FOR THE UNITED STATES, the war in Afghanistan was the most protracted war in history—longer than World War I, World War II, and Vietnam combined. Shortly after the seemingly chaotic withdrawal of U.S. forces in mid-August, the magazine convened a conversation among three individuals with very different perspectives on—and experiences with—the U.S. in Afghanistan.

An investigative reporter for The Washington Post, Craig Whitlock ’90 has covered the global war on terrorism for The Post since 2001 as a foreign correspondent. He wrote The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War (Simon & Schuster). Published this past summer, the book is based on his exhaustive research into the Lessons Learned project from the Office of Special Inspector General for Afghanistan; Army oral histories; Congressional hearings; Defense Department memos; and archived interviews with key administration officials, outside advisers, lawmakers, and foreign leaders. A history major at Duke, Whitlock was editor of The Chronicle in his senior year.

Nate Schwartzbauer graduated from West Point in 2012 and served in the Army as an infantry and special-forces officer for nine years. As a Green Beret, he served on three continents, leading teams of Americans, Afghans, Africans, and Europeans. He left active service in 2021 to focus on issues related to the health of American democracy. With his wife, Paige, he is launching a nonprofit focused on establishing connections between military veterans and Afghan families resettled in the United States. He is a Master of Public Policy/M.B.A. dual-degree candidate at Sanford and Fuqua. His academic interests include American grand strategy, improving community social capital, and reviving American civic virtue.

Aman Farahi, who grew up in Afghanistan, studied at Middlebury College and the Barcelona Graduate School of Economics. Since 2010, he had been living and working in Kabul as an economist with the World Bank, the Ministry of Finance, and the United Nations Development Program. In those roles, he was concentrating on issues tied to macroeconomics, public finance, and development economics in Afghanistan. Farahi came to Duke two weeks before the collapse of the Afghan government. Enrolled in the Sanford School’s Master of International Development Policy program, he is specializing in public-finance management.

Then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld worried that the U.S. lacked an exit strategy—and that was early in the war. That makes me wonder what the policy needs or the psychological impulses might have been that prompted decades of, as you say, Craig, deceit and lying on the part of American officials.

CW: In the early years, there was this real concern on the part of the Bush administration that the U.S. military might get stuck in Afghanistan, and they wanted to avoid this, obviously. They knew what had happened to the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, and they were still mindful of what happened in Vietnam—this was only about twenty-five years after Vietnam.

One of the first questions President Bush got at a primetime news conference shortly after the war started in October 2001 was, “Could we get stuck in a quagmire in Afghanistan like we did in Vietnam?” Bush dismissed this. He said, “No, no, we’ve learned our lessons from Vietnam. We’re not going to fight a guerilla conflict with conventional forces.” That was one reason why they didn’t send many troops at first, that they sent a limited number of mostly special forces, CIA operatives, and it was mostly an air war.

There was this one Army oral history from a logistics officer. He was in charge of trying to do the laundry and showers at Bagram Air Base, which had been an old Soviet base that we’d taken over in northern Afghanistan. And even up till December of 2001, he had been told, “Don’t install any showers at Bagram for our troops there, because they’re not going to stay. They’re going to come right back.” For a couple of months, the troops had to send their laundry out by air to Uzbekistan to get cleaned.

Nate, the U.S. had the stated aim of defeating Al-Qaeda. And that quickly became muddled with the broader aim of doing whatever it might take to prevent Al-Qaeda from taking root later on in Afghanistan. If we kept our focus on Al-Qaeda, would that have been the better course? After all, the Taliban was not the group that had attacked the United States.

NS: There is some older strategic wisdom that I think is illuminating for answering that question. Clausewitz, in his On War said: “War is an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will. The political object, the original motive for the war, will thus determine both the military objective to be reached and the amount of effort it requires.” I think that quote could not better frame any conversation about the longest conflict in American history.

I think senior level policymakers, generals, and flag officers fundamentally lost sight of this Clausewitzian truth on warfare, that war is the continuation of politics by other means. We lost sight of that original objective of going in to not necessarily to defeat Al-Qaeda, but to neutralize Al-Qaeda to prevent future attacks. Various actors in the military-industrial-political complex had differing objectives and end-states, like nation-building, that they wanted to be met; none of them really harked back to that original Clausewitzian definition of the war.

CW: Al-Qaeda by 2002 had really disappeared from the country, but then the political goals, the military goals shifted to not just neutralizing Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan but trying to make sure that Al-Qaeda could never come back.

