Author Brian J. Morra

America’s 2021 Afghanistan Withdrawal – Lessons Not Learned?

Jun 28, 2024

Originally posted in History is Now Magazine in June 2024

Today, when most people think of Afghanistan, they recall the Biden administration’s calamitous withdrawal in the summer of 2021 and the end of what many have termed a ‘forever war.’ Tragically, the Taliban’s victory reversed two decades of effort to establish liberal institutions and women’s rights in the war-ravaged country. Many commentators have compared America’s retreat from Afghanistan to the country’s hasty evacuation of Vietnam in 1975. Indeed, there are similarities in the chaotic nature of the two withdrawals and the resulting tragic effects for the people of Afghanistan and Vietnam, respectively.

Brian Morra looks at the lessons the Biden Administration could have taken from earlier Soviet and American wars in Afghanistan.

Regarding Afghanistan, Americans are less likely to remember the Soviet Union’s war there and Moscow’s own rather ignominious pull out. This is unfortunate because there are lessons to be learned from the USSR’s ill-fated foray into Afghanistan that US policymakers ought to have heeded during our own twenty-year war. My latest historical novel, The Righteous Arrows, published by Koehler Books, devotes a good deal of ink to the missteps made by Washington and Moscow in that long-ago war. My intention with The Righteous Arrows is to entertain while providing the reader with a sense of what should have been learned from the Soviets’ failed adventure in Afghanistan.

What was Moscow’s war in Afghanistan all about?

Like many wars, it began with what seemed to be good intentions. The Kremlin leaders who made the decision to go to war thought that it would not really be a war at all but a ‘police action’ or a ‘special military operation’ if you like. The Kremlin leadership expected their engagement in Afghanistan to be sharp and quick. Instead, it turned into a decade-long, bloody slog that contributed to the later implosion of the USSR itself. Talk about unintended consequences!

How did the Soviet foray into Afghanistan start?

It began over the Christmas season in 1979 when the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev was convinced to come to the aid of a weak, pro-Russian socialist regime in Kabul. The initial operation was led by the KGB with support from the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) and Army Airborne units. After initial success, the Kremlin quickly became embroiled in a war with tribal militias who did not like either the socialist puppet regime that Moscow was propping up or the Soviet occupation.

What was supposed to be a quick operation became a ferocious guerrilla war that lasted most of the 1980s and killed some 16,000 Soviet troops. The war sapped the strength of the Soviet armed forces and exposed to anyone who was paying attention just how weak the USSR had become. By 1986, the reformist Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had decided to get out of the bloody quagmire in Afghanistan. He found it was not that easy to leave and the last Russian forces did not depart Afghanistan until February 1989.

United States’ involvement

Beginning with the Jimmy Carter administration, the United States provided arms to the Afghan Islamic rebels fighting the Soviets. Military support from the US grew exponentially under President Ronald Reagan and by 1986 Washington was arming the Mujaheddin with advanced weapons, including the Stinger surface-to-air missiles that decimated Soviet airpower. America’s weapons turned the tide against the Soviet occupiers, but Washington also rolled the dice by arming Islamic rebels that it could not control.

Not only did the Afghan Islamic fighters become radicalized, but they were also joined by idealistic jihadis from all over the world. The Soviets’ ten-year occupation of Afghanistan became a magnet for recruiting jihadis, as did NATO’s two-decades long occupation some years later. The founder of al Qaeda, Usama bin Laden, brought together and funded Arab fighters in Afghanistan, ostensibly to fight the Russians, but mainly to build his own power base. Although Washington never armed bin Laden’s fighters, he used his presence in Afghanistan during the Soviet war and occupation as a propaganda bonanza. He trumpeted the military prowess of al Qaeda, which was largely a myth of bin Laden’s own creation, and claimed that he brought down the Soviet bear. His propaganda machine claimed that if al Qaeda could defeat one superpower (the USSR), then it also could beat the other one (the USA).

During the 1980s, Washington officials downplayed the danger of arming radical Islamic fighters. It was far more important for the White House to bring down the Soviet Union than to worry about a handful of Mujaheddin. One must admit that the Americans’ proxy war against the USSR in Afghanistan was the most successful one it conducted during the entire Cold War. On the other hand, Washington opened a virtual Pandora’s box of militarized jihadism and has been dealing with the consequences ever since.

