Afghan War: Twenty Years For Nothing

Our last-ditch airstrikes only postpone the inevitable.

U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Evelyn Chavez

WSJ (“U.S. Intensifies Airstrikes in Afghanistan as Taliban Offensive Nears Kandahar“):

The U.S. has stepped up airstrikes in southern Afghanistan amid growing apprehension over a Taliban offensive threatening Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city and spiritual capital of the Taliban movement.

The fall of Kandahar would deal a heavy blow to the U.S.-backed government in Kabul, which is trying to impart calm to its citizens as the Taliban has seized swaths of the countryside, but so far failed to take a major city.

The airstrikes, about a dozen in recent days, point to a continuing role for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, despite confidence expressed by President Biden and the Pentagon that the Afghan armed forces are well-equipped and ready to fight the Taliban on their own. U.S. forces are due to depart Afghanistan by the end of August.

Kandahar, population 600,000, was home to deceased Taliban leader Mullah Omar, and host to key military bases once maintained by the U.S. It is also a major economic prize.

The Taliban have advanced dozens of miles toward Kandahar city in recent weeks, squeezing it from three directions, capturing swaths of territory in the Panjwai and Arghandab valleys, places where foreign troops fought for decades to keep the Taliban at bay.

From the west, Taliban fighters now are within 2 miles of a base once used by the Central Intelligence Agency to train Afghan special forces, who now occupy the facility, according to residents reached by telephone in Kandahar.

Residents said the Taliban push from the south threatens to cut off the main road between the city and Kandahar Air Field, a one-time bastion of U.S. air power during the 20-year war. The U.S. turned the base over to the Afghan National Army last month.

In an impromptu visit to Kabul, the top U.S. military commander in charge of the Middle East and Afghanistan, Gen. Frank McKenzie, met Sunday with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his top security officials to discuss Afghanistan’s defense plans and to reassure them of U.S. support.

Gen. McKenzie told reporters after the meeting that the U.S. had increased the number of airstrikes against the Taliban in the past few days, and was prepared to continue if the Taliban offensive continues.

Gen. McKenzie called the battle for Kandahar “a tough fight” and said the city was critical for both sides. “I think the issue is still in doubt, but Kandahar has not fallen,” he said.

Given that we’ve spent nearly two decades building up an Afghan security structure modeled after our own, and therefore unsustainable by a poor, developing country, it’s only right that we continue air support to give them a fighting chance. But it appears for all the world that we’re just trying to forestall the inevitable until the last of our ground troops have departed. Indeed, we’re barely making it a secret:

The U.S. military has sought to dial back on strikes against the Taliban before Aug. 31. After that, White House officials have said they would retain the right to strike al Qaeda or other groups only if they pose a threat to the U.S.

If we keep to that, the Taliban will be back in charge by Christmas, if not Halloween.

The United States has lost 2,354 dead in the direct fighting and untold numbers physically maimed and/or psychologically injured and countless marriages ruined for, well, nothing. Of those, only 7 were in 2001 in the immediate response to the 9/11 attacks. Just another 30 came by the end of 2002. The heaviest losses came between 2005 and 2013, during which time it became rather obvious that a democratic Afghanistan able to control the whole territory and stave off the Taliban on their own was unachievable at a price the United States and its dwindling number of allies in the fight were willing to pay.

FILED UNDER: Afghanistan War, Middle East, National Security, , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. MarkedMan says:

    My impression of the whole Iraq/Afghan war is that it coincides with the death throes of the Republican Party as a serious force for governance. George HW Bush was a competent person with a wealth of experience who surrounded himself with realistic professionals. He knew not to let us get dragged into a nation building exercise in the Middle East. His son, on the other hand, was the archetype of the new Republican – no real experience but endless confidence in slogans and posturing. And of course, once it was known to be a catastrophe, Republican’s wouldn’t clean up their own mess. “Responsibility” is not a word with any meaning to a modern Republican. So they doubled and tripled down (remember them trumpeting how “effective” the surge was and denigrating the Dems and other opponents as losers for giving up too early?) and then as soon as they lost the Presidency they sought to blame the Dems for the mess.

    A more courageous Obama would have shouldered the burden and ended it, but he understood that it would mean he would have been a one term President as the jackals closed in, or have doomed Clinton’s chances of succeeding him.

