The Afghanistan Impact Will Reverberate for Decades

by admin

Arguably the most important aspect of America’s response to the greatest attack on American soil since Pearl Harbor, a diabolical act of terror which struck America and the world to the core, was an abject and spectacular failure.  That description applies to Afghanistan and Iraq.  That is a terrible way to start the new millennium.


“Don’t do that again” isn’t good enough

Yet, there seems to be a dearth of genuine curiosity as to the nature of the failure.  Many voices are saying “Don’t do that again,” with the analysis being no deeper than “nation-building doesn’t work.”  But when the first cave man was burned by fire, didn’t it help him to learn how to use fire?  Should we not better understand why “nation-building doesn’t work?”  The fact is, Afghanistan and Iraq are not the last challenges we will face with Less Developed Countries (LDC’s).  Maybe a better understanding of such societies will help us fashion better responses in the future, perhaps something less than “nation-building” but more than simply ignoring festering problems.


One of the motivations for this website and the upcoming book is to advocate for the ideas that will lead to better policies and responses in the future.  The first step is understanding the calamitous impact of the recent failures.  In terms of blood, treasure, and prestige, among other factors, the efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq had extremely an extremely negative and harmful impact.  We should be desperate to avoid a similar outcome in the future.


The Direct Military Impact: Casualties and Lives Lost

Roughly 2,400 US soldiers died in Afghanistan along with a reported 1,800 civilian contractors, 1,100 allied soldiers, and at least 100K Afghans.  Roughly 20K US soldiers were injured.  One can assume the number of Afghan injuries to be at least 10 times higher.  This is the most direct and grave consequence of the action in Afghanistan.  The human toll was staggering.


Economic Pain and Sacrifice

Americans saw $1 Trillion in direct spending go toward a failed effort and negative result.  Indirect costs, like medical spending resulting from injury, is definitely in the 100’s of billions of dollars, maybe trillions.  In Afghanistan, not only was no sustained economic benefit achieved, but the economy collapses upon the US with the Afghan people having to endure near-starvation austerity as a result of the withdrawal of American funding. This is a disastrous result and it is remarkable America didn’t have this risk on its radar screen.


Military Disillusionment and Abandonment

US military recruiting has fallen to its lowest level since 1973 (Vietnam War era).  Families which produce multiple generations of soldiers are the backbone of the military and yet even they are not recommending the next generation to enlist.  Disillusionment stemming from the fact that sacrifices in Afghanistan and Iraq produced no benefit are cited as a major reason.


In Afghanistan, the US left behind thousands of Afghans people who supported US operations including interpreters and other local allies.  Those people then became vulnerable to retribution from the Taliban and others who opposed the US presence.


From the US to Afghanistan, personnel feel like they were not valued, that their well-being was simply ignored in the entire process.  They were nothing more than a cog in an uncaring wheel.  The fall in recruiting is a measurement of the impact of that sentiment.  Frankly, this is a black mark for America which will result in a long term stain on America’s reputation.


Political divisiveness and strained relationships

The conflict in Afghanistan did not unite Americans but rather further sowed seeds of division particularly as the effort faltered and failed to deliver worthwhile results.  There was also opposition and protests against the US actions in Iraq and Afghanistan around the world from the early days, including US allies.  There is little doubt that the US actions were controversial and stirred political division at home and abroad.  If the missions were not bungled so badly perhaps that divisiveness would have been ameliorated.  But it isn’t unreasonable to suggest that the corrosive political impact of the US actions will continue to weigh on domestic politics and global relationships.


America’s “Leader of the Free World” reputation takes a hit

Lastly, US prestige as the “Leader of the Free World” and a global superpower have been tarnished by such a complete and thorough failure.  America’s reliability as an ally in conflict and its willingness to sacrifice are now questioned. Frankly, that hit to the US reputation is deserved and will also have a lasting impact.