But that’s a very different objective, right? It’s one thing to kick them out, but to say we want to ensure they can never come back, that’s a vague objective. How do you do that? How will you know that they could never come back? Al-Qaeda’s leaders had fled to other countries and their network had changed, had become more amorphous, it was creating affiliates in other countries, and it was a decentralized organization.

There was one interview that really still jumps out at me. It was with Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat. Burns said that by 2004, nobody was having any conversations in the Bush administration or with allies about how long we might need to be here in Afghanistan. He said, “We let things drift. We let things go on autopilot.” That was a pretty critical change from the earlier commitment to avoid another Vietnam or another version of the Soviets in Afghanistan.

Aman, you have lived out a chunk of the history of Afghanistan. At the time the U.S. invaded, Afghanistan had been seeing constant warfare since the Soviet invasion two decades earlier. In a population of around twenty-two million, three million or so were already taking flight as refugees. There were problems of illiteracy, problems of malnutrition, and a sizable chunk of the GDP came from the opium trade. Plus, it was a population that by experience, by habit, was hostile toward the idea of centralized or federalized authority. Did the U.S. understand Afghanistan?

AF: Well before 2001, the U.S. was engaged in supporting the Mujahideen in the 1980s, in the fight against the Soviet-backed government of Afghanistan. The U.S., even if it did not understand Afghanistan from direct experience, should have learned from the failed ten-year Soviet military occupation. Afghanistan is well-known as the graveyard of empires. It should have been clear that military victory would be very difficult, especially with other regional players active there.

Craig, in the book you do quite a bit around George Bush’s 2002 speech in which he outlined his vision of Afghanistan, a vision that really could be seen as nation-building: a stable government, a national army, educational provisions for boys and girls alike. Should someone at that time have asked whether the U.S. had ever succeeded at the goal of nation-building, at least after the postwar Marshall Plan in Western Europe?

CW: Bush had campaigned for the White House against this whole idea of using U.S. military to nation-build, as he put it, and he was critical of what the Clinton administration did in Somalia and Haiti and the Balkans. Yet, after the U.S. invasion, when Al-Qaeda’s leadership was killed, captured, or fled, and the Taliban was toppled from power, the U.S. made these half-hearted measures to try and stabilize and build up the Afghan government, Afghan institutions, at a time when it needed it the most. In some ways Bush was stingy at a critical moment, when doing more would have really helped, whether it was building up infrastructure or helping to build up a government.

According to Craig’s book, from the very start, the U.S. underestimated how much Afghan security forces would cost, how long it would take to train those forces, how many soldiers and how many police would be needed to battle the insurgency. And then the basic strategy of the U.S. military was essentially to clone itself in its structure and its customs and its practices, even though the U.S. template did not really square with the Afghan experience and needs.

NS: I worked primarily with commandos, or the ANA [Afghan National Army] special-operations forces. They received a lot of intensive training from their U.S. counterparts. And they were good. They performed well under combat. And up until the capitulation of Kabul, they were bearing the brunt of the fighting, compared to the larger conventional Afghan army. But it took an immense amount of time, resources, and engagement that the American military’s force structure can’t support. There are only a small number of American special operators relative to the rest of the military, and they can’t be mass-produced—let alone quickly. Our conventional forces that paired with the conventional ANA and police forces weren’t particularly suited to this task of building capacity, despite that massive amount of resources provided to the Afghan army.

To your point, this is why trying to clone the U.S. military in the Afghan army in a widespread way was an ill-fated strategy. More consideration should have been given to existing Afghan structures and continuing to pair them with special operators, which happened in the very first part of the war. It might have actually required fewer troops than we sent over the years.

There’s also a psychological component to warfare; it can manifest down at the ground-troop individual level all the way up to top leadership. That psychological piece of the war became anchored in the U.S. decision to leave and in the airpower necessarily going away—once that idea of a vanishing support structure seeps into the ranks, it’s almost like a contagion that compromises morale and the will to fight.

CW: Nate, you said you were deployed from 2018 with the Afghan National Army. That was before the U.S. government under Trump had committed to a withdrawal. There were negotiations with the Taliban. Did you feel good that at that point that there would be some kind of political reconciliation or that they could hold off the Taliban indefinitely? Or did you sense there was too much of a strain on them and if the U.S. pulled out, this just wasn’t going to hold out?

NS: I think there was optimism within the ANA community. There was a lot of pride with the ANA special operations; they knew they were providing the main effort in the fighting. There was also optimism on our part that we finally had a general, General Austin Miller, who understood that there needed to be a political end state—the first general in a very long line of generals who understood that.

I was there when President Trump tweeted that we were going to withdraw. There was an overnight on-the-ground change in how the Taliban was postured when we faced them in combat. They were immediately emboldened. And in subsequent operations—especially during the winter fighting season, which is typically the downtime—they certainly got a little charge.

