What We Got Wrong in Afghanistan

Military officers like me thought we were building a capable Afghan security force. What did we get wrong? Plenty.

U.S. Army soldiers oversee the training of their Afghan counterparts.
Adam Ferguson / The New York Times / Redux

Watching the rapid deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan—the Taliban have captured a third of the country’s provincial capitals in the weeks since the U.S. military pulled its troops out—has evoked a feeling of déjà vu for me.

In 2005, I was an adviser to an Iraqi infantry battalion conducting counterinsurgency operations in and around Baghdad, one of the most violent parts of Iraq during one of the most violent periods in that conflict. It was difficult to have any hope at the time. I returned to Iraq in 2009, this time in Mosul, where my unit advised and supported two Iraqi-army divisions, one Iraqi-federal-police division, and thousands of local police officers. This time, I sensed more progress: Leaving Iraq in 2010, I felt we had done a great job, turning a corner and building a capable and competent security force. A year later, I found myself in Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan, recruiting and training Afghan police units and commandos. After nine months there, I again rotated home thinking we had done some good.

I would be proved wrong on both counts. In 2014, by then stationed at the Pentagon, I watched in dismay as the Iraqi divisions I’d helped train collapsed in a matter of days when faced with the Islamic State. Today, as the Taliban seizes terrain across Afghanistan, including in what was my area of operations, I cannot help but stop and reflect on my role. What did my colleagues and I get wrong? Plenty.

From the very beginning, nearly two decades ago, the American military’s effort to advise and mentor Iraqi and Afghan forces was treated like a pickup game—informal, ad hoc, and absent of strategy. We patched together small teams of soldiers, Marines, sailors, and airmen, taught them some basic survival skills, and gave them an hour-long lesson in the local language before placing them with foreign units. We described them variously as MiTTs, BiTTs, SPTTs, AfPak Hands, OMLT, PRTs, VSO, AAB, SFAB, IAG, MNSTC-I, SFAATs—each new term a chapter in a book without a plot.

In most cases, these men and women courageously made it up as they went along. We borrowed untrained personnel from mostly administrative assignments and largely had them focus on tactical tasks, reporting progress in colorful bubble charts. Social media and public-affairs documents were replete with images of rifle ranges, obstacle courses, room clearing, and lots and lots of meetings (many of which were themselves about meetings) over chai. But from my tours in Iraq through to my time in Afghanistan, larger systemic problems were never truly addressed. We did not successfully build the Iraqi and Afghan forces as institutions. We failed to establish the necessary infrastructure that dealt effectively with military education, training, pay systems, career progression, personnel, accountability—all the things that make a professional security force. Rotating teams through tours of six months to a year, we could not resolve the vexing problems facing Iraq’s and Afghanistan’s armies and police: endemic corruption, plummeting morale, rampant drug use, abysmal maintenance, and inept logistics. We got really good at preparing platoons and companies to conduct raids and operate checkpoints, but little worked behind them. It is telling that today, the best forces in Afghanistan are the special-forces commandos, small teams that perform courageously and magnificently—but despite a supporting institution, not because of one.

If those were things we did poorly or insufficiently, there were other things we should not have done at all—namely, train police. We generally accepted that our ultimate goal of combatting insurgents or terrorists was to turn the fight over to domestic law enforcement. In other words, get to the point where the police could handle threats without fielding the army. (I remember, in Iraq, 2006 was supposed to be the “Year of the Police.” It would be hilarious if not for the incredible cost in blood and treasure—that year was a terrible and deadly one for police across Iraq.) But the United States does not have a national police force, so police training became a task that largely fell to the Army. In Iraq, I oversaw thousands of police, and in Afghanistan, I led a task force that vetted, selected, and fielded nearly 3,000 local police while supporting the Afghan National Police with warrant-based targeting of insurgents. I should make clear that I have zero law-enforcement experience, nor does most of the U.S. military, aside from some National Guard or Reserve troops. (We do have Military Police units, but they serve a unique operational role unlike any of the security forces we tried to build up.) We attempted to bridge this gap by hiring a handful of brave retired police officers and having them serve as technical advisers and trainers alongside U.S. Army troops, but even they could only focus on tactical tasks; they lacked the professional and personal experience to build national institutions and systems. We never had a chance to make policing work. The U.S. military could not overcome our national and institutional lack of experience.

Looking back, we also failed to properly institutionalize advising large-scale conventional forces until far too late. No one was encouraged to take on these duties, either: To keep moving up, officers such as myself had to rotate through “normal” command assignments as well. The Army tried to change the wording of promotion and selection boards, but the bureaucracy resisted; when we finally formally created Security Force Assistance Brigades in 2018, it was telling that none of the new outfit’s first key leaders had ever cut their teeth on these adviser teams.

Over these past 20 years, there have been many failings. We checked the box when it came to saying that we had trained our partners, spun a rosy narrative of progress, and perhaps prioritized the safety and well-being of our troops over the mission of buttressing partner capacity. (When our Afghan partners shot at us, killing our comrades in the now infamous “green on blue” incidents, we tightened up our security procedures but didn’t address the hard questions of why they were shooting at us in the first place.) We didn’t send the right people, prepare them well, or reward them afterward. We rotated strangers on tours of up to a year and expected them to build relationships, then replaced them. We were overly optimistic and largely made things up as we went along. We didn’t like oversight or tough questions from Washington, and no one really bothered to hold us accountable anyway. We had no capacity or experience with some of our tasks, and we stumbled.

Yet these failings—egregious as they were—make it easy to focus on the armed forces as a scapegoat. In fact, the military, our allies, and our Iraqi and Afghan partners were responding to a lack of coherent policy and strategy.

We invaded Afghanistan with righteous anger after 9/11, but then what? Why was the United States in Afghanistan for years afterward? What about our fraught relationship with Pakistan and its influence in Afghanistan? A coherent strategy to address these questions would have made my job easier on the ground. First and foremost, a clearly articulated end goal would have assured our Afghan partners and our allies from other nations (as well as our foes) of our determination. Instead of leaving the entire effort to the Department of Defense, a coordinated strategy with commensurate resources across government could have produced better results in multiple Afghan institutions. Further, 20 years ago, a commitment to law enforcement might have been very attractive to our allies, many of whom have their own national police force and a track record of success in performing such missions. Perhaps most crucial, a clear and forceful foreign policy regarding Pakistan, coupled with a commitment to supporting and employing a new Afghan army, would have provided much clarity and focus for our military.

We didn’t fight a 20-year war in Afghanistan; we fought 20 incoherent wars, one year at a time, without a sense of direction. The U.S. military can and should be blamed for the collapse of security forces in Afghanistan—I hold us responsible. The current collapse keeps me up at night. In the military, the main effort gets the best resources and the best talent available. For more than 20 years, no matter what was reported, what we read in the headlines, efforts to build and train large-scale conventional security forces in Afghanistan and Iraq have mostly been an aimless, ham-fisted acronym soup of trial and error that never became the true main effort, and we are to blame for that.

But we are not the only ones responsible. Someday we will ask young men and women to do this again—to fight a war overseas, to partner with local forces, to train them and build them up. Before we do, we owe it to those young people to ask the tough questions of how, and why, we all failed.