The United States’ war in Afghanistan is effectively over. Barring an irrational decision by the Taliban to attack the Kabul airport they will soon inherit, the remaining U.S. troops will quickly withdraw, taking all American citizens and thousands of Afghans with them. Given the utter collapse of Afghan government forces, there is likely to be little further fighting in the near term. But the battle over the 20-year war’s history and lessons has only just begun.
As veterans and scholars of the Afghanistan war disentangle fact from fiction, there is one myth that should be immediately discarded: The idea that absent U.S. withdrawal, the conflict in Afghanistan was in a sustainable stalemate. Those still unwilling to grasp the magnitude of Washington’s defeat are attempting to make this argument. On Tuesday, for example, Congressman Dan Crenshaw wrote that the United States “found the proper balance in recent years—maintaining a small force that propped up the Afghan government while also giving us the capability to strike at Taliban and other terrorist networks as needed.” But there is overwhelming evidence that U.S. President Joe Biden faced a binary choice between withdrawal and escalation.
Propagators of this light footprint fantasy point to the purportedly low cost to the United States of checking the Taliban via a small U.S. advising force supported by airpower. That cost is not as low as advertised. At $52 billion in 2019 for 9,800 U.S. troops, the monetary cost of a small military footprint in Afghanistan was financially sustainable, but not negligible. The entire U.S. Marine Corps budget that year, by comparison, was $44 billion.
There has not been an American killed in action in Afghanistan since February 8, 2020. But the situation was artificial, a result of both the Doha agreement with the Taliban and COVID-19 restrictions on operations. Even in the elite strike units of the Afghan army and police forces, 96 percent of ground operations were unpartnered by late 2020, according to the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), John Sopko. Had American servicemembers been dispersed and engaged during any serious Taliban offensive, ample U.S. casualties would have been a certainty.
To focus on the sustainability of the Afghanistan mission for the United States, alone, is to miss the point, however. For the better part of a decade, the force carrying the bulk of the fighting load has been the Afghanistan National Security Forces (ANSF), not the U.S. and its coalition partners. ANSF, according to the public testimony of U.S. generals, has long been losing men at an unsustainable rate.
Nearly three years ago, then-incoming U.S. Central Command head Lieutenant General Kenneth McKenzie told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Afghan government troop losses “have been very high… their losses are not going to be sustainable unless we correct this problem.” Fully a third of ANSF manpower had to be replaced every year, due to combat deaths, men wounded in action, desertion, and soldiers failing to re-enlist. This enormous annual turnover did more than inhibit the combat effectiveness of Afghan security forces; in many cases, it prevented cohesive units from being formed at all.
The ANSF attrition crisis predated even McKenzie’s uncomfortable admission. In late 2017, army officials in several Afghan provinces told the New York Times that their recruiting numbers were down 50 percent or more, a result of both heavy casualties and Taliban pressure on families considering sending their sons to fight for the government. The Pentagon promptly classified information on the size of the Afghan army and police forces, supposedly at the behest of the Afghan government.
Color-coded district stability maps became a ready reference point for Afghanistan analysts as the war intensified. Usually categorizing districts as government-controlled, contested, or Taliban-controlled, such maps and the data that supported them were seen as a crucial measure of coalition progress. Yet the U.S. stopped collecting district stability data in October 2018, ostensibly because it was “redundant.” That decision further limited information and honesty about the prospects for U.S. success in Afghanistan. Sopko told reporters at the time: “Almost every indicia, metric for success or failure is now classified or nonexistent.”
The reasons for this reduced transparency are obvious. As Bill Roggio, editor of the Long War Journal’s prominent open source district stability map, put it, “When data shows a trend that is contrary to a desired narrative, the military, like most bureaucracies, seeks to suppress it… It got harder and harder for the military to push its message, so the information has been buried.”
The effect of attempting to maintain the sustainable stalemate myth went beyond deceiving American taxpayers and the media. Abandoning district data collection may well have contributed to the strategic surprise of the Taliban’s shocking conquest of Afghanistan over the past week. The seeds of this seemingly sudden victory were laid long before, as the security situation in Afghanistan steadily eroded. The Taliban, in the manner of a late-blooming movie star or athlete, spent 20 years becoming an overnight success.
In his speech to the nation on Monday, Biden rightly rejected the light footprint argument. Those who believe defeating the Taliban is and was a vital national security interest of the United States are welcome to try to make that case, and with it a post hoc justification for escalation. But advocates of a continued U.S. war in Afghanistan should not be allowed to take the easy way out and pine for a mythical sustainable stalemate. That was neither a reality nor a future on offer.