Capstones: Lessons Learned, Relearned and Unlearned

By Alan W. Dowd

Not even COVID19 will stop the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Although military commanders confirm that COVID19 screening guidelines “necessitate some servicemembers remaining beyond their scheduled departure dates,” a spokesman for U.S. Forces-Afghanistan adds, “We continue to execute the ordered drawdown to 8,600,” as set by the Trump administration’s peace deal with the Taliban. Under the deal, U.S. troop levels will fall to 8,600 by mid-July and to zero within 14 months. In the almost-19 years since they dispatched their military to Afghanistan, U.S. policymakers and the people they represent have learned, relearned and unlearned several lessons.


What happens “over there” has a direct impact “over here.”
When the oceans served as a vast protective moat around America, the oft-quoted words of John Quincy Adams—that America “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy”—made sense. Most Americans would prefer the simpler, safer world of Adams’ day to the one we know. When Adams celebrated America’s blissful isolation, armies went to war against armies, man’s capacity to destroy still lagged behind his desire to destroy, and geography protected America from the monsters. But the Taliban and their brethren in al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups have taught us that today’s monsters take aim first at civilians. Their capacity to kill is unchecked by conscience. Their reach is unlimited. And as we learned on 9/11, if America fails to go abroad to destroy them, the monsters will surely come and destroy us. 

Unless committed to devoting the time and resources, America cannot transform lawless lands.
If fully committed, the American people can do amazing things in broken places. Consider post-Nazi Germany, post-Imperial Japan, postwar Western Europe, Korea and Kosovo. In each instance, the U.S. was more concerned about outcomes than exit strategies. Not so in Afghanistan. Instead, President Trump’s drumbeat has been “Great nations do not fight endless wars.” Similarly, President Obama said he was “elected to end wars” and encouraged America “to focus on nation-building here at home.” Of course, America has been engaged in “endless” missions in Germany since 1944, Japan since 1945, Korea since 1950, Kuwait since 1991, Kosovo since 1999. “We’ve done these things quickly and we’ve done them well,” former State Department official James Dobbins explains, “but we’ve never done them quickly and well.”

If there ever was a critical mass of support for transforming Afghanistan into a stable democratic state—and hence, stamping out Talibanism, which is anti-democratic at its core—it evaporated long ago. That helps explain the Obama and Trump presidencies, with their focus on ending the wars of 9/11.


Treaties and peace deals are only as good as the character of the parties that sign them.
The Afghan government reported 76 Taliban attacks in 24 provinces in the five days immediately after the peace deal was signed. A Taliban commander vows, “We will continue our fight against the Afghan government and seize power by force.” This recalls North Vietnam’s actions after signing the Paris Peace Accords. Under the accords, North Vietnam promised not to introduce new forces into South Vietnam or reinforce those already there; not to use Laos or Cambodia for infiltration into the South; to work toward North-South reunification “through peaceful means”; and to respect South Vietnam’s right to self-determination. Within 70 days of signing the deal, Hanoi shoved 27,000 tons of war materiel across the DMZ and another 26,000 tons into neighboring Laos. Twenty-four months later, South Vietnam was gone.

NATO is vital to America’s security.
Almost 19 years after the attacks on America’s capital, America’s largest city and America’s military headquarters, about half the foreign troops deployed in Afghanistan are not American. Most are from NATO nations. They made real sacrifices and sustained heavy losses: 455 Brits, 158 Canadians, 86 French, 43 Danes. The 43 Danes killed would be proportionally equivalent to 2,424 Americans. The U.S. has lost 2,438 troops in Afghanistan.


Engagement is costly; disengagement is more costly.
Without question, engagement carries costs. The Cold War cost Americans 104,000 military personnel and $6 trillion. The War on Terror has claimed 6,900 American personnel and devoured $2 trillion. Yet we hear little about the costs of disengagement: Nanking, Pearl Harbor and Auschwitz in the 1930s and 1940s; Korea in 1950; post-Soviet Afghanistan, which spawned the Taliban, which provided safe haven to al-Qaeda, which maimed Manhattan; Iraq and Syria today, which gave rise to ISIS. And we often overlook the benefits of engagement. During the Cold War, U.S. engagement preserved free government, rehabilitated Germany and Japan, and transformed Europe from an incubator of war into a partnership of prosperity. During the War on Terror, U.S. engagement prevented another 9/11, forced the enemy to expend finite resources on survival, and pushed the battlefront away from our shores.

