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Illustration by Alex Cochran

A tragic failure in Afghanistan. Why Americans should have seen it coming

A veteran’s struggles to find the words and emotions to express his feelings about Afghanistan and his gratitude that others have written down a history of the war

SHARE A tragic failure in Afghanistan. Why Americans should have seen it coming
SHARE A tragic failure in Afghanistan. Why Americans should have seen it coming

Editor’s Note: Some of the stories mentioned in this article include descriptions of death, violence and mental health and could be triggering for some readers.

What do you say about a war that has caused so much harm?

How do you put into words the unfathomable amount of tragedy and loss the United States’ failed expedition in Afghanistan has caused — not only in the blood and treasure from the American people, but more importantly, in the broken promises we made to the people of Afghanistan?

The Vet Center therapist who saved my life years ago would want me to take a moment to identify what I was actually feeling, because for so long all I felt after my short 12 months during this 20-year war was rage.

“Jaime, I feel broken. Not just in my heart, but in my core. And I am scared and I’m sad and honestly I don’t know how else to feel about all this,” I’d tell her. I think she’d reply that it’s OK to feel this way, and remind me it has taken years of progress to make it this far — to (mostly) let go of the anger. With time, Jaime may tell me, this will all get easier. This will get clearer.

It is with that small amount of clarity that I can see that the tragedy happening now in Afghanistan was not unfathomable, and I am reminded of the years and years of reports and stories that have warned us that this war would not end well.

The now very public chaos in Kabul has led to days of constant news coverage of the nightmare unfolding in Afghanistan. But for years, journalists and investigators — to include the U.S. government’s own Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction — have published the initial histories of a war that was on its way to military and diplomatic failure.

Because I still cannot find my own prose to put on paper, I am thankful (a new emotion I’d be able to tell Jaime about) that others have found words to explain what has happened these last 20 years.

Here is a collection of some of those words, a place to start understanding:

The failed mission of nation building

On Monday, President Joe Biden said in a White House address that the mission in Afghanistan “was never supposed to have been nation building” or to create a centralized democratic government, but for years, the U.S. has been trying to do just that.

For two decades now — and for 10 years since American commandos killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan (after having failed to do so years earlier) — a U.S.-led coalition of nations has spent billions and billions of dollars to train a national security force and to fund a young Afghan government.

In the last couple of weeks, as the Taliban rapidly toppled major metropolises and ultimately the capital city of Kabul on Sunday, it was clear the counterinsurgency efforts and “hearts and minds” campaign of the Pentagon and U.S. Department of State had failed.

Here are a few stories, told by investigative journalists and congressional researchers, that explain how that happened:

  • Ghost Students, Ghost Teachers, Ghost Schools,” by investigative journalist Azmat Khan, published in the summer of 2015 by BuzzFeed News, is a deeply reported piece that uncovered the U.S. government claim that it was successfully building schools and fostering education throughout Afghanistan wasn’t true.
  • How the U.S. Funds the Taliban,” by Aram Roston, published in The Nation in November 2009, exposed how money from U.S. military contracts with Afghan-based supply companies ended up in Taliban coffers as the logistician paid the insurgents for safe passage on Afghanistan’s roads.
  • In 2018, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction published “Stabilization: Lessons from the U.S. Experience in Afghanistan,” a report that said billions of dollars from government agencies — like the Defense Department with its Commander’s Emergency Response Program and from the U.S. Agency for International Development — had spent “far too much money, far too quickly” over 15 years.

“Our analysis reveals the U.S. government greatly overestimated its ability to build and reform government institutions in Afghanistan as part of its stabilization strategy,” SIGAR wrote in a summary of its findings, which researched $4.7 billion of aid money that had been spent in Afghanistan.

The inspector general’s office, created by the U.S. Congress, found that “the stabilization strategy and the programs used to achieve it were not properly tailored to the Afghan context, and successes in stabilizing Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians.”

Winning the battles, and losing the war

It was surprisingly early for my brother to call, and the timing worried me. “Do you still have to go?” he said, skipping the good mornings, as soon as I answered.

Then-President Barack Obama had announced overnight on May 2, 2011, that American special forces had raided a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, and had killed 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden.

I knew what my brother was asking. Because bin Laden had been killed, would I still need to deploy to Afghanistan in a couple of weeks? I would, and wanted to, I told him. His six-word sentence perfectly summed up a question on the minds of lots of Americans at the time. Bin Laden was dead and the Taliban had been routed, temporarily, out of power — wasn’t the war over?

We know now that American troops would spend the next decade mired in Afghanistan while the Taliban filled their weapons caches and waited.

In his speech Monday, Biden said the American military mission had been a success and the president said he stood “squarely behind” his decision to pull combat troops from Afghanistan. The battles had already been won, the president said simply.

What he didn't say was the war was lost.

The library of reasons why this 20-year war has seemingly ended this way is still being written, but there is no shortage of reports and stories of military failures along the way, which drove Afghans to distrust the intentions of U.S. troops. Ultimately, Afghans had a choice: rally behind a foreign military or await the return of the Taliban.

To better understand these military failures, these stories explain when the U.S. military missed an opportunity for a decisive victory and gave Afghans reasons to distrust American troops:

What veterans have to say about America’s longest war

Over the last 20 years, veterans have told their stories in movies, books, magazines, newspapers and blogs. These have included countless hot takes on Red, White and Blue patriotism, odes to colleagues killed during years of fighting and veterans trying to process, in prose, if it had been worth it or not.

Several recently published essays by Afghanistan veterans immediately come to mind as I’ve struggled to put into words my own feelings about the end of this war:

  • During My Three Tours in Afghanistan, I Become An Old Man”: U.S. Air Force Col. Matthew Komatsu, who has spent nearly his whole career training for and deploying to America’s wars on terror, wrote in Esquire this last April that his first deployment to Afghanistan “felt so righteous back in 2001 and 2002.” Komatsu, a combat rescue officer, recounts his memories of the war, and finds that that “righteous” feeling has grown more complicated as the war (and subsequent deployments) went on.
  • In “The Plywood Army,” by Elliot Ackerman, an author and former U.S. Marine Corp officer, published by The Atlantic this week, explains how U.S. forces — who’d built their bases out of nothing more permanent than plywood — “always had one foot out the door.” Ackerman, also a veteran of both the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, recounts a phrase I’ve heard used several times over the years when global war on terror vets discuss America’s longest war — “The Americans have the watches, but the Taliban have the time.”
  • Former Marine turned correspondent for The New York Times Thomas Gibbons-Neff wrote last month about items that American soldiers left behind as they abandoned their bases, in a story titled “The Relics of America’s War in Afghanistan.” Small cans of Rip-It energy drinks, boots, military tourniquets and American holiday decorations (which had likely come from an abandoned staff office at a military airfield) were for sale at small shops in Afghanistan.

“The physical objects left behind are reminders of decades of loss — staggering numbers of deaths on all sides, especially among Afghan civilians, as well as devastating injuries,” Gibbons-Neff — who was an infantryman in Afghanistan — wrote of items that could have once been found in 2011 beside my old desk in Kandahar.

America’s war on terror, which has grown up in the digital age, has also led to numerous websites and blogs that have also hosted intimate perspectives of the wars by veterans. If you’re looking for more veteran voices, digital outlets like The New York Times’ (now retired) “At War” project, the news site Task & Purpose and the Time Now blog are good places to start.

The U.S. military, deployed far from the minds of most Americans, is still fighting the war on terrorism, even if troops are no longer in Afghanistan.

So, what do you say about a war that won’t end?