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The Macro View on Why the USA Ultimately Lost Afghanistan

Harsheen Sahni

This article is a retrospective one. It will take a step back from the contemporary and dive deep into the historical mis-decisions taken by the previous U.S. administrations. It consists of three sections. The first section will reflect on “the problematic underpinnings of Bush’s decision to initiate nation-building efforts”. The second section will explore the U.S. officials’ nation-building approach, and the third section will indicate how that approach backfired. 

The Problematic Underpinnings of Bush’s Decision to Initiate Nation Building Efforts

Elliot Ackerman, a former U.S. Marine, intelligence officer, political author and Afghanistan war veteran, poses an intriguing question: “Can the United States claim to have won the war on terror while simultaneously having lost the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq?”. While the ‘War on terror’ was an immediate response to a blatant breach of national security, the latter wars were ‘wars of choice’.  

On making this choice, Bush wrote in his memoir Decision Points, “After 9/11, I changed my mind.” He further writes, “We had liberated a country from primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better.” The article argues that the “moral obligation” taken on by Bush was anthropologically problematic. 

When Bush took on the daunting task of nation-building in Afghanistan, there was an implicit judgement that Afghanistan needed to be fixed. This judgement goes against Cultural Relativism – a theory propounded by the formidable German-American anthropologist Franz Boas. It asserts that cultures cannot be objectively evaluated as higher or lower, better or worse, right or wrong and that cultures should be viewed uniquely. Anthropologically speaking, nation-building in Afghanistan is analogous to nineteenth-century imperial powers’ noble mission of civilizing indigenous cultures.  

Abhijeet Iyer-Mitra, a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, rightly points out isomorphic mimicry, which means imposing certain paradigms from one society (i.e. the United States) onto another (i.e. Afghanistan), is the cardinal sin of anthropology. After all, the trajectories and societal belief systems of the two nations have evolved very differently. One must ask at this juncture: Who is to say that exporting democracy is a wise decision? Further, how could the U.S. have expected to turn Afghanistan from a “sedentary, pastoralist society with a majority of its population following codes from a bygone era” into a contemporary democracy within months? Most western liberal nations took centuries to reach the considerable degree of democratization they have achieved. U.S. Army specialist Arti Walker-Peddakotla says that democracy does not come in a box and indeed does not fit every country. In her words, it’s “an ideal that America has never let go of”.  

The clarification needs to be made that the essay is not against democracy in Afghanistan. However, it does argue that the push for democracy should come from the Afghan people, like in the case of the most successful democracies. 

The Flawed Top-Down Nation Building Approach 

Before discussing the approach, it is essential to contextualize Afghanistan. Afghanistan’s geographical landscape is replete with tall, forbidding mountains and deserts. Most Afghans live within the fertile valleys of these mountains and, hence, remain physically aloof from each other. Its divisive geography has been cited as one of the reasons for its inability to integrate as a democratic nation. Ethnically, it is a tribal society divided amongst groups like Pashtun, Hazaras, Tajik, Uzbek, Aimaq, Baloch, Nuristani, Sadat and Turkmen. Ackerman argues that “tribal and ethnic identities form the basis for unity over national structures” in Afghanistan.

Moreover, divisions in Afghanistan are not just social and geographic, but also economic. For this reason, financial and political elites – who frequently overlap – are a source of bitter resentment for the Afghan people. Extensive research by the Washington Post and Carnegie Endowment substantiates the claims of US-funded corruption in Afghanistan and its effects on the Afghan public morale.

So, what did the U.S. officials do, and where did it go wrong? Ackerman elaborates, “The backbone of accountability in Afghanistan — the disciplinary structures that have given them their reputation as fierce fighters — did not translate neatly into the structure we imposed on them.” He explicitly calls it a strategic mistake – “one that has at times undermined our [U.S. troops] partnership with them in a counterinsurgency.” In other words, the U.S. treated Afghanistan like an “engineering problem”. In the absence of the Western definition of a functional state, it imposed one on the Afghan people. 

Crudely put, the U.S. tried to spread democracy at gunpoint. Along similar lines, Donald White – a U.S. Marine Corps Staff Sergeant – asked, “How do I win the hearts and minds of the local populace by walking around with a machine gun in their neighbourhood and shooting at people?” In an NYT documentary, White admitted what was at stake: “If you kill the wrong person, you just create more insurgents.” At the heart of White’s experiences lies the understanding that political democracy cannot be forcefully implanted; it needs to emerge from the culture itself. 

