Afghanistan: How it could have been different

Nothing was inevitable about the Taliban reconquering of Afghanistan. But in the end the US lost what minimal strategic patience it had.

A US Army specialist uses a footbridge to cross over a river during a dismounted mission to Khwazi village, Afghanistan, December 2010
Image by U.S Army

The 20-year anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attack will now coincide with the consolidation of the second Taliban emirate in Afghanistan, greeted by celebratory messages from al-Qaeda.

Was this avoidable? Or were the West and the international community always on the road to defeat from the moment the United States ousted the Taliban regime in a lightning attack in late 2001? Were opportunities for a stable political settlement missed, whether by default or by design?

There are obviously lessons that must be learnt, although a fierce controversy over these is likely to rage for years.

Perhaps the most important opportunity that was missed was right after the departure of the last Soviet forces in February 1989. There were proposals then for a UN-sponsored settlement between the remaining Najibullah regime and the different anti-Soviet Mujahedin groups. But this come to nothing, as it was rejected by primarily the US and Pakistan.

Whether there was another opportunity for a more stable settlement right after the ousting of the Taliban regime 12 years later will of course never be known. In theory, it would have made sense to try to also include the Taliban in an inclusive political settlement. But the US would hardly have accepted this, and the Northern Alliance groups were keen on grabbing as much power as they could.

The Bonn conference settlement set the course for the years to come. Its essence was a highly centralised presidential system, structures dominated by the old Northern Alliance, and a continued reliance on the old regional warlords that had been boosted by the dollar sacks of the CIA.

In the US debate today there are voices saying that it was a mistake to get involved in what they call “nation building” right after this. But what happened was rather the reverse. The US actively resisted a more ambitious approach to helping the country, focusing instead on its own anti-terror operation, and – at the most – accepting some “reconstruction”. This led, against the advice of many, to a very thin international presence with security assistance forces limited only to Kabul. These were the years of Donald Rumsfeld, and, insofar as there was sustained US attention on Afghanistan, before the war in Iraq took all attention away, it was focused on the anti-terrorist Operation Enduring Freedom.

But these initial years were the period when perhaps a broader and more durable settlement might have been possible. In its absence, and as a reaction to the other failures of this period, not least the reliance on the old warlords, the Taliban started its comeback in 2005, and the new war in Afghanistan began.

The subsequent years saw ups and downs, with the international efforts to a very large extent a function of the swings in the politics and assessments of Washington. European countries played key parts in NATO’s security efforts, and gradually became dominant in financing the different civilian efforts. But policy was almost exclusively set in Washington and was driven by a US military mindset not always in sync with more European approaches.

With the partial exception of London, no European capital made any serious effort to influence the shaping of US policy during these years. Afghanistan was never high on the EU agenda, as it was an implicit assumption that it was all a NATO responsibility. Visits by the EU high representative to Kabul were extremely rare.

US policy was by no means coherent. Different doctrines came and went. During his period as commander of the International Security Assistance Force, David Petraeus believed victory would come via a policy of targeted killings of Taliban commanders through controversial “night raids”. Richard Holbrooke as US special representative argued for a political process with the Taliban, including outreach to Iran.

In the end, nothing come of either approach. The night raids were probably counterproductive as they alienated many Afghans, and there was certainly no lack of new recruits to fill the gaps left by those killed. And efforts to set up a political process were shot down in Washington, where there was a belief that the Taliban must first be defeated or at least cut down in size.

It was often a high-tech war against a low-tech insurgency. Air strikes from Gulf- or carrier-based fighters could certainly be tactically effective. But so-called collateral damage increased resentment among the population. And it was very expensive – all this high tech certainly did not come for free.

And then there was the nature of the politics of Afghanistan itself. Presidential elections turned into grave crises that disrupted and delegitimised the political system itself. And the vast inflows of money in a country lacking either the experience or the structures to deal with it was bound to, and did, foster a climate of corruption and rent seeking.

The overwhelming military and international presence during the so-called Obama surge in 2009 and 2010 was clearly unsustainable and probably counterproductive. A process began of gradually reducing the international presence and handing over responsibility to Afghan authorities. It was only then that efforts to seek a political settlement were given any weight. Had it been done before retreat was signalled, the possibility of progress might have been higher.