The War on Terror is like the Cold War, and Afghanistan is like Korea.
One of the hardest things for the American people to understand about the war unleashed on 9/11 is that, 19 years in, we may be closer to its beginning than its end. For those who have been listening, this comes as no surprise. Days after 9/11, President Bush braced the American people for “a lengthy campaign unlike any other we have ever seen.” In late 2001, Adm. Michael Boyce (at the time Chief of the British Defense Staff) predicted the war against terrorism “may last 50 years.” In 2015, Gen. Martin Dempsey (at the time Joint Chiefs Chairman) called the struggle against jihadism “a 30-year issue.” 

These men understood that defeating jihadism—an enemy that doesn’t seek coexistence or the settling of grievances or recognition, but the dismemberment of civilization—would require time and stamina. It would resemble not World War II or Desert Storm, but rather the Cold War—a generational, ideological-political-military conflict against a tenacious transnational foe. Afghanistan, like Korea during the Cold War, would serve as a key front in the War on Terror—testing America’s endurance, resolve and resilience. As such, pulling out of Afghanistan, trusting that the Taliban have been reformed, and hoping al-Qaeda or ISIS don’t use Afghanistan to strike America seems as shortsighted as pulling out of Korea and hoping the Kim regime doesn’t resume the long-paused Korean War. 

President Trump laments that in Afghanistan, “We’re almost a police force.” Perhaps that’s how to understand our role in Afghanistan. Given what Afghanistan has spawned, it must be policed by someone. The notion that the Taliban will play that role is fantasy. As Gen. David Petraeus warns, “The cost of retaining a few thousand troops in Afghanistan pales in comparison with the price the nation will pay strategically and economically if al-Qaeda or ISIS rebuilds a terrorist platform there.” 

New threats don’t erase existing threats.
COVID19—the crisis that consumes policymakers and pundits today—has killed more 15,000 Americans over several months; like other viruses, it will kill several thousand more. Hundreds of thousands will recover. By comparison, the 9/11 attacks—launched from Taliban-governed Afghanistan—killed 2,976 innocents in 102 minutes. And what cable-news talking heads never report is that a quarter-century after the Taliban allowed bin Laden to turn Afghanistan into a petri dish for terrorism, 9/11 continues to kill Americans. More than 43,000 people suffer with a 9/11-related illness—and will until they die. Some 10,000 Americans have been diagnosed with cancers linked to 9/11; 420 people have died of cancers related to the 9/11 attacks; and 204 New York City firefighters and 241 police officers have died of 9/11-related illnesses.

It’s difficult to for America to stick with limited objectives and accept limited victories.
As in many wars in American history, the Afghanistan mission evolved. It was, at various junctures, to kill or capture bin Laden, to cripple al-Qaeda, to topple the Taliban, to install a friendly government, to refashion Afghanistan into a functioning nation-state. The reason the mission evolved was understandable: Given that the Taliban and al-Qaeda shared the same worldview and same enemy, many policymakers concluded that eradicating al-Qaeda from Afghanistan was not enough to protect the United States. Thus, the small-footprint war of late 2001 morphed into a large-scale nation-building operation. 

Historian Walter Russell Mead argues that there’s a long-held “tension between America’s role as a revolutionary power and its role as a status quo power.” Every administration and every generation of Americans wrestle with this tension. A way to relieve this tension and bridge the idealist-realist divide that reemerged after 9/11 is for America to be a reforming power—ready to bolster the pillars of civilization and liberal order rebuilt after World War II, eager to support regimes trying to move their political systems in the direction of this liberal order, but resistant to the temptation to remake broken places in America’s image and unwilling to countenance regimes (like the Taliban) that would steer their nations away from that liberal order. “We have to be clear we will not support systems or governments based on sectarian religious politics,” Prime Minister Tony Blair counsels. “Where the extremists are fighting, they have to be countered hard, with force.” That course of action is now closing, as America’s inward turn, which began under President Obama and continued under President Trump, accelerates due to the economic costs of the COVID19 crisis.

The Taliban is an enemy of civilization and cannot be trusted.
The Taliban banished girls from school, ordered Hindus to wear identity labels, executed those belonging to opposing sects of Islam, turned soccer stadiums into mass-execution chambers, poured acid on teachers, used children to plant IEDs, and made common cause with bin Laden. Even as they talked peace, Taliban fighters targeted and nearly killed the U.S. commander in Afghanistan. 

The UN reports that the Taliban continue to “cooperate and retain strong links with al-Qaeda” and 20 other jihadist groups. “In return for safe havens…foreign fighters continue to operate under the authority of the Taliban in multiple Afghan provinces.” All told, there are 8,000 to 10,000 foreign terrorists in Afghanistan, and “the Taliban continue to be the primary partner” for almost every terrorist group operating in the land that spawned 9/11.  

In short, the Taliban haven’t changed—and won’t. 

Alan W. Dowd is a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute, where he heads the Center for America’s Purpose.  A version of this essay appeared in Providence