Leadership Matters: Avoiding Disaster in Afghanistan


This paper was originally produced for Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership, submitted as a final essay for a class titled CEL 494: National Security Policy Design. This course was taught by Army Colonel (ret.) Bruce Pagel. Here is his biography, courtesy of Arizona State University:
“Army Colonel (ret.) Bruce Pagel served 28 years as a Judge Advocate (lawyer) in the U.S. Army – active and reserve – retiring from active service in 2014. He deployed on multiple occasions to Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan in a variety of senior positions and ultimately served as the senior lawyer for U.S. Central Command. He also worked as a federal prosecutor in Virginia and Washington, DC where he prosecuted complex drug and money laundering cases and advised senior policy makers on a variety of issues. Colonel Pagel currently teaches national security policy as a professor of practice at Arizona State University (ASU) and works as a consultant on criminal justice, corporate due diligence and national security matters.”
I am grateful for Army Colonel (ret.) Bruce Pagel’s guidance but would like to stress that this work is entirely my own, and the opinions held in this paper do not reflect the views of my employer(s), university, major or minor programs, professor(s), or any other person or organization outside of myself in my private and academic capacity. I hope you enjoy.

Leadership Matters

In the wake of nineteen years of combat in Afghanistan, allied commitment to the so-called graveyard of empires is wearing thin. American boots on-the-ground dwindle down as the Taliban strengthens its position as a dominant force in Afghan geopolitics; the Free World lacks the political will to establish and maintain a safe, secure, and republican independent government that can effectively reign over all of the nation, from the Hindu Kush to Kandahar province. A weakened central government has been forced to show its hand as American commitment wanes, and the Taliban continue to stage a remarkable resurgence. All the while, the fundamental goals of both intra-Afghan parties at the negotiating table are diametrically opposed, and current peace talks consist of debate over decorum rather than the matters-at-hand. These dire conditions have led many national security strategists to recommend full American withdrawal or, at the least, a conciliatory course of action that aims to bring the Taliban “into the fold”. Should the American-led coalition choose to either refuse to take a new course of action or continue to draw down presence in Afghanistan, yet another civil war will rock a nation and a people weary of violence. 

The United States of America and her allies must avoid another foreign policy plunder not just because honor is on the line, but because millions of lives and the freedom of a nation rely on America’s just action. Integral to approaching the present crisis is thoroughly understanding allied involvement in the nation up to this point; their triumphs, their missteps, and their present quagmire. One must also come to terms with the Taliban’s history in Afghanistan, as well as the waxing and waning power possessed by Afghan government forces and their Northern Alliance counterparts. Once these complex dichotomies are properly dissected, the current trajectory can be understood to be a highway to civil war, but also a baseline knowledge for a suitable resolution to the two-decades-old conflict. The United States, allied forces, and the central Afghan government must craft a multilateral approach which incorporates all of the coalition’s vast pools of knowledge into a solution for Afghanistan that secures basic human rights for all Afghans, protects American national interests, establishes a functioning and independent republican government for the nation, and eliminates the nefarious influence of terrorist groups which are fundamentally opposed to a free and prosperous Afghan nation state. We cannot afford withdrawal nor complacency.

Strategic Folly

Within two months of putting boots on the ground, the Bush Administration was able to successfully invade the nation of Afghanistan. The challenging part was dealing with an insurgency and a period of national reconstruction. As the old proverb goes: winning is easy, governing is harder. 

Much of the criticism of President Bush’s approach to Afghanistan stems from his Administration’s belief at the outset of the conflict that the United States would have no long-term commitment to the nation, that there would be no “nation-building”. In fact, then-candidate George Bush stated, in 2000, when questioned about the idea of nation-building that “…what we need to do is convince people who live in the lands they live in to build the nations,” (C-SPAN, 2000). White House advisors and policy-makers at the time of the invasion believed “ousting the unpopular Taliban, detaining and transferring several Taliban leaders to the Guantanamo detention camp, and detaining thousands of suspected supporters of the Taliban and Al Qaeda in Afghanistan” (Rasouli, 2020, pg. 13) would be sufficient grounds for quick American withdrawal and a mission well-done. By 2002, the President and the American national security establishment came to realize that the war in Afghanistan would not be won overnight, and that a sustained presence would be integral to any successful resolution to the conflict.

