Henry Kissinger on why America failed in Afghanistan

This By-invitation commentary is part of a series by global thinkers on the future of American power—examining the forces shaping the country’s global standing, from the rise of China to the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Read more here.

THE TALIBAN takeover of Afghanistan focuses the immediate concern on the extrication of tens of thousands of Americans, allies and Afghans stranded all over the country. Their rescue needs to be our urgent priority. The more fundamental concern, however, is how America found itself moved to withdraw in a decision taken without much warning or consultation with allies or the people most directly involved in 20 years of sacrifice. And why the basic challenge in Afghanistan has been conceived and presented to the public as a choice between full control of Afghanistan or complete withdrawal.

An underlying issue has dogged our counterinsurgency efforts from Vietnam to Iraq for over a generation. When the United States risks the lives of its military, stakes its prestige and involves other countries, it must do so on the basis of a combination of strategic and political objectives. Strategic, to make clear the circumstances for which we fight; political, to define the governing framework to sustain the outcome both within the country concerned and internationally.

The United States has torn itself apart in its counterinsurgent efforts because of its inability to define attainable goals and to link them in a way that is sustainable by the American political process. The military objectives have been too absolute and unattainable and the political ones too abstract and elusive. The failure to link them to each other has involved America in conflicts without definable terminal points and caused us internally to dissolve unified purpose in a swamp of domestic controversies.

We entered Afghanistan amid wide public support in response to the al-Qaeda attack on America launched from Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. The initial military campaign prevailed with great effectiveness. The Taliban survived essentially in Pakistani sanctuaries, from which it carried out insurgency in Afghanistan with the assistance of some Pakistani authorities.

But as the Taliban was fleeing the country, we lost strategic focus. We convinced ourselves that ultimately the re-establishment of terrorist bases could only be prevented by transforming Afghanistan into a modern state with democratic institutions and a government that ruled constitutionally. Such an enterprise could have no timetable reconcilable with American political processes. In 2010, in an op-ed in response to a troop surge, I warned against a process so prolonged and obtrusive as to turn even non-jihadist Afghans against the entire effort.

For Afghanistan has never been a modern state. Statehood presupposes a sense of common obligation and centralisation of authority. Afghan soil, rich in many elements, lacks these. Building a modern democratic state in Afghanistan where the government’s writ runs uniformly throughout the country implies a timeframe of many years, indeed decades; this cuts against the geographical and ethnoreligious essence of the country. It was precisely Afghanistan’s fractiousness, inaccessibility and absence of central authority that made it an attractive base for terrorist networks in the first place.

Although a distinct Afghan entity can be dated back to the 18th century, its constituent peoples have always fiercely resisted centralisation. Political and especially military consolidation in Afghanistan has proceeded along ethnic and clan lines, in a basically feudal structure where the decisive power brokers are the organisers of clan defence forces. Typically in latent conflict with each other, these warlords unite in broad coalitions primarily when some outside force—such as the British army that invaded in 1839 and the Soviet armed forces that occupied Afghanistan in 1979—seeks to impose centralisation and coherence.

Both the calamitous British retreat from Kabul in 1842, in which only a single European escaped death or captivity, and the momentous Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989 were brought about by such temporary mobilisation among the clans. The contemporary argument that the Afghan people are not willing to fight for themselves is not supported by history. They have been ferocious fighters for their clans and for tribal autonomy.

Over time, the war took on the unlimited characteristic of previous counterinsurgency campaigns in which domestic American support progressively weakened with the passage of time. The destruction of Taliban bases was essentially achieved. But nation-building in a war-torn country absorbed substantial military forces. The Taliban could be contained but not eliminated. And the introduction of unfamiliar forms of government weakened political commitment and enhanced already rife corruption.

Afghanistan thereby repeated previous patterns of American domestic controversies. What the counterinsurgency side of the debate defined as progress, the political one treated as disaster. The two groups tended to paralyse each other during successive administrations of both parties. An example is the 2009 decision to couple a surge of troops in Afghanistan with a simultaneous announcement that they would begin to withdraw in 18 months.

What had been neglected was a conceivable alternative combining achievable objectives. Counterinsurgency might have been reduced to the containment, rather than the destruction, of the Taliban. And the politico-diplomatic course might have explored one of the special aspects of the Afghan reality: that the country’s neighbours—even when adversarial with each other and occasionally to us—feel deeply threatened by Afghanistan’s terrorist potential.

Would it have been possible to co-ordinate some common counterinsurgency efforts? To be sure, India, China, Russia and Pakistan often have divergent interests. A creative diplomacy might have distilled common measures for overcoming terrorism in Afghanistan. This strategy is how Britain defended the land approaches to India across the Middle East for a century without permanent bases but permanent readiness to defend its interests, together with ad hoc regional supporters.

But this alternative was never explored. Having campaigned against the war, Presidents Donald Trump and Joe Biden undertook peace negotiations with the Taliban to whose extirpation we had committed ourselves, and induced allies to help, 20 years ago. These have now culminated in what amounts to unconditional American withdrawal by the Biden administration.

Describing the evolution does not eliminate the callousness and, above all, the abruptness of the withdrawal decision. America cannot escape being a key component of international order because of its capacities and historic values. It cannot avoid it by withdrawing. How to combat, limit and overcome terrorism enhanced and supported by countries with a self-magnifying and ever more sophisticated technology will remain a global challenge. It must be resisted by national strategic interests together with whatever international structure we are able to create by a commensurate diplomacy.

We must recognise that no dramatic strategic move is available in the immediate future to offset this self-inflicted setback, such as by making new formal commitments in other regions. American rashness would compound disappointment among allies, encourage adversaries, and sow confusion among observers.

The Biden administration is still in its early stages. It should have the opportunity to develop and sustain a comprehensive strategy compatible with domestic and international necessities. Democracies evolve in a conflict of factions. They achieve greatness by their reconciliations.

Henry Kissinger is a former American secretary of state and national security adviser

SAKHRI Mohamed
SAKHRI Mohamed

I hold a Bachelor's degree in Political Science and International Relations in addition to a Master's degree in International Security Studies. Alongside this, I have a passion for web development. During my studies, I acquired a strong understanding of fundamental political concepts and theories in international relations, security studies, and strategic studies.

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