Soon after the US removed the Taliban from power in Kabul in 2001, in the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, there was already a realization how dangerously naïve the US was about involvement in a complex country. One US general, Stanley McChrystal, compared Americans to high school students entering a bar full of mafia members.
The problem was deeper than just being naïve. Even when America was aware of what it did not know about Afghanistan, it still didn’t seem to bother to educate key leaders about what was going on. This was clear in everything from not understanding tribal dynamics, to coddling warlords and corrupt locals who appear to have robbed the US of billions.
Today the war is over and we know how it ended. David Loyn’s new Long War is an excellent account of the US involvement in Afghanistan. It begins by sketching the plodding first moves the US made in 2001, ejected the Taliban from power, through to the surge that was supposed to help win the war, and then the long slow defeat of the US and the US-backed government. While the book was written before the US withdrawal, it correctly addresses the problems that led to the collapse of the country this year. The author also tries to take a broad approach in diagnosing what went wrong. One question he addresses is whether strategy and tactics were wrong from the start. “There is no doubt that the light footprint approach did not bring all the capacity of the US had at its disposal to leave a stable country.” He notes that at the beginning the US didn’t even capture the man who was responsible for 9/11. Osama bin Laden was able to evade capture for another decade.
What Loyn’s book reveals is how the US, from the beginning, never seemed to want to win the war. There is something inexplicable here in reading this book because it sheds light on how the failure took place. It also leads one to wonder what the war was really all about: Billions of dollars disappeared, much of it on projects that never materialized. Tremendous levels of corruption appear to have underpinned the war. Why did the US not bother to capture bin Laden in 2001, and instead seemed to outsource the search for the terrorists to locals and even those in Pakistan who had supported the Taliban and al-Qaeda.
Another issue underpinning the war was the discussion about strategy. Talk of a “small footprint” and precision airstrikes being used to unseat the Taliban, without the US getting sucked into some kind of Vietnam scenario, was one aspect of the conflict. But that concept of counter-terrorism operations worked in Syria against ISIS. So why didn’t it work in Afghanistan? Because it appears that from the beginning the Taliban were allowed to continue to operate throughout the country and receive open support from places like Pakistan. Yet the US trudged on, not seeking to win and knowing that partners on the ground were problematic.
Another interesting revelation in the book is the degree to which Joe Biden, not the US president, was critical of the war since before Barack Obama came to office in 2009. That means that key voices in the US knew the war would fail, and yet another decade was lost and American lives and Afghan lives were lost on a war that was largely known to be unwinnable.
The fact that so much money was spent to basically do nothing in Afghanistan leads to questions about whether the war was actually a policy designed to shift US tax dollars to corporations and people with connections, as if the Afghan war was in fact just a giant grift as opposed to an actual conflict. Early on in the book, Loyn notes that funding spent in Afghanistan was a “mirage” with only about 10% of some funds reaching the ground in the country. American contractors in the US couldn’t waste money the way it was wasted in Afghanistan, and that may be one reason that the war continued without any evidence that the war was being won.
What is interesting about the long war is the way it illustrates a major shift in US military strategy and policy from the era of the 1990s when the US was involved in the Gulf War and humanitarian intervention, to the 2000s where the US shifted to counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism. The America that has emerged today is very much an outcome of the Afghan war and it is an America that is now reticent to go to war abroad. Loyn’s book is necessary reading for anyone who wants to know how the future may look after America’s defeat in Afghanistan. Tragically for Afghans the violence continues, with terrorism and attacks taking place even after the Taliban returned to power.
The Long War: The Inside Story of America and AfghanistanBy David LoynSt. Martin’s Press464 pages; $29.99