Aman, U.S. officials, as Craig notes, approved more projects than what they could possibly keep track of. They had to deal with lots of turnover among those who were supposed to be doing the oversight. A lot of the money ended up with overpriced contractors, with corrupt Afghan officials. A lot of what was funded was never built. A lot that was built was built sloppily or with little attention to local needs. What were your experiences with project development?

AF: Much of the progress was focused in the first decade of the war. The GDP was growing, people were doing better, there were more jobs, basic institutions were being built. More girls were going to school, female teachers and health workers were training. Then progress stalled.

So how much was gained for the money spent? First, Afghanistan’s institutions were very weak. That includes financial institutions. Afghanistan never had the absorption capacity to absorb all of this money. All the pressure to spend this money fueled the culture of corruption; Afghanistan’s public sector remained corrupt right until the day Kabul collapsed. Donor money from groups like USAID also fell outside the lines of whatever process of national planning existed, so it was highly likely that you would end up building a school where local conditions had no need for it.

CW: I think Aman is exactly right on that. I also think these weren’t constant problems for twenty years; there were different stages. During the Bush administration, there was at first a real paucity of development money— just when more attention and money would have done some good. During Bush’s second term, there was constant message traffic from the U.S. ambassador in Kabul begging for more money for Afghanistan. And yet, the White House and the State Department were saying, “Forget it. We’re all focused on Iraq.”

When Obama came into office, he sent in a surge of troops, but he was only going to do it for eighteen months or so. And so, there was this rush to try and throw money at the problem. It went from not enough to too much.

The whole metric of success was how much you could spend, and nobody really cared if it made any sense. We were trying to do these nation-building and development projects while Afghanistan was still at war, and the insurgency was gradually getting worse. And so you also see interview after interview with military officers and aid workers saying the strategy was to try and stabilize parts of Afghanistan where the insurgency was strong. But that had it all backwards. You can’t stabilize a country and do development projects when there’s still shooting going on.

AF: That issue brought up by Craig played out, from around 2012 to 2014, as I was working at the World Bank. Money was chasing conflict. We were incentivizing districts, incentivizing provinces and provincial governors, telling them, “Look, if there is conflict in your province, there will be these development dollars that will come there. And if you are a peaceful province, then you get very little.” We also have to remember that even as we never got the balance of expenditures right, the government in Afghanistan delivered very little in development. By the time the Taliban took over, people had lost the belief that the system would function at all after the U.S. withdrawal. The political leadership had several chances. They had all the money in the world. They had opportunities to resolve their political differences. And none of that happened.

From the beginning of the war, we were very aid-dependent. In 2018, the total public spending was roughly eleven billion dollars, for security along with development. Of that eleven billion dollars, 2.5 billion dollars came from internal revenue; the rest was outside grant money. And that was one of the best years for generating internal revenue.

Craig’s book mentions a U.S. State Department official who observed that one indisputable ingredient for corruption is money. And guess what? The U.S. had the money and the U.S. ultimately should be seen as bearing a lot of responsibility for the corruption that grew out of all that monetary disbursal.

CW: In 2007, the U.S. ambassador, Ronald Neumann, was going with the British ambassador to Kabul to meet with Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan. They were going to give him a hard time about all these corrupt officials in his government that he needed to get rid of. One in particular they were giving him a hard time about was Karzai’s half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, who was sort of the boss of Kandahar. Karzai just looked at the British ambassador and the U.S. ambassador and said, “You realize who’s giving my brother the money, don’t you? It’s the CIA and the U.S. military.”

There were moments when America might have made a reasonable exit. Early on, Taliban leaders expressed a willingness to begin discussions about Afghanistan’s future, but the U.S. treated the Taliban just like Al-Qaeda. Another moment, later on, might have been when Osama bin Laden was killed during Obama’s administration.

CW: Part of what you’re referring to was the Bonn Conference in late 2001. Withdrawal would have been hard politically, because there was such fear after September 11, and people really did lump the Taliban and Al-Qaeda together. There was just no political appetite to sort of be magnanimous to the Taliban and invite them back into the political system. Our Afghan allies in the Northern Alliance also weren’t real keen on that idea.

Another point would have been in 2004 after Hamid Karzai was first elected president. That actually was a free and fair election by and large, and it was kind of a high point for Afghan democracy. The insurgency wasn’t that strong at that point. And looking back, that might have been another moment when we might have been smarter and Karzai might have been smarter and said, “Okay, to stave off an insurgency, we need to bring them into the fold somehow while they’re weak.”

