How the Afghan war showed the limits of US military might



WASHINGTON (AP) – It took only two months for the American invaders to overthrow the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2001, a seemingly tidy success against a government that had given refuge to the 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden. Twenty years later, the United States withdraws – visions of victory have long since disappeared and a Taliban ascendant is undoubtedly on the verge of re-establishing his rule.

Afghanistan has turned out to be a lesson in the limits of US military might.

He demonstrated the apparent paradox that it is possible to win battles and lose wars. Or at least that a technologically superior force can kill more effectively than its enemy without however achieving an end result resembling victory.

He showed that in the 21st century, it takes more than a conquering army, even as well armed as America’s, to turn the overthrow of a government, even as tenuous as that of the Taliban, into lasting success. . He showed that it takes, at a minimum, an understanding of local politics, history, and culture that Americans have been slow to acquire.

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The United States underestimated how their presence as an occupier fueled the motivation of the Taliban to fight and limited the ability of the government in Kabul to unite. Although bin Laden was ultimately killed and his al-Qaida network blunted as an international threat, Afghans are still caught in a cycle of violence and mismanagement with no end in sight.

In his book “The American War in Afghanistan, A History,” Carter Malkasian, a former adviser to senior US military leaders in Afghanistan and Washington, explains that one of the reasons for the futility of the US effort was the influence of Islam and resistance to foreigners. Occupation. These are factors, he says, that were not well understood by Americans.

“The very presence of the Americans in Afghanistan put a strain on what it meant to be Afghan,” he wrote. “It made men and women stand up for their honor, their religion and their home. He challenged the young men to fight. He animated the Taliban. It has undermined the will of the Afghan soldiers and police.

The US military may have missed opportunities to stabilize Afghanistan in the early years after the ousting of the Taliban, who had ruled the country like an international pariah since 1996. But the bigger question is whether the military , after its initial success, was misplaced in the lead. role of moving Afghanistan from chaos to stability.

The US military does not wage wars entirely on its own terms. It operates under civilian direction. Although civilian leaders may be accused of overstepping the bounds of their visions of making Afghanistan a self-defending democracy, the military ultimately embraced this goal. Claims by senior army officers that they have “turned a corner” to success in Afghanistan have been repeated so regularly that critics have questioned whether the military is going in circles.

Karl Eikenberry, a retired army lieutenant general with a rare combination of high-level military and diplomatic experience in Afghanistan, said the US military initially balked at an open mission to build an nation in an impoverished country traumatized by decades of civil war.

“But it has warmed up to the task,” he said, and the United States became even more entangled as it pursued a military strategy uninformed by realistic political debates in Washington over the achievable outcome. and at what price.

In numbers alone, the costs were enormous. Tens of thousands of Afghan government forces and civilians have been killed. The United States has lost over 2,440 troops and the Allies have lost over 1,100. The United States has spent hundreds of billions, and even after the pullout, the Biden administration plans to ask Congress to spend. billions more to support Afghan soldiers, even to continue paying their salaries.

The war, conceived in the traumatic aftermath of the hijacked plane attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people on September 11, has gone from the triumphant moment of the ousting of the Taliban from Kabul to nearly a decade of rekindled insurgency, to from 2005. Laden in 2011 seemed like an opportunity to end the war, but it dragged on.

Experts disagree on the main reason why the United States has failed to stop a Taliban resurgence after its initial losses, but a contributing factor has been President George W. Bush’s decision to invading Iraq in 2003. Within a few years, this war has become so devouring that Afghanistan has officially been relegated to the background.

“Making it a sideshow was a fatal choice,” Eikenberry said.

A full decade after Bin Laden’s disappearance, President Joe Biden has decided that continuing the war is foolish. He announced in April that he was ending it, arguing that waiting for a perfect time to leave was a formula to never leave, and citing the Trump administration’s commitment to pull out to the Taliban in 2020. last troops are due to leave by August. 31.

Biden argued that the central goal of starting the war – crushing al-Qaida and preventing Afghanistan from once again being fertile ground for another attack on the United States – had been achieved, leaving no reason to risk the American troops more. The remaining risk is a collapse of the Afghan government and a return to extremist threats, although Biden has vowed to maintain a U.S. diplomatic presence in Kabul and to push for a peace deal.

On the day that US forces began the war, October 7, 2001, then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld suggested she would be indefinite, but no one expected her to do so. becomes the longest war in US history.

“While our raids today focus on the Taliban and foreign terrorists in Afghanistan, our focus remains much broader,” he told reporters. “Our goal is to defeat those who use terrorism and those who harbor or support them. He clarified that this was a global war on terrorism, and not just a fight in Afghanistan.

Yet even as talks of a war on terror faded, the war in Afghanistan persisted, long after victory fell out of reach.

“In the end, we continued the war in Afghanistan because we could,” Eikenberry said. “Without any competitors, a force of volunteers and deficit spending, we have had the strategic and political luxury of waging an eternal war.”


EDITOR’S NOTE – PA national security writer Robert Burns has covered the war from Washington and Afghanistan since it began in 2001.



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