On Monday, the Washington Post published an extensive analysis based on documents containing interviews with more than 400 people involved in the U.S. war in Afghanistan. The papers show not only that U.S. policy under presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump failed to bring peace and modernization to Afghanistan, but also that policymakers were aware that such an outcome was unlikely — all while emphasizing progress in public.
I asked several experts to weigh in with key takeaways on what these papers reveal about the U.S. strategy in Afghanistan, and the U.S. decision-making process in foreign policy.
Below, with minor edits, are their responses:
1. From Asfandyar Mir, a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, who says there was no coherent U.S. policy for Afghanistan:
The Afghanistan documents suggest that for much of the war, the United States recognized and communicated major challenges, including Afghanistan’s geographic and social complexity, President Hamid Karzai’s cronyism, perils of warlords, Pakistan’s “double game,” government corruption and poor intelligence. Yet U.S. policymakers failed to align policy solutions with the challenges they confronted.
There is an echo of Vietnam in these disclosures, especially the argument made by Leslie Gelb, who directed the Pentagon Papers project, and Richard Betts, that successive presidents knew the war was unwinnable but simply aimed not to lose it. But two features stand out from the Afghanistan documents. First, there was some zeal, particularly among senior generals, that a version of victory was attainable — given the Iraq surge turnaround and the counterinsurgency approach some military leaders embraced there.
Second, despite this zeal, the disclosures show that for much of the war, there was no coherent U.S. policy for Afghanistan — instead, there was strategic drift. There was a lot of stumbling into assumptions and priorities, suggesting limited intentionality and confusion about available options and strategic ends. For example, U.S. policymakers contested and redefined the importance of the Afghan Taliban as an adversary throughout the war.
Such problems are not new to American national security and can result from weak political oversight. In the case of Afghanistan, Presidents Bush and Obama neglected the war, with the former prioritizing Iraq and the latter prioritizing the fight against Al-Qaida. Consequently, as is common in situations of strategic drift, those within military and civilian bureaucracies worked to maximize their own institutional interests — often at the cost of U.S. service members, taxpayers and Afghan civilians.
2. From Sarah Kreps, is a professor of government at Cornell University, who says Congress and the public didn’t seem interested in how much the war cost:
These newly released documents point to the growing disconnect between the public and the conduct of American wars, especially when it comes to how much the war in Afghanistan cost and how U.S. and Afghan officials spent that money. My research shows that one of the significant reasons for that gap has to do with how the United States was paying for the war.
Historically, the United States used war taxes, which gave Americans skin in the game in terms of how their money was being spent on the conduct of conflict. In contemporary wars like Afghanistan, legislative proposals for war taxes met with head winds. War taxes might have been good policy by creating a sense of shared sacrifice, and by closing the gap between the conduct of conflict and the apparent cost to the public. But ultimately, war taxes were just simply bad politics.
Members of both parties sensed what a co-author and I have found empirically to be the case: War taxes would elicit debate about the nature and goals of the war, rendering unpopular both the war and the political elites who might authorize those taxes. Without that connection, neither the public nor Congress, the Afghanistan documents suggest, seemed to have much interest in accounting for either the spending or strategy of the war.
3. From Tanisha Fazal, an associate professor of political science at the University of Minnesota, who says measuring fatalities is a troubling metric of success:
The reporting on the Afghanistan documents makes clear that U.S. policymakers struggled to find a metric of success — often focusing on the number of Afghans killed. But such a focus is troubling for at least two reasons. First, using the Afghan body count as an indicator of how well the war was going for the U.S. misses a central issue — that the absence of clear war aims has been a major impediment to ending the war. And it’s equally unclear with whom the U.S. could — or should — sign a peace agreement in Afghanistan. One reason countries have stopped signing peace treaties in their wars with each other may have to do with the increasingly nebulous nature of their adversaries.
Second, however, comparing U.S. and Afghan fatalities obscures a key development in this war: The ratio of U.S. wounded to killed has more than tripled the historical norm — reflecting dramatic improvements in U.S. military medicine, as my research has demonstrated. Thousands of U.S. military personnel returned home having survived injuries that would have proved fatal in past wars. While improved survival rates are one of the war’s few success stories, they also mean that families and taxpayers will bear the human costs of war for decades to come.
4. From Megan Stewart, an assistant professor at American University’s School of International Service, who says wartime state-building programs cannot fix underlying social problems.
One U.S. official whose interview is included in the Afghanistan documents reported “we were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan.” Despite this lack of knowledge, the U.S. nevertheless pursued intensive state-building projects alongside a military campaign that cost the American people over $900 billion — and thousands of American and Afghan lives. The state of Afghanistan today, captured within the Afghanistan documents report, reflects research that wartime governance and state-building programs are not a panacea to underlying social problems and frequently cannot replace preexisting political structures.
Additionally, some of the policies the U.S. and international community pursued could have second-order consequences that put collaborators or the intended beneficiaries of U.S. and internationally supported programs at risk — especially if the U.S. military withdraws. For instance, research illustrates that governance programs that successfully alter status hierarchies between social groups may see retaliatory violence initiated by those who perceive a threat to their status positions.
In Afghanistan specifically, women and girls attending schools were often the targets of violence, and women who hold political positions at the encouragement of the U.S. and the international community fear assassination at the hands of the conservative forces. Though the empowerment of women is a critical goal, the lack of knowledge about preexisting social structures, clear plans for implementation and the potential consequences for altering these structures ultimately could create additional problems and risks for the very people the U.S. sought to help.
Elizabeth N. Saunders, one of senior editors of the Monkey Cage online forum, is an associate professor in the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She wrote this article for the Washington Post.