It is important to keep American interests at the time in focus. Provoked by the 9/11 terrorist attacks committed by Al Qaeda operatives against the United States (and her allies, via NATO’s Article 5), President Bush resolved to wage a “War on Terror”. The Lexington and Concord of this massive effort became Afghanistan, and the coalition forces’ primary strategic imperative at the onset of this conflict was “to prevent it from serving as a safe haven for terrorists to launch attacks against the U.S. homeland, U.S. interests, or U.S. allies,” (2020, pg. 2). At this point, “, the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan was supposed to be a first step in punishing rogue states,” (Rasouli, 2020, pg. 31). The Taliban, then constituting the government of the nation, was substantially connected to Al Qaeda, and that trend continues to this day particularly along the porous Pakistan-Afghanistan border. With this clear strategic goal in mind, it is understandable that the newly elected leader of the Free World would resolve for a short-lived war with clearly defined terms of victory, similar to his father’s First Gulf War triumph. Hindsight is a mighty assistant, and it makes clear that the United States cannot expect to address Islamic fundamentalism and the threat of global terror by the traditional means, nor terms, of war.

While the Bush Administration came to fully recognize the need for “a balanced, multifaceted approach: politically, economically, [and] militarily,” (Rasouli, 2020, pg. 14) circa 2002/2003, this revelation came at the cost of strategic realignment. A light reconstruction effort was expected, but any large-scale plans remained memos until reality sank in following the end of the invasion. While the broad strategic aim — ensuring that Afghanistan was no longer a safe haven for terrorists — remained the same, the means by which American forces would achieve this end transformed drastically. Nation-building, to the ire of George Bush’s 2000 campaign, came to the forefront.

Under President Bush, American forces steadily increased in presence in the war-torn nation. Despite the promise of a swift triumph, the U.S. and coalition forces soon understood that the Taliban were not a smudge that could be erased but a virus that would necessitate long term commitment to its eradication.

By the time President Barack Obama was inaugurated in January 2009, over 40,000 American troops were on-the-ground in Afghanistan. Having campaigned in opposition to the Iraq War but with some hope for the effort in Afghanistan, Obama pursued a large-scale troop surge, maxing out at over 140,000 U.S. troops in 2014 (U.S. News, 2020). Speaking in late 2009 to cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point, the new President compared the two wars, claiming that Afghanistan had received far less attention from strategists and advisors than Iraq. He said that “When I took office, [the United States] had just over 32,000 Americans serving in Afghanistan, compared to 160,000 in Iraq,” (CNN, 2009). He went on: “as commander in chief, I have determined that it is in [America’s] vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” Typical of this war, most established “timelines” for withdrawal were amended with time, and following the peak in 2014, U.S. troops deployed now number below 10,000 in the nation.

Despite President Obama’s keen insight into the nature of the conflict in Afghanistan, his setting of a deadline without any sort of “conditions of withdrawal” summed up to disaster. This perspective was bred from the President’s (and most experts’, military leaders’, and diplomats’) view that the death of the Taliban was just a matter of time if the United States could muster the will to surge troops for “just a little bit longer” — that “[t]here [was] no imminent threat of the government being overthrown,” (CNN, 2009). A kernel of the speech that turned out to be one of its oracle insights was that “the Taliban has gained momentum.” Unfortunately, as is on display in current intra-Afghan negotiations, a refusal to commit to sustained presence until certain concrete criteria are met gives Taliban extremists all they need: a grain of hope, and a lot of leverage. The United States and the Free World is at war with an ideology, and as the allies learned from the Cold War, a conflict of such a nature cannot be won without a whole-of-government, integrated, multifaceted approach.

By time President Donald Trump swore the oath of office in 2017, Obama had officially “ended” America’s combat mission in December 2014 and declared that “[the United States was] no longer engaged in a major ground war in Afghanistan,” (White House, 2016). Stressing the role of America’s allies in maintaining a small-scale counter-terror presence and military advisors charged with training and aiding the Afghan Security Forces, Obama attempted to close his Presidency as the man who ended America’s War in Afghanistan. Upon taking office, Trump was quickly made aware of the large strategic obstacles still remaining in the region. The Taliban were far from defeated, and as America drew down forces, the Taliban had begun to expand once again.

Interestingly this one-foot-in-the-water approach, while an apparent middle ground, has negated the positive impacts of either the decision to withdrawal or to surge. In 2014, the Taliban expressed worry that President Obama’s potential withdrawal and an end to foreign occupation “may lead to a sharp drop in recruitment among the Pashtun who have been fighting a “defensive jihad” against the invaders,” (Hussain). By keeping forces present in the nation but not in any number sufficient to properly unseat the Taliban, the United States has effectively maintained jihadi morale while also giving them room for growth. Inaction, or a slight drawdown of forces, should be as unpreferable to those concerned about American interests and Afghan peace as a withdrawal.

