Taken together, those interviewed paint a picture of senior political and military leaders as either systematically deluded or intentionally misleading others about both the true costs and consequences of the U.S.’s longest war and of the odds of eventual victory. The butcher’s bill is staggering: an estimated 43,000 Afghan civilians killed, surely an undercount, along with more than 45,000 Afghan soldiers and police, approximately 42,100 Taliban fighters, 2,300 U.S. military personnel, 3,814 U.S. contractors and 1,145 NATO and coalition troops. The financial toll for the United States has now exceeded $1 trillion.
Yet none of these revelations are surprising. The title suggests that these are modern-day Pentagon Papers — the encyclopedic 43-volume history that documented a systematic campaign of lying about progress in Vietnam. That’s unfortunate. The actual Pentagon Papers were highly classified volumes smuggled from Rand; the Afghanistan Papers, by contrast, are based on SIGAR reports already publicly available. Many, if not all, of those interviewed have already published their thoughts on the war elsewhere. Scores of journalists have also worked in Afghanistan, providing rich accounts of electoral fraud, corruption, human rights abuses, battlefield setbacks and failed reconstruction. In short, if you’re surprised by the Afghanistan Papers, you haven’t been paying attention.
Scholars, too, have been sounding the alarm for years. Many of the issues reflected in the Afghanistan Papers have been long-standing subjects of active research. Here are five issues where attention to scholarly research would have improved decision-making.
1. Know your enemy.
Many of those interviewed express frustration that the United States did not understand the Taliban or its motives for fighting. Without this knowledge, U.S. forces couldn’t establish a coherent strategy or metrics for progress.
Yet scholars know a great deal about the Taliban’s organizational structure, its propaganda, its ideology, its efforts to govern locally and how it deals with civilians. All this evidence points to a far more resilient, and far stronger, foe than the one found in official statements. The Taliban has proved capable of enforcing order within its ranks, of quashing leadership challenges and of adapting to Western tactics. Policymakers pinned their hopes on the mistaken belief that the Taliban would crack under sustained bombing and military operations. But the Taliban was built to take losses while eroding government control of targeted districts. In hoping to destroy the Taliban, policymakers missed the opportunity to enter negotiations with the Taliban at a far earlier (and more favorable) stage.
2. Aid doesn't win hearts and minds.
Scholars have increasingly turned their attention to evaluating wartime aid and its presumed ability to win over hearts and minds from a population without strong political leanings. While research continues, an emerging consensus has found that large-scale reconstruction efforts provide at best only middling economic and political returns. They often work only in the safest areas, not a conflict’s front lines.
Smaller, more tailored aid programs have a better record of success, even during conflict. Yet these small, less expensive projects were typically sidelined in favor of massive aid packages in the service of a theory of victory unlikely to ever create a stable Afghanistan.
3. Building successful armies is really, really hard.
Interviewees repeatedly blame Afghan soldiers and police for their inability and unwillingness to fight the Taliban. Ghost soldiers, fraud, ethnic tensions, rampant drug use and low morale certainly plagued these forces, undercutting the U.S. plan to withdraw.
Yet scholars would not be surprised by this failure. A large literature now exists on the difficulties and dangers of integrating ethnically mixed forces, of pursuing demobilization while war still rages and of “ethnic stacking” (or promoting co-ethnic officers to maintain military loyalty) within the military for future battlefield performance and relations between the military and a civilian government. Stuck rebuilding the Afghan army every fighting season, American policymakers turned to stopgap solutions that created additional problems — such as heavy reliance on air power that killed civilians. There is no cheap, quick way to build foreign militaries.
4. The U.S. never had much leverage over Kabul.
These interviews are littered with allusions to the difficulties of working with Afghan Presidents Hamid Karzai and, to a lesser extent, Ashraf Ghani, who had their own interests. A burgeoning literature on patron-client relations during wartime has found that powerful patrons (like the United States) struggle mightily to cajole seemingly weaker clients (like Afghanistan) to enact policies or reforms. Competing political interests, the need to be seen as legitimate to local populations and different stakes in the war all conspire to pit patrons and clients against one another, sabotaging the war effort. The absence of a reliable Kabul government led to alternative short-term solutions, including siding with militia and warlords, that made it harder to reach the longer-term goal of a legitimate and stable Afghan government.
5. The silent American public.
When reading these documents, it’s important to listen for silences — the unspoken assumptions guiding both policymakers and their critics. Here, the absence of concern about plummeting American support for the war is telling. Officials were able to fight a forever war for a variety of reasons: the absence of a military draft, the use of contractors to support the war, the lack of an antiwar movement, deficit financing rather than a war tax and an Afghan population that bore the brunt of casualties. Without an attentive public willing to hold leaders accountable, U.S. strategy was stuck in a closed loop, with little incentive to adjust to Afghan realities. By foreclosing criticism, senior political and military leaders lost a powerful mechanism for self-correction.
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.
Jason Lyall (@jaylyall_red5) is the James Wright Chair in Transnational Studies and associate professor of government at Dartmouth College. He is the author of “Divided Armies: Inequality & Battlefield Performance in Modern War” (Princeton University Press, 2020). He was interviewed by SIGAR as part of its Lessons Learned project.
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