AFGHANISTAN LESSONSOur Biggest Errors in Afghanistan and What We Should Learn from Them

By Linda Robinson

Published 6 July 2023

However dramatic it appeared, the collapse of the Afghan government and military was not surprising. The seeds of defeat were planted long before President Joe Biden ordered the withdrawal. The American project was not based in a clear understanding of the realities of Afghanistan. Well-meaning Americans believed that they could persuade, cajole, or force a project that much of the population did not actively embrace or participate in. A chain of discrete policy errors flowed from this basic failure to adequately understand the country.

The Afghanistan War Commission, created by Congress, will shortly commence its investigation of U.S. policies in the twenty-year War in Afghanistan. So far this year, most headlines have been generated by a separate House Foreign Affairs Committee inquiry into the Biden administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021. This searing denouement resembled the chaotic end of the Vietnam War, complete with images of desperate Afghans clinging to planes lifting off from Kabul Airport as bearded Taliban soldiers seized government offices, tanks, and guns. The tragedy continued as the dark curtain of Taliban rule fell over the South Asian nation, bringing back the draconian Deobandi Islamic [PDF] practices of the 1990s. Overnight, Afghan women lost the right to work and to appear in public, and those who resisted received harsh punishments. The turbaned Taliban leaders ejected women from the government and banned girls from school after sixth grade. Poverty, hunger, and maternal and infant mortality have spiked, as countries have withheld recognition of the Taliban regime, frozen funds, and suspended all but humanitarian aid. The Taliban’s latest punishment bans Afghan women from UN work, where they are vital to delivery of aid in this conservative, largely rural country.

As frightful as these recent events are, they should not overshadow the full mandate of the commission, which is charged with conducting a “comprehensive review of key decisions related to U.S. military, intelligence, foreign assistance, and diplomatic involvement in Afghanistan from June 2001 to August 2021.” The initial intervention, precipitated by the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in September 2001, aimed to hunt down the al-Qaeda perpetrators. Over time it morphed into an effort to quell a persistent insurgency by building a stable democracy and improving living conditions in one of the poorest countries in the world—one that the British had unsuccessfully sought to pacify in two nineteenth-century wars.