Nation Building’s Price Tag

In December 2001 the Brookings Institution calculated that if the Afghan reconstruction effort were to mirror successful reconstructions of the past, most notably South Korea and Taiwan, it may cost $1.5 billion per year for 10-15 years — a total of $15 – $22.5 billion (O’Hanlon). In the 2002-2003 fiscal year, the Institution’s projection seemed too bold: the United States Congress obligated $1.4 billion for non-security-related assistance and expended $900 million (United States General Accounting Office, 2004). In 2018, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) testified before Congress, revealing his office’s findings up to that point. The United States government had allocated $126 billion for reconstruction efforts in the nation, “already exceed[ing] the total of U.S. aid committed to the Marshall Plan for rebuilding much of Europe after World War II.” Seeing a nation suffering from failing infrastructure, governmental corruption, and a reemerging terrorist threat, lawmakers continued to be puzzled by the comparative lack of results achieved for the dollars spent.

That same year, SIGAR published a comprehensive “Lessons Learned” report on stabilization efforts in Afghanistan. Notably, they concluded that “[u]nder immense pressure to quickly stabilize insecure districts, U.S. government agencies spent far too much money, far too quickly, in a country woefully unprepared to absorb it.” In other words, money doesn’t solve all problems, and expenditures cannot be a metric for success.

Pointing towards a lack of proper organization and implementation rather than a lack of both financial and political will (though often intertwined), these “post-mortems”, as they were, indicate that the pressure President Bush felt at the onset of the war for quick action and quick withdrawal permeated reconstruction efforts for the next 19 years. This odd love affair between short-term vision and an excessive influx of cash confused commanders, troops, and the public about the long game the United States’ pursued. Was this conflict a surgical removal of terrorists that was going a bit longer than expected? Was this a venture in nation-building? What did “victory” mean?

Time’s passage indicates by most metrics, and by admission from the U.S. government, that the United States and coalition forces engaged in “nation-building”. This begs the question: what nation was built? Despite its shortcomings, many successes were attained. From invasion to 2014, women in schools went from nearly 0 to around 2.8 million. In that same period, average life expectancy for Afghans increased from 56 years to 60 (BBC, 2014). But there is much work to be done. The nation still has some of the lowest literacy rates in the world, poverty is rampant, and women face significant barriers to social mobility. Since the international community largely withdrew, “[e]conomic growth has shrunk while the government remains heavily dependent on foreign aid,” (Eggers & Tellis, 2017). Despite its mind-boggling price, little has been achieved that can be sustained without substantial foreign support, and any substantive results have been far less than those reaped in allied/American reconstruction efforts in Germany, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan.

These statistics, and America’s history for the past 19 years in the nation, indicate that a constant shift in Presidential visions (within administrations and across them) alongside ensuing tactical and short-term goal shifts turned Afghanistan into an effort with a lot of money and little constancy in what that money was actually building towards. This shift in strategic outlook’s foundation can be found in the planning process for the initial invasion of Afghanistan. While the State Department and other diplomatic agencies advised Bush and the Department of Defense on the invasion, “[t]he military establishment unilaterally planned the invasion,” (Rasouli, 2020, pg. 31). The “War on Terror’s” Afghan front continually switched gears between an emphasis on short-term military objectives such as eliminating militants in certain regions, and on longer-term strategic objectives such as stabilizing Afghanistan and assisting the central government in their peacekeeping role. One U.S. official embedded in an American village reconstruction effort described their frustration with the short-sightedness of operations on-the-ground: “The mission wasn’t to win but rather to get in and out as quickly as possible,” (SIGAR, 2018). Unfortunately, short-term and long-term goals were often misaligned, which Army Colonel (ret.) Bruce Pagel, a former Army Colonel who served in Afghanistan and Iraq, described as a recipe for disaster (2020) in any foreign military and/or diplomatic endeavor.

Taliban Resurgence

Today the Taliban are more powerful than at any point since their fall from power in late 2001. While many up-to-date statistics on their grip over Afghanistan are no longer public information following the NATO-led mission, “Resolute Support”, halted publication of said data in May 2019 (Kennedy, 2019), the Afghan central government only controlled just over 50% of its nation’s land in early 2019, down from 72% in late 2015 (Kennedy, 2019). The Taliban’s recent expansion has been so successful that in September of 2020 Radio Free Europe published a classified NATO report that indicated that the Taliban was on the brink of being fully financially and militarily independent. Most of this can be attributed to Mullah Mohammed Yaqoob, “the new and ambitious military chief who has taken over the group’s financing,” (Bezhan, F.). According to the report, the Taliban “purposefully moved into regions of Afghanistan with exploitable mineral resources and have been able to build their finances, by their own admission, beyond their expectations.” In what seems to paint the Taliban as a nation-state without proper designation, the report found that the group’s success has been achieved through “refining taxation methods and building export markets through relationships with wholesale and export businesses of an extensive range of products, from coal and salt to precious stones including rubies and emeralds.” Similar to the development of the Latin American cartel and narcoterrorist groups in the 1970s, the Taliban is pursuing a business-model.