  2. OzarkHillbilly says:

    The heaviest losses came between 2005 and 2013, during which time it became rather obvious that a democratic Afghanistan able to control the whole territory and stave off the Taliban on their own was unachievable at a price the United States and its dwindling number of allies in the fight were willing to pay.

    This was obvious to me in October of 2001.

  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @MarkedMan: George HW Bush was a competent person with a wealth of experience who surrounded himself with realistic professionals.

    Quite a few of those “realistic professionals” turned up in W’s admin and turned out to be not so realistic after all.

    I think GHWB deserves most if not all of the credit for keeping us out of a Middle Eastern morass.

  4. Not the IT Dept. says:

    “Given that we’ve spent nearly two decades building up an Afghan security structure modeled after our own, and therefore unsustainable by a poor, developing country…”

    This really is the heart of the matter. We made no effort that I’m aware of to find out how society was organized and then work with the people in the country to beef up their existing armed forces. We were playing with dolls, and then couldn’t figure out why things weren’t working.

    And I’m sure any minute now we’ll be deluding ourselves into thinking that Cubans want our “help” in their country. We never learn.

  5. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Yes, but it wasn’t obvious in October 2001 that this was our goal. It started as a punitive expedition and an al Qaeda hunt and turned into something much, much more ambitious.

  6. Kathy says:

    I see a ten year pattern:

    Ten years to get bin Laden.

    Ten years to conclude that was probably the high point and no one can stay forever.

    I wonder what happens ten years from now?

  7. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner: It started as a punitive expedition and an al Qaeda hunt

    And even at that it was stupidity squared. CIA agents with pallets of cash? “Take my money. Please.”

    It was a joke from the gitgo.

  8. JohnSF says:

    Lamentations over the “inevitable, yet who could have forseen” mass slaughters of civilians by the Taliban?

  9. Kathy says:


    I think that will happen this year, maybe soon.

    There’s a chance the Taliban can learn from experience, and they’ll decide to stay out of international politics. That is, they won’t let other terrorist groups operate from their domain. Assuming they can prevent them, that is.

    It’s possible the US will be engaging in bombing missions of suspected terrorist training camps for decades to come, inevitably hitting perfectly innocuous targets now and then.

    Now, if a terrorist group in the future should carry out a 9/11 style attack (ie massive that draws a great deal of attention), say against France or the UK or Italy, for example, will the US rally at the invocation of NATO’s Article 5?

  10. JohnSF says:

    The Taliban can hardly “stay out of international politics” when their primary logistics/finance backers are the military/intelligence elite of another country.
    And most of the Taliban leadership, when not active “in country”, and their families, are happy residents of the suburbs of Islamabad.

    They are in large part a creation of international politics: the Pakistani military’s desire for “strategic depth” vs India, and “deniable” basing re. same. Both utter nonsense, but there you go.

  11. MarkedMan says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: There was no end to the arrogance and stupidity. After drinking from the Koch teat for a couple of decades the Republican establishment, such as it was, were so swept up in their libertarian dream world, that they sent in freshly graduated Libertarian MBAs to lead billion dollar rebuilding initiatives.

    After the fall of Saddam Hussein’s government in April 2003, the opportunity to participate in the U.S.-led effort to reconstruct Iraq attracted professionals, Arabic-speaking academics, development specialists and war-zone adventurers. But they had to get past Jim O’Beirne’s Pentagon office before going to Baghdad.

    To pass muster with O’Beirne, a political appointee, applicants didn’t need to be experts in the Middle East or in postconflict reconstruction. They did need, however, to be a member of the Republican Party.

    O’Beirne’s staff posed blunt questions about domestic politics: Did you vote for George W. Bush in 2000? Do you support the way the president is fighting the war on terror? Two people said they were even asked their views on Roe v. Wade.

    Many of those chosen to work for the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which ran Iraq’s government from April 2003 to June 2004, lacked vital skills and experience. A 24-year-old who never had worked in finance was sent to reopen Baghdad’s stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq’s $13 billion budget, even though the former had no accounting background and the latter lacked experience managing finances of a large organization..

  12. Kathy says:


    Ok. I wasn’t aware of all that.

