A Moment for Soul-Searching

The United States owes its Afghan allies careful scrutiny of its institutional and personal failures—without recrimination, but also without excuses.

A black-and-white photo of a man looking up at some nearby birds from a rooftop
Seamus Murphy / VII / Redux

About the author: Eliot A. Cohen is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. From 2007 to 2009, he was the Counselor of the Department of State. He is the author most recently of The Big Stick: The Limits of Soft Power and the Necessity of Military Force.

My Afghanistan war lasted almost exactly two years, from the beginning of 2007 to the end of the Bush administration in January 2009. As counselor of the State Department, my job was to take on whatever portfolio Secretary Condoleezza Rice wanted an extra set of senior eyes on. From the first—in fact, before I was formally sworn in—Afghanistan was on her mind. And so, even before entering government service, I canceled my classes for one of the very few times in my career and hopped on a plane to Afghanistan.

In the ensuing two years I visited the country often, usually as part of a small delegation led by Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, the deputy national security adviser, and accompanied by several other senior State and Defense officials. In between trips was the grind of interagency meetings (the so-called deputies committee) and bureaucratic follow-up at Foggy Bottom. Watching the fall of Kabul brought back a collage of memories from those visits and from the bureaucratic skirmishing at home.

  • First trip: a visit to Nuristan, the Kafiristan of Rudyard Kipling’s “The Man Who Would Be King,” a stark land of rushing streams and forested mountains, where I spoke with the governor, whose previous job had been running a pizzeria in northern Virginia. No signs of violence.
  • A visit to Peshawar, in Pakistan’s then-named Northwest Frontier Province. A superb consul general praised a brilliant young diplomat who was fluent in Pashto but was being compelled to rotate out, against his will. Back home, I was curious about how many Pashto speakers the State Department had at its disposal. Answer: nine, most of them native speakers in some nondiplomatic role like information technology. How many in training? Two. Worst moment: describing this to a senior colleague who said, “That doesn’t sound too bad. Not much need for Pashto speakers anywhere else.”
  • Bamyan, home of the great Buddhas blown up by the Taliban in a typically barbaric act of destruction. A beautiful and fairly peaceful province (you can tell by the level of security you need to move around, and by the way your escorts carry themselves—the Kiwis watching us were pretty chill), inhabited chiefly by Hazara Shia and persecuted by the Taliban. The governor was the only woman in that role in Afghanistan: a tremendously impressive person, a doctor. Her fate is surely sealed. The ruined city of Shahr-e Gholghola in the distance, silhouetted against the mountains. “The City of Screams.”
  • Generals, diplomats, and intelligence officials briefing the president and the secretary of state reported that 75 percent of the violence in Afghanistan occurs in only 10 percent of the districts, implying that the violence was contained. At the advice of David Kilcullen, a top counterinsurgency expert, I probed a bit. Do we really know what goes on in every district? No. What counts as an incident of violence? Firefights involving our troops, whether we start them or not. But isn’t violence directed by Afghans against Afghans more important? Possibly, but it’s too hard to measure. Is violence the right metric anyway, given that a bit of judicious terror is what keeps the locals in line? Probably, but at least the number of firefights and IEDs discovered is something we can count.
  • Meetings in Kabul. One of the few Afghans (or Americans) whose assessment of the situation I had come to trust was sad-eyed, hard-headed, unyielding Amrullah Saleh, the head of the intelligence services and later the first vice president of Afghanistan. There are reports that he is in Tajikistan and will lead a resistance movement from there.
  • Peshawar, Rawalpindi, Islamabad. The cold-eyed Pakistani generals, who you knew—I mean, if you had the right sources, you really knew—were lying to you, and assisting, if not directing, the guerrillas trying to kill Americans.
  • Another briefing to the president and secretary of state, at which I learned that our own eminent soldiers and diplomats were prone not so much to lie as to convey primarily information that they knew would bring a smile to the boss’s face: tales of successful ambushes and enemy body counts—and yet somehow we needed two more brigades. Smashing successes that were tactically brilliant and strategically meaningless.
  • Walking through an Afghan suburb with Doug Lute, when his bodyguard, a wiry little long-haired southerner, stiffened like a bird dog and hissed, “Wait.” Five minutes later, we moved on. He had noticed an Afghan soldier with the safety off his weapon: probably nothing more than slack discipline, but a warning that in this country, your own side sometimes shoots you.
  • A visit to a military-training team consisting of half a dozen overweight National Guard members who knew nothing about Afghanistan, who did not accompany Afghan soldiers on combat missions, and who themselves were patronized by the hardened paratrooper accompanying us. They meant well, but I would not have wanted them training me or my son.
  • A shouting match with a senior State Department official in Washington. He was responsible for poppy eradication and insisted that counter-narcotics was what America’s Afghan policy was all about, not counterinsurgency. He was more than a little unstable. But he was politically well connected.
  • Flying in a helicopter with the local U.S. Army brigade commander, asking, What does it mean when you say, ‘Clearing the valley’? Well, sir, we go in and fight with the Taliban until they stop fighting. Are you acting on the basis of intelligence, going after particular people? No, we just patrol and then react as the situation develops. So you’re basically walking around looking for fights, and this being Afghanistan, you get them? Pretty much.
  • A district governor plaintively telling us that once again American Special Forces had, without warning, swooped in in the middle of the night, snatched the son of one of his villagers, and vanished. The family demanded to know why, what he was being held for, where he was being held, and when he could return. The governor had no answers. So the special operators had another scalp, as it were, dangling from their belts, but they had undermined the local leaders upon whom success depended.
  • Visiting a divisional headquarters. In Afghanistan, as in Iraq, the pattern was the same: These command elements rotate in their entirety every year, so that as a result, we fight the same war not for 20 years, but for one year 20 times. On the first visit, “This is tough—much tougher than anything we expected.” Six months later, “A lot of work to do but we’ve got a grip on it: Things are definitely improving.” And six months later, as they were packing up to leave, “We have achieved irreversible momentum.” And then, when a new general and his team arrived on the scene, the cycle began again.
  • Madam Secretary, please look at these maps. They are made by the United Nations for the local NGOs: Green shows where they can move around pretty safely, yellow where there is danger, red where it is easy to get killed. Let’s flip through them year by year. You can see, the green is shrinking, and the yellow and red are growing.
  • Meeting with village elders, who were extremely well informed about the upcoming American presidential election. We tend to forget that they know a lot more about us than we usually do about them.

