The first question is: did social science waste its time and money? Stathis Kalyvas asked this question today
Can’t help but wonder about the implications of the Afghan debacle for the social science of counterinsurgency: dozens of generously funded studies in Afghanistan, tens of cutting-edge articles using Afghan data published in top journals, amounting exactly to what?— Stathis Kalyvas (@SKalyvas) August 14, 2021
I responded to him by noting several things
- Failure was overdetermined so even if there was good social science that caused someone (the US govt?) to do stuff better, it might not have made a difference
- that what we learn here could work better elsewhere
- that folks may have learned stuff, developed policy implications, but that those implications did not produce policies that politicians wanted to follow. When some economists said austerity was good for economic growth, that hit a group of pols in the sweet spot--hey, let's spend less on the poors. But academics often recommend policies that are costly in the short run and the benefits only accrue in the long run (climate change!), and politicians live in the short term.
There is an irony here--that Kalyvas led a movement in the comparative politics of civil war, arguing that the local dynamics and the national dynamics were different, that the master narrative was often deceptive. Well, the social science stuff done on the war may have been good at grasping elements of the local dynamics, but it turned out the master narrative mattered, too. That the Taliban was able to take the local stuff--fights over property, groups being left out of the spoils, etc--and use that to undermine a weakly institutionalized and very divided Afghan govt and society. A recurring theme--easier to break than to build.
The next question is: was it worth it? Depends on the it one is referring to. The goal was a self-sustaining Afghan government, and, that effort clearly failed. If the it was more about meeting alliance obligations, which is why most of the non-American countries showed up and which is how I define the "it" in my book on Canada's experience, then it is a matter of what were the benefits of meeting an alliance obligation versus the costs of opting out. Opting out of Afghanistan would have been costlier than opting out of Iraq, but were those costs worth over 160 Canadian lives lost and many more wounded?
A different way to think about "worth it" is did the effort make either a significant difference in the 20 years that it was worth it or if there is stuff that will endure beyond the Taliban's victory today? There is no doubt that life got better for Afghans after the Taliban was ejected--the measures in terms of infant mortality and women surviving childbirth are clear. The folks who were immunized due to a polio vaccination campaign will not get polio, so that is perhaps the most enduring contribution by the outsiders. So, there is a generation of Afghans who live now thanks to the intervention. But is that worth the 3500 lives lost by the allies and the tens of thousands of lives lost by Afghans who got caught in the middle? How many would the Taliban have capriciously killed in the past 20 years if they still governed?
Is Afghanistan better off today than Libya or Syria? Those are places where the US intervention was more modest. I am not sure--part of this depends on what happens next. But, ultimately, given that Afghanistan in 2022 is probably going to look a lot like Afghanistan 2000, it is really hard to say it was worth it. Maybe Rumsfeld was right in his original intention--that breaking the Taliban and then running would have been better, although, again, Libya suggests maybe not.
So I don't really have a good answer.
What can we learn?
- Much humility about the use of force. We could not kill our way to victory. Despite 20 years and a lot of resources, the effort failed. It is simply much harder to build governance than it is to break a regime. Obama learned that lesson and thus was reluctant to intervene in Libya, but was pushed into it by France and UK. He tried to stay out of Syria, and well, that showed doing little or nothing is problematic, too.
- I read a pretty persuasive thread about the US military maybe not preparing for the end because they wanted to force Biden's hand. Obama was very concerned about the military boxing him in, and, I think Biden learned that lesson. The end here was very, very fast, but there seems to have been no plan. Isn't the military supposed to be planning contingencies all the time? The two wars revealed that civilian control of the US military is not what it should be. Part of this is that militaries are trained to be can-do outfits, and they are often relentlessly optimistic, which then creates credibility gaps.
- To stop using the graveyard of empires. Afghanistan will not sink the American empire. The greatest threats to American power are domestic. Some will argue that the forever wars led to Trump and that may be true to a degree, but the polarization of American politics and the rise of the bad faith crowd in the GOP preceded 9/11. But that is an argument for a different day.
- Our allies will learn ... what they want to learn. No, our allies will not think the US is unreliable for leaving after 20 years. After all, most of them were there and left before the US (hey, Canada!). Just like our allies didn't give up on NATO and other allies after Vietnam, they won't after this. Partly because there is no other game in town and partly because they all know that they are not Afghanistan. Indeed, the lesson from Vietnam was: hey, if the US is willing fight for more than a decade, lose thousands of soldiers, and spend billions of dollars for a place it does not really care about, then we are ok. And that same less applies here since the US stuck around in a place that it really didn't care about for 20 years, trillion dollars, a couple thousand lives, and so on.
Who is responsible? Everyone. The US made big mistakes at the outset---relying on warlords, having too small of a footprint, sponsoring a constitution that was a very bad fit, distracted by Iraq--and other mistakes along the way--cycling generals and strategies, for example. Obama made mistakes, Trump didn't help. Biden's team has handled this endgame poorly. The allies could have done better (see our book for some reasons why they didn't). Pakistan did so much to undermine the effort, and Iran and eventually Russia did some damage. The Afghans were served poorly by their own politicians.
It is a land of bad policy alternatives, so I have a hard time articulating what should have been done in 2001-2002. It is easy to note what should not have been done. I think the key thing to remember is that the enemy has a vote, as they say, that the Taliban had agency. So, one cannot read into the current dynamics too much about US mistakes without considering how the Taliban would have changed its behavior. Again, it is easier to destroy than to create--we demonstrated that in 2001, the Taliban has demonstrated that ever since. I don't know if the Taliban will manage to control the entire country, but they did succeed in denying control by the Afghan government and its allies. What's next? More heartbreak.
I am very sad for the Afghan people, who were poorly governed by their own, and let down by the international community. I also feel bad for those in the various militaries and governments who sacrificed much and who continue to pay a price for what they tried to do, as they watch twenty years of effort reversed in a few weeks.