    Still, none of it requires them to host international terrorism networks like Al Qaida. And they were swept from power and diminished, albeit not enough, for two decades as a result of doing just that.

  13. JohnSF says:

    The terrorist hosting bit was in part because the ISI (Pakistan intelligence service; or more accurately some factions operating in/through it) wanted Afghanistan to host Kashmiri “radicals” who could carry out operations in India with “implausible deniability” but conveniently behind the Pakistan’s own defence belt.
    For which a general hosting of other groups provided a nice cover.
    Very clever.

    I’ve said before:
    Arguably Islamabad and the Talibs were “lucky”: had the poster boys of Afghan jihad not been al Qaeda but a Chechen group who scored a mega-strike on Russia…

  14. Just nutha ignint cracker says:


    …or have doomed Clinton’s chances of succeeding him.

    Well at least that part worked out well. Wait…

  15. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @James Joyner: But I suspect that Ozark’s point was that the original goal was stupid to begin with and didn’t age well.

  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: The ninth anniversary of restored Taliban government celebration?

  17. dazedandconfused says:

    The most likely plus is the Taliban is likely to be very reluctant to idly mess around with radical Arabs like OBL for some time to come. They’ve paid a terrible price for that mistake. That goal may have been achievable, if not already achieved, in the spring of 2002 though. All the rest was probably for nothing.

  18. JohnSF says:

    Yes, this time round they’ll probably just host the Kashmiris (at the ISI’s insistence), and perhaps end up getting involved in a full bore India-Pakistan war, with a reasonable probability of nuclear weapons use.

  19. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: But I suspect that Ozark’s point was that the original goal was stupid to begin with and didn’t age well.

    Not quite. My point was that if we ever had a goal, we went about accomplishing it with a staggering display of boobish incompetence, spending not one dime more than they absolutely had to.

    That “if” is a big if.

    At the time I thought they were just the dumbest fcks to ever get into the White House. With 20/20 hindsight I think it was all political theatre. They were never serious about it. The only reason they did anything at all is because to do nothing about 3,000 dead Americans would have been political suicide. So they put on a song and dance so they could tell the rubes they were doing everything possible to find and capture/kill Bin Laden while punishing the Taliban for their nefarious Islamic activities.

    But the reality was they were already looking forward to Iraq, and keeping their powder dry for the real war, you know the other one they totally fckd up with another staggering display of boobish incompetence, only this one they spent lavish amounts of money and blood to remake the ME in their own image.

    Afghanistan tho, was never more than a drag queens song and dance. Just enough to get the rubes to pay for a wholly unsatisfying lap dance.

  20. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    Afghanistan isn’t a country. Its lines on a map containing a bunch of tribes/clans who’s loyalties are both extremely local and extremely personal. Pretending it’s a country with institutions is foolish. Even under the Taliban it was pretty much in a constant state of low-grade civil war, and they were willing to be a hell of a lot more ruthless than we are (which is a good thing, fyi, I don’t want to be like them).

    Best we can do is make sure they know that if they harbor international terrorists in the future, we will not limit strikes to training camps but hit them personally (and supply their tribal opponents with weapons and support). With no intention of staying or getting dragged into a ground conflict. It’s a lot easier for us to sustain a bombing campaign against them and make their lives difficult with other tribes than it is for them to sustain a terror campaign against us.

  21. JohnSF says:

    @Just Another Ex-Republican:
    Exactly. The Taliban have the “support” of probably 30 to 40% of the country.
    I put support in quotes because for a lot of that number it’s just as matter of doing what the clan leader or local lord says they should.
    An in-effect partition (dressed up as a “federal constitution”), plus an ultimatum to Islamabad to back off, could have worked.
    It still could, IMO.
    But setting a goal of unitary, democratic Afghanistan was horribly unrealistic.
    The USA simply never had the will to sustain a lifetime-plus commitment to effect such a goal.

    And 60% of Afghans will now likely pay the bloody price of unrealism followed by despair.

  22. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Just Another Ex-Republican: It’s a lot easier for us to sustain a bombing campaign

    There is a fly or 6 in that particular ointment: Pakistan, Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and a very tiny bit of China. One of these countries is going to have to allow the US to fly thru their airspace for any kind of bombing campaign. I don’t see it, and if one did go for it, what kind of devil’s deal would we have to make?