The aftermath

The Soviet occupation encouraged most of Afghanistan’s middle class to flee the country, leaving an increasingly radicalized and militarized society in its wake. This was the Afghanistan the United States invaded in the fall of 2001, shortly after bin Laden’s 9/11 attacks on Wall Street and the Pentagon. Policymakers in Washington failed to grasp just how radically Afghan society had changed because of the Soviet occupation.

There was discussion in Washington’s national security circles in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, warning of the dangers of fighting in Afghanistan. Bromides were offered, calling the country the ‘graveyard of empires’, but none of it had much impact on policy. Most officials in the George W. Bush administration did not understand how radicalized Afghan society had become and how severe the costs of fighting a counter-insurgency operation in Afghanistan might turn out to be.

The CIA-led operation to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s with small numbers of Americans was the game plan Washington also used in the fall of 2001 to defeat al Qaeda and bring down the ruling Taliban regime. The playbook worked brilliantly in both cases. Unfortunately, for the United States and our NATO allies, the initial defeat of the Taliban did not make for a lasting victory or an enduring peace.

For twenty years, the United States fought two different wars in Afghanistan. One was a counter-terror war, the fight to defeat al Qaeda and its affiliates and to prevent them from reconstituting. The other war was a counterinsurgency against the Taliban and their allies. The reason the United States and NATO went into Afghanistan was to prosecute the first war – the anti-terror war. We fell into a counterinsurgency conflict as the Taliban reconstituted with help from Pakistan and others. This was a classic case of ‘mission creep’ and it required large combat forces to be deployed, in contrast to the light footprint of the counter-terror operation. The first war – the counter-terror war – prevented another 9/11 style major attack on the United States, while the second one required the US and NATO to deploy massive force and – ultimately – depended on the soundness of the Afghan government we supported.

The sad fact is that the successful campaign against the Taliban and the routing of al Qaeda in 2001 and 2002 led to an unfocused twenty-year war that ended with the Taliban back in charge and a humiliated United States leaving hundreds of thousands of vulnerable Afghan allies behind. In sworn Congressional testimony, General Milley, who in 2021 was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and General Mackenzie, who was Commander of Central Command, have stated that they forcefully advised President Biden to leave a small footprint of US forces and contractors in Afghanistan to prosecute the counter-terror war. Our NATO allies were willing to stay and in fact increased their forces in Afghanistan shortly after Biden was inaugurated. Not only did President Biden not heed his military advisors, but he also later denied that they ever counseled him to keep a small force in Afghanistan. Some have described Biden’s decision to pull out of Afghanistan as ‘pulling defeat from the jaws of victory’.

President Biden further asserted that, by withdrawing, he was merely honoring the agreement President Trump had made earlier with the Taliban. This claim does not stand up to objective scrutiny because the Taliban repeatedly violated the terms of the Trump agreement, which gave the White House ample opportunity to declare it null and void.

What are the lessons the United States should have learned from the Soviet and American wars in Afghanistan?

  1. Keep your war aims limited and crystal clear.
  2. Fight mission creep and do not allow it to warp the original war aims or plans for a light footprint of forces.
  3. Beware of the law of unintended consequences. Consider the downside risks of arming the enemy of one’s enemy.
  4. Be willing to invest for the long-term or do not get involved. The United States still has forces in Germany, Italy, and Japan nearly eighty years after the end of World War II. Some victories are worth protecting.
  5. Ensure that the Washington tendency toward ‘group think’ does not hijack critical thinking. Senior policymakers must think and act strategically, so that ‘hope’ does not become the plan.

Footnote on Ukraine

I will close with a footnote about the Russian war in Ukraine. The Soviet war in Afghanistan has dire similarities with Russia’s ‘special military operation’ underway today in Ukraine. In Afghanistan, Soviet forces killed indiscriminately and almost certainly committed numerous war crimes. The war also militarized Afghan society – a condition that persists to this day, and one that had a profound impact on America’s war in Afghanistan. In Ukraine, Russia’s invasion has been characterized by war crimes, mass emigration, and the militarization of Ukrainian society.

Much as in Iraq and Afghanistan, senior US policy in Ukraine is failing to identify clear strategic outcomes. It is the role of our most senior policy officials to focus on strategic outcomes and an exit strategy (if one is warranted) beforecommitting American forces or treasure to foreign wars. Too often, platitudes have masqueraded as strategy. When one thinks of great wartime presidents like Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, the trait they shared was a singular focus on strategic outcomes and on how to shape the post-war environment. The Soviets failed to do so in their war in Afghanistan. The US also fell short in Afghanistan. Unfortunately, the banalities that pass for foreign policy strategy we hear in Washington today indicate that we have not learned from the past.

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