The Future of Afghanistan and US Policy Lessons

July 14, 2021 Updated: July 15, 2021


Soon Afghanistan will become a Taliban-run state. It will not be a bed of roses. There have already been executions of serving Afghan military personnel and the beginning of taking away the rights of women. It will get worse. But we need to ask the question: Why did we lose the fight?

The short answer to a hard question is that the United States (and the allies we dragged in) had no business in Afghanistan in the first place.

Afghanistan is of marginal strategic or geopolitical importance.

While Afghanistan harbored terrorists, so too does nearby Pakistan. But we are not fighting in Pakistan.

Some say we are fighting to protect the freedom of the Afghan people. And that may be partly true, but there are plenty of other oppressed people who merit our support, but we don’t help.

Cuba comes to mind. So does Venezuela.

Cuba is of strategic significance if it becomes a base for our adversaries, as we learned when the USSR under Khrushchev placed nuclear missiles and bombs there, aimed at the U.S. east coast. But even under those extreme circumstances, we did not invade, and we did not liberate the Cuban people.

Even today with Cubans in the streets protesting the Communist dictatorship in Cuba, the best Washington will do, as exemplified by President Biden, is to put out a press release, and that grudgingly and reluctantly.

Iran is a significant threat, yet our government is removing sanctions and treating the expansionist and cruel Iranian Mullah regime as a possible peace partner. Really?

No one in the Pentagon nor did many in Congress want to leave Afghanistan, mostly because they did not want the evacuation to happen on their watch. Otherwise they really don’t have any good arguments for hanging in there, since nothing was getting better—it was getting worse.

Naturally we could have stayed, but at some point either we were going to have to reverse course and send more troops to this forlorn country, or bag it and go home. The war itself has cost thousands of American lives and two or more trillion dollars over its 20 years of fighting. US News and World Report calculates the human cost as follows:

American service members killed in Afghanistan through April: 2,448.

U.S. contractors: 3,846.

Afghan national military and police: 66,000.

Other allied service members, including other NATO member states’: 1,144.

Afghan civilians: 47,245.

Taliban and other opposition fighters: 51,191.

This account does not record the number of wounded and, in the United States and NATO, the cost of treating the casualties for years to come.

We can also ask what it is we created, in the odd but highly unlikely chance that the NATO-backed regime in that country miraculously survives the Taliban onslaught.

Out of 180 countries, Afghanistan ranks as the 177th worst when it comes to corruption according to the Asia Foundation. Put in proper order, the number one top problem of the country is insecurity, followed by corruption, followed by unemployment according to a 2012 survey done in the country by the United Nations and the Afghan High Office of Oversight and Anti-corruption.

There is also the problem of sustainability in the Afghan military. Sometimes it fights, but at other times it either cuts and runs or surrenders. The United States has spent billions on trying to build up and train the Afghan military, but the effort has not really paid off.

It is hard to admit, but it is the truth, that the United States and its NATO partners, and a host of Private Voluntary Organizations (PVOs), sought to impose Western culture on a country that isn’t in the least Western in values and outlook.

Western culture got a foothold in some cities, most notably Kabul, but on the whole it failed to gain a political following strong enough to stand up to the Taliban and their Islamic cause.

In the Afghan and coalition military, frequent attacks of “green on blue” exposed the failure to reach a cultural arrangement in the country. A green on blue attack is where a soldier or soldiers in the Afghan military attack either their own soldiers or their NATO partners. There were more attacks launched from the inside of the military, then from the outside (that is, from the Taliban or terrorist al-Qaeda or ISIS forces).

More or less what happened at the psychological level in Vietnam, happened in Afghanistan. U.S. forces in Vietnam never trusted the Vietnam military and often treated them as a colonial power might have treated the “locals” in places where, in effect, they were the occupying power.

Something like that happened in Afghanistan, where NATO forces were far from impressed by the Afghan military and in most cases wrote them off and treated them as second-class partners, or worse. These are the kind of fights that become internally asymmetric, and where the toughest fighting is handled by the outside forces.

One would have thought the United States would have learned something from Vietnam and used those lessons as a guidepost first in deciding to send U.S. and NATO troops into Afghanistan, and once decided would have set strict limits on how long we would be there and clear realizable objectives that would let us leave when the job was done, preferably in a few weeks and at most a few months. Twenty years is evidence of blurry goals (or no goals at all) and a failure to learn any lessons from the past.

In the Pentagon it is often said that the building has a historical memory of no more than five minutes. Maybe so, but the real culprit is that the United States did not want to understand why it failed in Vietnam and therefore never was able to formulate policy for future decision-makers.

While the Afghanistan debate will go on for years to come, it would be better to try and draw some lessons. When the United States walks away a loser, it harms the lives of freedom loving and freedom-seeking people around the world. We can avoid such mistakes only if we learn the lessons and teach them to our future leaders.

Stephen Bryen is regarded as a thought leader on technology security policy, twice being awarded the Defense Department’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Medal. His most recent book is “Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers.”

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Stephen Bryen
Stephen Bryen
Dr. Stephen Bryen is regarded as a thought leader on technology security policy, twice being awarded the Defense Department’s highest civilian honor, the Distinguished Public Service Medal. His most recent book is “Technology Security and National Power: Winners and Losers.”