The outcome in Afghanistan “came down to a lack of American strategic patience,” General David Petraeus wrote in an essay recently published in the Atlantic. His is not an uncommon view; many of the architects and cheerleaders of the twenty-year mission in Afghanistan refuse to accept that the United States lost the war.
We lost. Full stop.
Reflections, congressional inquiries, lessons learned, and future policy will remain hollow until the United States internalizes this simple but dismal fact. It is perhaps difficult for so many to accept it because the United States lost a very different war than the one it started. As Gen. Frank McKenzie recently told NPR, “I think we took our eye off the ball in Afghanistan [and] why we were there, to prevent Al Qaeda from striking our country … it grew into something much larger: an attempt to impose a form of government, a state, that would be a state the way that we recognize a state.” Some of the generals get it.
The stories we tell have unique power; how we came to discuss Afghanistan ultimately helped us delude ourselves. The bluntness and clarity of McKenzie’s statement are the exceptions, while Petraeus’ word salad of empty tropes is the rule. Afghanistan is ethnically, linguistically, socioeconomically, and geographically diverse. The ideas and visions of its people are, too. Large segments of Afghanistan’s population supported the republic and even a more liberal (in the values-based sense) Afghanistan. Others supported the idea of the republic even if they were divided on what it meant to be Afghan. A smaller—but not insignificant—number supported the Taliban. A silent majority appeared to want nothing more than the freedom to carry out their lives and vocations in peace. Make generalizations about Afghanistan at your own peril!
Read the full piece in The National Interest.