Could a country defeat its enemy in two months and eventually lose to that enemy 20 years later? In its fight with the Taliban in Afghanistan, America proved that this was not just a theoretical possibility.
How do we explain this paradox? There is probably more than one answer to the question. History is an argument without end. However, some common themes have begun to emerge.
Before we dive into the question, it is important to get two issues out of the way. Some people continue to deny that America was not defeated, that it simply ran out of patience. Others believe that it should be staying on in Afghanistan. Those comments are irrelevant. America is pulling out its forces even though its mission remains largely unaccomplished.
America is not the only country to misjudge what it was getting into when it invaded Afghanistan. In October 2001, it had gone there to destroy the Al Qaeda camps and to remove the Taliban from power because they had refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. The US had unmatched superiority in weaponry. The result was foreknown. With its incredible airpower, it pummelled all known Al Qaeda camps into oblivion. Then it used its awesome ground power to push the Taliban out of Kabul. The war, in theory, was over in just two months.
In reality, it had just begun. The Taliban including their leader Mullah Omar simply disappeared into the rugged hills of the country. The same Afghans who supposedly despised them gave them refuge. The Taliban, after all, were Afghan. The Americans were not.
The US believed that Osama was sequestered in Tora Bora. They went after him but he escaped. This was a serious tactical failure of intelligence and operations. The US did not deploy sufficient forces at the right time and at the right place to capture their vile adversary.
It would take the US a decade to hunt him down. All along, Osama had been hiding in plain sight, just a mile away from Pakistan’s army academy. When the US finally got their man, President Obama could not help touting the accomplishment. By then, Osama had become irrelevant. Al Qaeda was running on its own and it had given birth to the even more deadly ISIS in Iraq.
Once Kabul fell in December 2001, the US could have handed over power to the new government, provided it with economic aid, and left a year or two later. But it had become addicted to what would later be termed nation building. It wanted to remake Afghanistan in the image of a liberal, western democracy. This was the second blunder.
The Americans, like prior invaders, were clueless as to what an Afghan occupation entailed. The longer they stayed, the more terrorism they bred, as a former Afghan president put it bluntly. The US vainly thought the Afghans would take more kindly to them than they had taken to the Soviets and the British.
Like prior invaders, the US forces never developed traction with the locals. How could they? They understood neither the culture nor the history of the Afghans. Attired in their battle gear, they stood out like aliens. It was not uncommon to see Americans building a mosque for the Afghans, clearly a friendly gesture, armed with rifles and attired with helmets and bulletproof vests. A more vivid image of paranoia would be hard to find. If they would see a single Afghan man watching them from a distance and talking on his cell phone, they would corner him, frisk him and interrogate him using local translators.
US forces patrolled the streets of Kabul in their armored personnel carriers but were reluctant to get out to grab a bite to eat or to answer the call of nature. They carried their own food with them and wore adult-sized diapers. I know this because a retired Pakistani army officer told me that he was supplying the diapers to them.
The third blunder was the invasion of Iraq, which became a big diversion. Flush with victory in Afghanistan, the Americans invaded Iraq to depose Saddam who they believed had weapons of mass destruction. He was overthrown in a matter of weeks. The Americans disbanded the Iraqi army and set about creating a liberal democracy in Iraq. Before they knew it, ISIS had been created and life became hellish for the common Iraqis and for the Americans. Yet again, America had misread the requirements for nation building.
The diversion of American interest toward Iraq gave the Taliban an opportunity to regroup in the hills. They began to quietly befriend the people who lived in the rural areas and to point out to them the corruption and incompetence of the Afghan government. They began an incessant messaging campaign whose goal was to paint the Afghan government as a puppet of the invaders and to characterise them as people who had committed treason: political as well as religious.
Meanwhile, the Americans continued hunting for terrorists. There was no way to just kill the terrorist or suspected terrorist without also killing innocent civilians. The more civilians the Americans killed as collateral damage, the less popular they became. They had won the land but not the hearts and minds of the people who lived on the land.
Ironically, soon after the fall of Baghdad, the Americans had claimed that the “ghost of Vietnam had been exorcised.” The fate that would befall them a decade and a half later in Afghanistan would be a sorry reminder that the ghost still haunted them.
The Taliban were essentially saying to the Americans, “You have the watch, we have the time.” As time went by, they became more daring in their raids on Afghan government targets. Slowly but steadily, more and more of the countryside began to fall to the Taliban and then they began placing cities in their gunsights.
The Americans outgunned the Taliban on the ground and in the air. They won every military encounter. But the Taliban outnumbered the Americans where it mattered the most: in the hearts and minds of the people on the ground.
As General David Richards, a former British Chief of the Defense Staff, put it: the Americans simply took on too much to chew. In my view, America’s failure in Afghanistan can be summed up in one word: hubris.