds of other important reasons. The Taliban had sanctuary in Pakistan. Historically, it has been virtually impossible to defeat a well-armed insurgency that has a haven in a neighboring country. Americans don’t understand foreign countries and cultures. The Iraq War was a massive distraction. U.S. agencies sometimes worked at cross purposes with one another. And so on.

But there is another important lesson for America: the dangers of not looking at reality carefully and succumbing to groupthink. For a long time, Washington’s elites saw Afghanistan as the “good war,” morally justified and sanctioned by the United Nations. People were invested in believing that it was working, and many blinded themselves to evidence that it wasn’t.

The military is often very clear-eyed about a conflict, but once in the fight and given a task, it will provide a stream of reports that prove it is succeeding. In Vietnam, it was body counts of the enemy dead. In Afghanistan, it was the growing numbers of the Afghan National Army (which turned out to be massively inflated). Despite his flaws in executing a withdrawal, Joe Biden, as a senator and vice president, was one of the few people in power willing to ask uncomfortable questions and look beyond the happy talk.

In an intelligent essay in the Atlantic, Gen. David H. Petraeus takes stock of the war and argues that America’s “foundational mistake” in Afghanistan was a “lack of commitment.” He is right at one level. There was clearly an ebb and flow in U.S. support, but it is worth noting that the United States stayed fighting in Afghanistan longer than the British during the three Anglo-Afghan Wars combined. It stayed twice as long as the Soviet Union did in the late 1970s and ’80s.

In his new book on the 20-year war, “The Fifth Act: America’s End in Afghanistan,” Elliot Ackerman notes that most of what the United States built in Afghanistan was made of plywood, a metaphor for our hesitation about the mission. Contrast that with the British, who would arrive in a country and quickly build stone monuments to symbolize their enduring empire.

I suspect that America will always be ambivalent — the plywood imperialist.