Ultimately it was the divisive politics of Washington, not the corrupt politics of Kabul, that paved the way to the disaster we are now seeing.

NATO ended its combat mission in 2015, although training and support continued, and the Afghan forces become even more reliant on US air power and US contractors of different types.

A case can be made that it was all, step by step, on its way to something that might have been sustainable until a broader and more inclusive political settlement was possible. When the Soviets left in 1989 the regime stayed in place, changed its colours from communist to nationalist, and endured for some years. It fell when the Soviet Union and its financial support disappeared, and when there was no broader political settlement.

But ultimately it was the divisive politics of Washington, not the corrupt politics of Kabul, that paved the way to the disaster we are now seeing.

Donald Trump wanted out of Afghanistan, as well as nearly every other place where the US had a military presence. It was due to the fear of him waking up one morning and ordering an immediate withdrawal that the infamous February 2020 Doha deal was made. It was not a peace agreement, but a withdrawal agreement, and on top of that one that de facto abandoned the Afghan government and any serious attempt at political process.

What Trump started, Joe Biden concluded. On 14 April he announced that all remaining US forces should be out by 11 September. But consultations with allies were even more non-existent than when Trump went into the Doha agreement. They had to read it in the press.

But Afghanistan was not only a US issue. By that time, US forces in the NATO mission comprised a little over one-quarter of the total. The contributions being made to economic and civilian efforts by the European Union and its member states were more than double those of the US.

The Taliban and remaining al-Qaeda presence now just had to wait until they would be able to carry out their own celebration of 11 September.

There was still a possibility that the US exit could be somewhat better than the Soviet exit. But this would have required a concerted political strategy for handling the politics of the withdrawal and, even more, the politics of the post-withdrawal. It might have worked. Leaked intelligence assessments that the regime could survive some period were not necessarily wrong. But they evidently lacked an assessment of the politics of the US itself and its effect on morale and confidence in Afghanistan.

After the collapse, both Biden and NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg have blamed it all on Afghanistan and the Afghan army.

But the strength of an army is not primarily the strength of its weapons, but the strength of its morale and its confidence in an eventual victory. The Afghan army clearly had the former, but lost almost all of the latter as US messages started to pour out urging Americans to get out of the country as soon as possible.

Foreign dignitaries hurried to Doha to meet with the Taliban while no one turned up in Kabul, where a sense of betrayal was unsurprisingly growing stronger. That message was evidently read loud and clear in the ranks of the Afghan security forces.

Then everything went much further than even the Taliban had envisaged. In a way it was a reversal of what they experienced with the rapid collapse of their regime two decades ago.

The regime collapsed as the US sent the signal that it was cutting and running, finally evaporating on 15 August. Not having prepared for this scenario, the US ended up with the humiliation of having to ask the Taliban for permission to remain for some days to get at least some people out.

It was as inglorious an end as can be imagined. The US exit from Afghanistan turned out to be substantially worse handled than the Soviet exit was.

Was there an alternative?

Clearly Biden wanted out, and did not care too much about either methods or consequences. This was a “forever war”, and he wanted none of it.

Twenty years is a long time in the impatient politics of the US, but not when it comes to helping build a functioning state, a reasonable army, and a more stable nation. Strategic success in situations like these comes only with strategic patience, and that is what the US lost.

But it should not have been impossible to continue a reduced security presence centred on Kabul, and maintain a firm message to the Taliban that this would remain until such time as there was a credible and inclusive political settlement. But to my knowledge no government put such an option on the table for discussion. It appears that Afghanistan was not even on the agenda of any of the EU meetings after the dramatic April announcement.

Now we are where we are.

By 11 September we might know if there is some sort of semi-inclusive regime in Afghanistan, although in its essence dominated by the victorious Taliban, or if the country will have entered a new long phase of renewed conflict and deepening despair. We should not forget the country also faces a horrible drought, a raging pandemic, a humanitarian disaster, and a collapsing financial system.

As for the wider consequences for the global disorder and for Europe, that is a separate, and much larger, issue.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Co-chair of ECFR’s Council
Former Prime Minister and Former Foreign Minister of Sweden

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