But as time went on, the Taliban sensed that as long as they could hold out, they could call the shots on any political reconciliation. It became harder and harder. You mentioned bin Laden’s death. Politically that certainly would have been easier. But our presidents—they didn’t have faith in the later years that the Afghan government would be able to stand on its two legs. Obama tried to end the war by the end of his second term. In December of 2014, he had announced an end to all U.S. combat operations and said, “We’re going to draw down over the next two years.” Of course, that didn’t happen.

There’s some hope that the need for international support might moderate today’s Taliban. At the same time, women are not being allowed to resume their working lives, and girls are not being allowed to attend secondary schools. What do you imagine Afghanistan’s future will look like?

AF: The immediate future does not look good, certainly from an economic perspective. We’re already seeing a lot of people lose jobs. When the U.S. troop levels declined from 2012 to 2014, we saw a massive effect on the economy. Before that, our economy was growing 9 percent on average, and after, from 2015 to 2020, it was 2 percent on average. What I see happening is the economy continuing to shrink, maybe to the level of the late 1990s—that and a deepening crisis in the banking sector. All of that will set up a humanitarian crisis.

We just have to watch what happens and what the Taliban policies are. If they say they have changed, can we verify that change? So far, their actions have been those of a victor claiming all the spoils. They’re not giving much in the way of gestures to the international community.

We should also consider the security situation. The current administration suggests that America’s security imperatives will be well-served by this so-called “over-the-horizon” strategy. But then there’s the drone strike that, because of faulty intelligence, went tragically wrong during the precipitous withdrawal in August.

NS: I’m skeptical of the “over-horizon” scenario. It’s extremely difficult to be able to prosecute a war from behind a screen. I’m not saying that’s all the means available to the national-security apparatus, but it is harder doing it remotely. Much of my work during my deployment was designed to be the most minimal American footprint as possible—but still a presence that provided a set of eyes on the ground in the prosecution of that war. We might have to be prepared for the resurgence of transnational terrorism based in Afghanistan, and this requires the combatant commands and the intelligence community to have to pivot their current approach and techniques very quickly. I hope we don’t have to see a resurgence, but I think there’s reason to be concerned.

CW: We’ll always have these debates: What went wrong? I’ve covered the so-called “War on Terror” for a long time, and I think the United States needs to define what its objectives are right now in Afghanistan. Are we looking at it purely from a threat perspective, so that we’re worried about Al-Qaeda coming back into Afghanistan and we’re going to continue with counterterrorism tactics that have had only a marginal effect over the last twenty years?

Is there a political way that would be more effective in Afghanistan? It’s hard to think of the Taliban as a partner. But if we’re trying to minimize the threat in Afghanistan, it would seem that the most effective way is to get the Taliban to not tolerate any jihadist in Afghanistan who might want to plot attacks against America. A big failing in the War on Terror is that we really don’t have a preventive strategy for dealing with this problem; we’ve been reactive.

AF: We hear from the Taliban that they need technical skills to run the government. But the shift in Afghanistan’s world view is so extreme that I don’t think people with my skill levels have any future there.

Aman left Afghanistan and was on his way to Duke just two weeks before the fall of Kabul. Nate, during that same ending phase, weren’t you working to extricate some partners in Afghanistan?

NS: A couple of my interpreters had already been in the United States for more than a year. My partner force commander, however, was still very much involved in the fight. A bunch of us who had worked with him had been in touch. One of us—three rotations after me, in the same role—was actually on the ground at the Kabul airport. He was able to grab our Afghan partner and make sure he got out, which he did. He’s in the United States now.

Nate, how would you reflect on the impact of the war, and the way it ended, on U.S. veterans who saw service in Afghanistan?

NS: Some struggled as this final phase was unfolding, and some continue to struggle more than others. But, for me, what resonates with veterans is that, despite the changes in policy over the twenty years we were there, at the end of the day, we managed to keep it an away game. Did we avoid terrorist attacks on the American homeland? Yes, we did. Was it the most efficient way? Probably not. But that wasn’t our decision. We went over because we were asked to, and we did our duty.

Nation-building—that wasn’t really the interest we were asked to serve. And promoting freedom? Well, I think we can claim incremental progress around the attachment to freedom in Afghanistan. That may be small solace for the blood and treasure we spent in the conflict. Or it may turn out to be a bigger thing. In any case, there’s a good amount of healing to be done, both on the veterans’ side and with the Afghan refugees brought here. My two biggest concerns are with the Afghan refugees and the resettlement process here, and then an entire generation of service members who served over there. Veterans’ mental health is going to be a really big issue. And as a result of our choices in this war, properly setting up the Afghans we are resettling here is a moral imperative for our entire country. 

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