    One of the most unpleasant aspects of the Afghanistan war was that we had to climb into bed with the Pakistani’s just to ensure our troops had needed supplies.

  23. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Somebody refresh my memory, but wasn’t the “not gonna go there, wouldn’t be prudent” comment that became a signature line on any GHWB impersonation based on something he said to the press on the way to Marine One about escalating the first Iraq War in order to oust Saddam?

  24. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: No, don’t hold back so much. Tell me what you REALLY think. 😉

  25. dazedandconfused says:

    Why would the ISI feel a need to stash any of the Kashmiris they support in Afghanistan?

  26. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JohnSF: Still, they already had the unrelenting despair, and if the natural state was low-grade civil war, the increase in bloodshed, while deplorable, may not have been qualitatively different. The US–and any other sane industrial, modern nation–shouldn’t engage in it’s baser instincts, but when you elect the selection made by the base…

  27. JohnSF says:

    Last month Pakistan’s Prime Minister Khan stated that Pakistan would not permit the US to use Pakistani territory to support ANY ongoing operations in Afghanistan.
    That’s one reason the Bagram bug-out was crucial: the US now seems to have close to zero local air base facilities.
    I pretty sure all the early-2000’s facilities in Central Asia are now gone; and those countries are unlikely to risk the displeasure of Russia and China these days.
    I’d guess there’s carrier air operating out of the Indian Ocean; but that’s a bit distant for sustained operations
    Plus the heavies out of Diego Garcia.
    But I suspect the diminishing amount locally would be just whatever’s now at Kabul airport.

    If the US needed just to bomb, the B’s from Diego Garcia etc are likely more than sufficient.
    But probably not really suited to tactical support.

  28. JohnSF says:

    Like I say “implausible deniability”: any operations they carry out in India, Islamabad says:
    “What, us? We are outraged. We demand you retract such unfounded accusations. If they are in Afghanistan, that’s nothing to do with us.”
    While smirking.
    A very dangerous ploy, but they have form.

  29. dazedandconfused says:

    If international terrorists set up camp there the Russians would help. They control the various ‘stans to the north. The Pakis would be forced to help too, as without Saudi cash they are in a world of hurt.

    For now they are offering the use of bases in those areas for intell gathering about that very thing. Moscow is every bit as worried about Islamic terrorism than we are, if not more so. They have several reasons to be more worried about that, anyway. About half of our land-shipped stuff came in through Pakistan and half through Russian based Northern Distribution Network for the last decade or so of our occupation.

  30. JohnSF says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:
    The despair I referred to is not that of the Afghans; though they surely have reason enough for it.
    There are likely tens of thousands now alive who wont be, and quite unpleasantly, quite soon.

    I should imagine a sizable proportion of the female population of Kabul feels despair, plus sheer terror, at the horror that is all too likely to be their future.

    But the despair I had in mind was that of Americans.
    Unrealistic projects of a unitary, democratic Afghan nation-state; then despair when it became obvious that wasn’t on the cards.

  31. JohnSF says:

    You assume the Saudis would co-operate.
    Maybe, maybe not.
    There’s been twenty odd years for Washington to try that tactic, and zero sign of it happening to date. Or for that matter to seriously confront Pakistan at all, bar the demarche of immediately post 2001.

    As for the the Northern Distribution Network, that’s been effectively moribund for the past five years.
    Though more recently the southern NDN (avoiding Russia) has been more in use.
    Pakistan and Russia are allowing the US/NATO to move stuff out but even then its limited.
    About 5% via NDN, 40% via Pakistan, 60% by air, at staggering expense.

    I suspect Islamabad has learnt that a Jihadi terrorist international was not such a good idea as they thought back in the 1990’s. But if Kashmiri groups don’t get based there, I shall be very surprised indeed.

    At any rate, the Taliban are being nicely accommodating, to some. For instance, they recently guaranteed that no Uighur separatists would be tolerated. Not very surprising, given the China/Pakistan alignment.
    Still seem to have Chechens among them though.

  32. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: I should have been more specific than saying “bombing.” I’m thinking Tomahawks, not F35’s.

  33. Gustopher says:

    We got nothing? I beg to differ.

    Steve Earle’s “John Walker’s Blues”

    Neil Young’s “Living With War”