Op-Ed: The Lesson of Afghanistan: Our Military Must Remain Focused on Its Mission
August 18, 2021
After 20 years of effort, trillions of U.S. taxpayer dollars spent and thousands of American servicemembers killed and wounded, it is important to do a post-mortem on our role in a country that deserves the moniker “Graveyard of Empires.” One lesson that emerges is that the United States military has forgotten its mission to fight and win our nation’s wars.
“Who lost Afghanistan?” will be an interesting academic debate, but there are other questions that require immediate answers. How did we fight a 20-year war defending a country and end up with that country collapsing during our withdrawal? It defies logic.
I keep in my reading file a 2001 Foreign Affairs article on Afghanistan that closes with, “If anyone is to replace an emir in Afghanistan, it will have to be the people of Afghanistan themselves. Any doubters should ask the British and the Russians.” We could probably add Alexander the Great from 327 BC as well. These words were always in the back of my mind over the four years I spent as President Donald Trump’s adviser on Afghanistan, charged with monitoring our progress towards withdrawing from the country.
The brutal attack on our nation on 9⁄11 came out of Afghanistan. Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaeda terrorist organization planned and directed the attack from its soil. Our response to enter Afghanistan and root them out was necessary. We chased bin Laden to his death in Pakistan and the mastermind of 9⁄11, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, sits in a cell in Guantanamo Bay. Al-Qaeda was decimated.
Over time we ventured from the righteous to routine, forgetting the fundamental purpose of our military and how we wage war. We fixated on the Middle East and focused on a non-existential threat while allowing a major competitor to the east, China, to expand.
Soon after we achieved our objectives of dismantling al-Qaeda’s base of operations in Afghanistan, and after killing bin Laden in 2011, we defaulted into “nation building,” something that was not planned and that we are not good at. We created a massive military headquarters organization with the mission of defeating terrorism. Pushed by successive military leaders, over time our efforts became a habit with no critical associated thought. Victory was elusive. We evolved from warriors into nation builders, a role we never intended. We tended to forget the Taliban are Afghans as well. Much like the British and Russians, we became the invaders in a civil war.
President Trump made ending America’s longest war a priority. He repeatedly called on his senior defense leadership to provide options for withdrawing, and, unlike his predecessors, did not seek to justify America’s presence in the country under the pretext of fighting terrorism or providing democracy. His view was that the time had come, after much sacrifice, for America’s sons and daughters to return home after the initial mission of defeating al-Qaeda was complete—and that the fate of Afghanistan, like that of any other nation, was in the hands of its people.
Afghanistan was probably the most difficult issue we faced in our first year. Many, including Trump’s secretary of defense and national security adviser, wanted to stay. More time, more troops, more money. It was the same refrain we had heard for the past decade. They were wrong. Trump realized that and began the process of finally moving away from Afghanistan and pushing the military to focus on an emerging threat to the east: China.
The withdrawal plan was to be measured and gradual with a series of “gates” to measure progress. In February of 2020, we made a peace agreement with the Taliban. We would gradually withdraw and they would not attack U.S. forces. For the next 17 months no American servicemembers were killed by the Taliban. Another essential part of the agreement was an intra-Afghan peace agreement between the Taliban and the government of President Ashraf Ghani. Ghani pushed back, but we pushed forward. In April 2020, the president directed the military to come up with options for a withdrawal plan. We would keep, at a minimum, 2500 troops and air support in place until May. The date was a forcing function. It gave Ghani’s government a year to reach an agreement with the Taliban—a reasonable expectation.
President Trump, as commander in chief, personally engaged with Ghani, Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan and Mullah Baradar of the Taliban. Calling all three from the Oval Office, the president bluntly told them the consequences of their inaction. Baradar believed us; Ghani did not.
In war, momentum on the battlefield has a quality all its own. The Taliban have it. What we need to ask is, how did this end state happen and what lesson should we learn? In the end, it was a question of will. We wanted our efforts to succeed more than the Ghani government did. Prior administrations and their military advisers wanted Afghans to begin acting like Jeffersonian democrats. That seldom works and comes at a high cost. Each nation is unique, be it Iraq or Afghanistan. Our senior leaders, especially our generals, forgot this.
The final lesson: in a war, any war, fight to win or don’t sacrifice our treasure, whether our wealth or our most precious asset—our sons and daughters. Many of our leaders, military and civilian, forgot that lesson, and that is why we are where we are today.
Keith Kellogg is a retired Army Lieutenant General who was an assistant to the president and national security advisor to Vice President Mike Pence. He is currently Co-Chairman of the Center for American Security at the America First Policy Institute.