Remarkably efficient, this terrorist organization runs in stark contrast to the American-backed government in Kabul. Suffering from corruption, incompetence, an inability to remain self-sustaining, and a poorly trained and largely unprepared military, the government would collapse without the massive foreign support it receives. This is not to say, however, that the Taliban has access to superior expertise, and certainly not to superior firepower. Common among all counterinsurgencies is the perplexing situation faced by America in Vietnam, that, “in the process [of the conflict] we lost sight of one of the cardinal maxims of guerrilla war: the guerrilla wins if he does not lose. The conventional army loses if it does not win,” (Kissinger, 1969). Despite the Taliban’s impressive organization, it cannot be considered a nation-state in matters of warfare. That mistake was made prior and during the invasion of Afghanistan, and its result was short-sighted planning which naively assumed an end to prominent Taliban presence after a short-lived military effort.

Reevaluating Strategic Interests

Criticizing the Obama Administration’s setting of an 18-month draw-down date, General John Allen said that “[w]e went from an end state to an end date,” (SIGAR, 2018). The bedrock of an effective approach to the War in Afghanistan is setting overarching aims that are conditions-based. To the anger of Afghanistan’s President Ghani and his government, the Trump Administration promises that they have learned the lesson of Obama-era time-based withdrawals, but “Administration officials have given conflicting signals about the extent to which the ongoing U.S. military withdrawal would be contingent upon various developments,” (Congressional Research Service, 2020, pg. 10). Subjective timelines that prioritize short-term deadlines over long-term strategic interests jeopardize both those strategic interests and often the near-term objectives American forces have set. This also suggests that there can be no premature declarations of victory, particularly prior to an overwhelming majority of strategic goals being met.

The issue at hand in reconstruction was not the strategic framework. The outline for Afghan reconstruction post-invasion was largely correct. It rightly emphasized international cooperation, community construction, partnerships with locals and Afghan officials, and creating an environment which naturally drew the local population towards the peacemakers (coalition forces) and away from the troublemakers. Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs) and their division among coalition forces, with the United States – per usual – taking the lead, were an ingenious invention. Reaching a satisfactory end-state in Afghanistan will require the reinvigoration of the PRT structure, so that solutions will be holistic and not isolated to certain regions. This, in fact, was among the main issues that plagued the Obama-era surge: increased emphasis on high-threat provinces and decreased focus on others.

While the primary objective should remain ensuring that Afghanistan no longer serves as a terrorist safe haven, the experience of the past 19 years indicates that the U.S. must also prioritize the creation of an end-state hospitable to said objective. American leadership should list several new objectives alongside its current monolithic end: (1) establish a free, fair, and independent central Afghan government capable of governing itself, defending itself from internal threats, and that is allied with the United States, (2) ensure that women, ethnic minorities, and religious minorities are given proper protections under law and via legitimate state-sanctioned enforcement methods, (3) build an economy that is on track to eliminate opium production while also providing ample resources to rural communities so that they can sustain economic opportunity, (4) construct a robust Afghan civil service with a strong merit-based core, coupled with support from tribal authorities (Sabit ,2020), and (5) ensure that Afghanistan no longer harbors nor tolerates terrorism, eliminating the Taliban, Al Qaeda, ISIS, and other nefarious terrorist groups from any substantive position of strength in the nation. Achieving these ends will likely result in a troop surge.

Great leaders, as former Secretary of State and foreign policy expert Henry Kissinger explained, “can look destiny in the eye without flinching but also without attempting to play God.” An odd hubris, derived from a post-Soviet mindset that assumed global liberalization as a matter of destiny rather than of concrete actions, alongside a confused and constantly evolving strategic approach to the War in Afghanistan, contributed mightily to the quagmire that the United States and the Afghan people confront today. Leaders, beginning with the President of the United States and other coalition heads-of-state, must articulate their visions for Afghanistan clearly and without wordplay. This vision – a unified vision – must also be impressed upon military brass, civil leaders, policymakers, troops on-the-ground, and the public at-large. It need not be complex: the United States will not be safe if the Taliban controls Afghanistan. Therefore, we need to work with our allies to reach a resolution that gives the Afghan people the freedom to chart their own course without the yoke of terrorist rule. We have made mistakes in the past – and too many of them – but if we throw in the towel now, all of those who have died will have died for nothing.

So long as leaders wave the white flag by promising to withdraw, the Taliban will maintain an upper hand. The coalition has learned the lessons of Taliban strength, particularly in tough places, time and time again. They cannot throw off their shared knowledge in the name of hubristic “hope” for a better future for Afghanistan. Hope isn’t a strategy. It will not be politically expedient for coalition leaders, and their various parties and intranational alliances, to double-down on this conflict – but it will be worth it. If not for the peace-loving people of the war-torn nation, for the lives of those lost to terrorist attacks.


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