Adversaries appear to be emboldened

Since the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, Russia has invaded Ukraine and Hamas has launched its boldest attack on Israel to date.  These events are not necessarily directly related to American prestige.  But it is also not unreasonable to suggest that America’s failure and weakness can embolden others to act contrary to America’s interest.  This is another impact that could linger for decades.


Afghanistan will not be the last such challenge

The US (and the world) cannot afford more mistakes like Iraq and Afghanistan.  Yet, as pointed out elsewhere in this essay series, the world is getting smaller and not safer or more democratic.  It is likely there will be other challenges with LDC’s.  Some think isolationism is the answer.  But that is both more difficult than many think and carries its own kind of risk.  The isolationists would do well to remember that the US actually won the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  It was the post-war “peace” that became epic failures.  Certainly one lesson is that the US should be more cautious when intervening.  But that’s not the only lesson worth heeding.  A better post-conflict strategy is absolutely necessary.


America’s approach must be based on the cultural and societal reality of LDC’s

LDC’s are not culturally ready for democracy.  Weakness in the rule of law is one of the main challenges, along with having a hierarchical, authoritarian approach to leadership and a follower who are passive, and not empowered.  American policy would improve dramatically if it were to be based upon an understanding of these cultural and societal differences, as opposed to being based on the faulty assumption that everyone is automatically ready for democracy.


The US could have ousted the Taliban but not tried to install democracy

For example, consider Afghanistan.  After routing the Taliban, if the US wanted to maintain a presence in Afghanistan to monitor potential terrorist activity, it is doubtful any group could force them out of the country.  Instead of trying to build a new Afghan nation based on democracy, what if the US simply reinforced its position by building alliances with a few key tribes or groups in Afghanistan?  Of course, the devil is in the details.  This is just a high level idea.  However, it is hard to imagine how any idea could fail as spectacularly as the actual mission did.  The point is that we don’t always have to push for “democracy” which countries like Iraq and Afghanistan can’t achieve anyway.  A more practical approach based on the actual cultural and societal conditions in a country like Afghanistan makes much more sense.  Even if non-intervention is the right approach, basing overall policy on a more practical understanding of conditions in LDC’s will be of great benefit to the US.


America failed to prepare its soldiers and officials to succeed

The American failure in Afghanistan was a strategic failure—the plan was doomed because it was based on incorrect principles, specifically that democracy can be implemented anywhere at any time.  Fixing the strategic approach, as described above, will have the greatest impact on results.  But that’s not the only improvement that should be made.  Below are two quotes from SIGAR reports which point to another major area of neglect which must be rectified.


American advisors, practitioners, and coalition partners confronted by the opaque social and political environment became reliant on local partners for information and insights, which made them vulnerable to their manipulation and exploitation. One U.S. official for example, told SIGAR that his team was “played all the time by the Afghans.”


a USAID employee noted that the organization was so desperate for additional staff that they were hiring anyone with “a pulse and a master’s degree.


The upshot of these quotes is that the US did little to nothing to prepare soldiers and civilian officials and workers for the particular challenges to be face in Afghanistan.


Businesses often make the same mistake

The author knows from first hand experience the trials and tribulations that come from working in an LDC without experience or knowledge.  In another essay in this series the idea of a “China Horror Story” was explained—foreign companies which make huge mistakes and suffer significant losses in China, usually because they fail to account for local cultural, societal and business conditions.  I like to say that the executives in such companies make the mistake of doing business in China as if it were the same as doing business in Iowa.  The US mission in Afghanistan failed for the same reason.


Training and educating soldiers and other personnel should be a priority

Just as business executives would benefit from training and education as to the conditions in LDC’s, so would military and civilian personnel involved in missions in such countries.  As the SIGAR reports indicate, the US clearly did not prioritize or invest much resources in such training, basically leaving US personnel to figure it out themselves.  This is both unfair to the individuals and detrimental to the mission.  As these essays and the related book indicate, there are actually specific concepts and best practices that can be taught.  Educational and training programs could be developed.  However, the American government and military, like American business, simply does not prioritize such knowledge.  That needs to changes.



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