These are all snapshots, no more. They may not have been representative of Afghan realities everywhere at the time, or before, or after, but they are what I saw, which is why I became an Afghan pessimist. Which is not the same thing as considering the project doomed from the start. I fully recognize that my memories are now more than a decade old, but nothing I have learned since then makes me think that these phenomena, or others like them, vanished.

The Afghan War consisted of many choices, many decisions, many policies, many actions. It is entirely too easy to declare the whole thing doomed from the beginning. It is even easier and more pernicious to let ourselves off the hook by denouncing the failures of other tribes, so to speak: Obama people blaming the Bush people, Trump people blaming the Obama team, and Biden people blaming everyone; soldiers saying it’s the fault of the civilians; civilians insisting the soldiers screwed up; Americans disparaging Afghans.

The collapse of this past week came not despite our efforts of the past 20 years—it came, in part, because of them. Once the Afghans knew that we really—no kidding—were going, they cut their deals, because that was what experience had taught them to do. And let us not forget, the United States was not just pulling out a couple thousand American troops—it was also, in effect, ordering the withdrawal of many thousands more of our European and other allies, and the thousands of contractors who kept the Afghan military running. There may have been some cowardice in Afghan behavior in opening the gates of their cities to the Taliban, but there was a lot more prudence.

Now there will be plenty of room for meticulous soul-searching, for careful scrutiny of institutional and personal failures—without recrimination, one hopes, but also without excuses. We owe that much, at least, to the district official I met, to the Hazara governor, to Amrullah Saleh, and above all, to the students I saw attending a girls’ school and to the women working in a craft shop. I can’t bear writing about them today.