Editor’s note: This article is part of Just Security’s ongoing coverage of the U.S. military withdrawal and Taliban takeover in Afghanistan.


My friend and colleague, Richard Haass, has aptly distinguished “wars of necessity” from “wars of choice.” Yet the long war in Afghanistan after the quick defeat of the Taliban in 2001 was neither. Rather it was an effort at nation-building, though the George W. Bush administration eschewed the term. The immediate victory was essentially a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) operation, working with Afghan contacts in the Northern Alliance that had been developed in the covert war against Soviet occupation. (In passing, my impression is that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld never forgave the CIA for its victory – a bit of bureaucratic pride that played some role in subsequent events.)

From the beginning of the engagement in Afghanistan, it was plain, as it was in the following years in Iraq, that employing the military as the primary means of nation-building was badly mismatched to the task at hand. A RAND colleague, who was a Vietnam veteran, observed to me that if the instrument for nation-building was a twenty-year-old rifleman from Kentucky, it was no knock on him to realize that he was hardly going to have the patience, empathy, or communication skills to be effective. A student of mine, a Marine who was in and out of the war zones, put it still more colorfully when I asked him how things were going in Iraq as events began to spiral downward in 2004-2005: “We’re a football team, but they’re asking us to dance the ballet. We’re pretty good athletes, so we’re not terrible at it. But fundamentally we’re a football team.”

I had the honor of chairing the National Intelligence Council from 2014 to 2016, and in that capacity I inherited a very good National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on Afghanistan, done the year before I arrived. That NIE laid out metrics, mostly military but edging into politics – degree of control of Afghan districts, for example – for judging how the coalition was performing. It became the basis for periodic assessments and for a lively, and usually friendly, debate – one that featured disagreement between Washington-based intelligence analysts and military operators, especially those on the scene.

In my experience, that disagreement between analysts and operators is built in. After all, concern about possible bias if analysts are tightly yoked to operators, as they are in the military, was one of the main reasons for creating an independent CIA in the first place. In the case of Afghanistan, the military operators, understandably, generally thought they were doing good things, and usually they were, all the more so because of the camaraderie that develops between the Americans doing the training and the foreign soldiers being trained. It  was left to the analysts in Washington, however, to ask whether all that effort was indeed making a meaningful difference. By the time I left the chair, it was plain to me that we were losing slowly, and that any talk of “reconciliation” with the Taliban was eyewash because what the Taliban meant by the term was hardly a compromise but, instead, a semi-graceful defeat for the government.

Indeed, to speak of the Afghan “government” illustrates the sharpest case in point for another source of error. We are dependent on language but are also imprisoned by it. To talk, as we had to, about the Afghan “government” was to imply that there was one, when we all knew that what existed in Afghanistan was not something that merited the label “government.” (It reminded me of using the Pentagon papers, years ago, to teach graduate students about intelligence in Vietnam. Then, the conventional wisdom was that the United States, clueless, had blundered into a civil war. In fact, the intelligence assessments in the summer of 1965 were spot on, and on the subject of the South Vietnamese “government” they were so scathing as to make a reader wonder why anyone would want it as an ally.)

Concern about possible bias if analysts are tightly yoked to operators, as they are in the military, was one of the main reasons for creating an independent CIA in the first place.

The main lesson of Afghanistan should be an easy one by now, after the sweep of events from Vietnam to Iraq: nation-building requires a nation, or at least a competent, committed government. America’s signal successes at nation-building were nation-rebuilding, in the instances of Germany and Japan. It is not just that nation-building is hard, and we don’t do it very well. In Afghanistan there was never any nation to rebuild, only a collection of warring tribes, clans, and sects.

The second lesson is equally plain – to use the military as the main instrument in nation-building only compounds the error. In Afghanistan, what we attempted was more nation-building through building the military. On its face, as many have commented, training Afghans how to fight is like educating Noah about ship-building. After more than forty years of war, unfortunately fighting is what many Afghans know how to do. More to the point, the metrics about military capability all tended to be American-centric – the quality of arms and quantity of training or weaponry.

As in Iraq, the critical question, as my colleague and former Director of National Intelligence, Jim Clapper, has underscored was: will they fight? That is the greater imponderable. We got the answer wrong in Vietnam, and again in Iraq, and, tragically, yet again in Afghanistan. The answer cycles back to the “government” and whether it is worth fighting for. On that score, the example of the Iraqi army – which quickly collapsed in the Islamic State’s 2014 blitz across northern Iraq – ought to have sharpened the concerns about the Afghan government that were present all along.

U.S. intelligence got the sign right – the Taliban would win – but the timing wrong. There was plenty of reason to believe that once the unravelling began, the tipping point would come very soon and an apparently formidable military would simply melt away: once you sense your side will not win, better to cut a deal with your adversaries sooner than later. At least, intelligence should have rated that possibility high.

Now, the immediate challenge is all too evident: evacuating Americans, other foreigners and, harder yet, those Afghans who have worked with us. There, too, the tipping-point was all too reminiscent of Vietnam, for the Ghani government pressed the United States not to start evacuations lest they be seen as a vote of no confidence in the government. And so the U.S. government was tragically slow at doing what the military is very good at, moving people.

The example of the Iraqi army – which quickly collapsed in the Islamic State’s 2014 blitz across northern Iraq – ought to have sharpened the concerns about the Afghan government that were present all along.

Beyond evacuations, the next humanitarian concern is what happens to the vast majority of Afghans who will have to stay. In 2020, foreign aid accounted for 43 percent of the Afghan gross domestic product (GDP). Washington has frozen $9.4 billion of Afghan reserves  held in the United States, and the EU and others have suspended aid to Afghanistan. Sanctions have become the instrument of choice for American foreign policy, and it will be tempting to put the screws on the Taliban, especially given the political fallout at home from Kabul’s collapse abroad. The president’s remarks on Friday suggested he and the Secretary of State are already moving in this direction. But the temptation to reach for sanctions should be resisted.

As George Kennan observed long ago: you can’t hurt the government without hurting the people, and you can’t help the people without helping the government. If unfreezing assets could be a bargaining chip for better Taliban treatment of the Afghan people, so much the better, though there would be scant means of enforcement. If some sanctions are deemed a political imperative, better that they be targeted on specific Taliban leaders.  Those would be essentially symbolic, as such sanctions usually are, for the leaders are unlikely to want to avail themselves of international financial mechanisms.  The Afghan people have suffered so much that, in the end, helping make their lives a little bit better is simply the right thing to do – even if it also helps the Taliban.


Photo credit: (L) Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin speaks with the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley prior to testifying at a Senate Committee on Appropriations hearing on the 2022 budget for the Defense Department June 17, 2021 (Caroline Brehman/Pool/AFP via Getty Images); (R) Director Avril Haines, Director, Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), speaks with CIA Director William Burns, prior to testifying at a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing about worldwide threats, April 14, 2021 (Saul Loeb/Pool/AFP via Getty Images)