Daron Acemoglu, Professor of Economics at MIT, and co-author of The Narrow Corridor: States, Societies, and the Fate of Liberty, points out a better and more cost-effective way would have been to “work more closely with different local groups” and swear in leaders who enjoy public trust. It’s been widely speculated that Karzai and Ghani were not installed at the helm of Afghanistan for their leadership qualities or the legitimacy they held in the eyes of the Afghan people but because they were “malleable”. Acemoglu eludes that several parts of Afghanistan that felt neglected from the US-led development espoused “greater affiliation to the Taliban” and greater respect for the “efficiency of its [Taliban’s] administration than the corrupt puppet regimes led by Hamid Karzai and Ashraf Ghani.”  

Lastly, David Petraeus- a retired four-star U.S. Army general and a revered member of the armed forces during the war on terror and Iraq – conveys that counter-terrorists like Al Qaeda or the Islamic State cannot simply be eliminated by counter-terrorist forces. The strategy needs to be more comprehensive than that. But why? Fighting a war with another nation is different from fighting a non-state actor. The Taliban went into hiding for 20 years. Once it regained its strength and the moment was right, it returned to the world stage after 20 years unscathed. Now, one would never expect that from a state, and hence, U.S. foreign policymakers’ assumptions should have been entirely different when dealing with the Taliban.  

To conclude this section, one can say that troop deployments don’t just come at the risk of creating more insurgents, but they are also ineffective. For example, Petraeus demonstrated that conventional troop deployments could not do justice to a non-state actor. The Taliban, unlike their counterparts, operates in a haphazard manner, one that the U.S. strategy was not able to address. Although the U.S. tried to install a democratic government, it did not take the Afghan people’s preferences into account and was itself undemocratic. Instead of understanding Afghanistan’s nuanced regional context, the USA pumped in more and more investments at the problem, as has been attested by Petraeus, Acemoglu and Robinson and Craig Whitlock

Lack of Clarity Throughout the U.S. Mission 

The Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published several illuminating findings under its Lessons Learned Program. The first key finding states that the U.S. officials failed to develop a “coherent strategy” for the U.S. mission. “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan. We didn’t know what we were doing.” said National Security Council “War Czar,” Lieutenant General Douglas Lute. The direct implication was that the American public was being lied to for nearly two decades. The veterans knew the shortcomings of the U.S. strategy, and in a 2019 poll, 69% of U.S. veterans admitted that they would support withdrawal from Afghanistan. 

Other mistakes brought to attention by SIGAR were unrealistic expectations and “unsustainable goals”. U.S. officials exercised hasty deadlines and focused on short term goals that ignored Afghan ground realities. The report remarks, “The U.S. reconstruction effort in Afghanistan could be described as 20 one-year reconstruction efforts, rather than one 20-year effort.” To meet those unrealistic goals, the U.S. increased spending and troop deployments, as was evident from 2009-2011. 

Several other obstacles plagued the U.S. mission, such as persistent insecurity that severely undermined reconstruction efforts, unsustainable solutions, and the lack of a contextual understanding of Afghanistan (as addressed in the previous section). All the mistakes under consideration follow a consistent pattern, i.e. they flow from the same assumptions. It can be summed up as follows: The USA sought a political outcome using military means. It operates from the mindset that the power of American exceptionalism can buy any political change in a foreign land.

A similar strategy buttressed American foreign policy in 1975 Vietnam and, to an extent, in 1950s Korea. Melissa Dell and Pablo Querubín document how the U.S. adopted the same approach in Vietnam, and it backfired spectacularly. Ackerman says regarding the Iraq war. “If the great strategic blunder of the Bush administration was to put troops into Iraq, then the great strategic blunder of the Obama administration was to pull all of them out.” Ackerman continues, “Both missteps created power vacuums.” One such power vacuum was also felt right before the recent Taliban takeover. In this sense, American foreign policy has committed the same mistake in different cultural contexts.  


The first section demonstrated how Bush’s decision to stay back in Afghanistan was itself a problematic one. The second section argued that the U.S. nation-building approach did not consider Afghans in the decision-making process. Instead, the U.S. intervention was an undemocratic, authoritative one, which unpragmatically poured in funds when what it needed to do was pay heed to the Afghan realities. The last section clarifies that the failures on the ground never made it to national news coverage. It also drew comparisons with other historical American interventions such as Iraq and Vietnam. Overall, the article argues that while the U.S. pursued nation-building, it fed a parasitic relationship with the Afghan structures. As soon as the U.S. troops left, Afghanistan floundered.   

Harsheen Sahni is a second-year bachelors student at Jindal School of International Affairs. Her research focus is on gender studies, international economics, and U.S. foreign policy. As Events Director at JGU Entrepreneurship Club and Vice President of JGU SOCH, Harsheen’s interests also have an entrepreneurial bent.

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