As the war in Afghanistan begins to wind down in the near future I thought it might be a good idea to post a short list here so the casual reader could get some ideas on why the United States failed there.
1. The singularly most important reason the US failed in Afghanistan is because the main focus of its mission there became nation building. Trying to establish an effective centralized government in a country that has never been able to accomplish this on its own was a mistake of the highest order.
2. To make up for the lack of the central government we should have armed and financed the warlords as a way to keep the country from plunging into complete chaos. There could still have been a so-called central government in Kabul to use for media purposes but it’s power could have been limited to the surrounding area, and we could have spared ourselves the nearly impossible task of forging a real national government in a country that doesn’t want one. Using local warlords would also have worked to keep the insurgency from ever reaching critical mass because there never would have been one centralized force in the country for people to rebell against. Keeping government at the local level also serves to keep locals engaged in the community.
3. By not concentrating on trying build a country where one did not exist we could have focused our efforts on the reason for being in Afghanistan in the first place, to destroy Al Qaeda. With all available resources fixated on this task it is reasonable to assume accomplishing this mission would not have taken 10 years.
4. With our mission accomplished sooner our major military assets could have left the country and we could have left behind a small special operations contingent to work with the warlords in making sure Al Qaeda never returned.
5. Using the warlords should have been a key part of the US long-term strategy in Afghanistan but they should never have been allowed to take the lead in the hunt for Bin Laden in Tora Bora in 2001. Conventional US infantry units should have been set up to block Bin Laden’s escape into Pakistan while US special operations forces should have initiated the attack on Tora Bora. Unfortunately the way it went down in reality was that CIA backed warlords launched the attack into Tora Bora, Rumsfeld denied the CIA team leaders request for an US Army Ranger Battalion to block the escape routes into Pakistan. So the obvious happened, Bin Laden was attacked and eventually escaped into Pakistan to evade capture another 10 years. The US, still needing to hunt for Bin Laden decided to maintain a large military presence and ultimately take on the task of nation building in Afghanistan. The above scenario sealed the fate for our endeavor in Afghanistan and the United States will have to suffer the consequences of this failed policy long after we finally withdraw in 2014.