Dr. Dov S. Zakheim was Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller), 2001-2004, and DoD Civilian Coordinator for Afghanistan, 2002-2004. He is currently a Senior Advisor at CSIS and a Vice Chairman of the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
The American war in Afghanistan has finally come to an ignominious end, but the inevitable post-mortems have only just begun to trickle in. No doubt soon they will become a flood, adding to the mountains of studies, analyses, and full-length volumes that have appeared virtually since the onset of the war two decades ago. In no small part because of the chaos that surrounded America’s final withdrawal from that embattled country, many analysts and observers have been quick to draw parallels with its equally chaotic departure from Vietnam nearly a half century earlier.
For David Kilcullen and Greg Mills, co-authors of The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan, Vietnam is as much a part of their story as is Afghanistan itself. Kilcullen, a former Australian army officer who practiced counterinsurgency in East Timor, earned a doctorate in political anthropology after which he served in a variety of posts both in the Pentagon and at the State Department before moving on to become a senior advisor to General David Petraeus, initially in Iraq and then in Afghanistan. He is credited with translating “theoretical insights into practical tactics soldiers could apply in the field” and with being among the first to advocate “conducting a ‘population-centric’ rather than ‘enemy-centric’ counterinsurgency,”1 an approach that Petraeus adopted with significant success in Iraq. Mills, who directs a South African foundation that assists African economic performance, has advised a number of African governments, and also was on four deployments to Afghanistan where he advised the Commander of the International Security Assistance Force.
Described as “outspoken and cheery,”2 and highly thought of by senior military colleagues who worked with him in both Iraq and Afghanistan, the book certainly reflects Kilcullen’s outspoken nature. It is hardly cheery, however, perhaps because what worked for him and Petraeus in Iraq was not enough to turn the increasingly successful Taliban tide in Afghanistan. He and Mills engage in an array of finger-pointing, blaming presidents, prime ministers, generals, and successive Afghan governments. They also state in passing that they too are to blame, but in contrast to their other exercises in “j’accuse,” they offer no specifics about themselves.
The authors were involved in the rescue of some Afghans during the chaotic final days of America’s war. They therefore can offer a first-hand account of the tragic efforts of so many Afghan friends of the United States who could not escape to safety, as well as the challenges that faced those who did manage to leave the country. The experience has clearly embittered the authors. They repeatedly and harshly criticize the Biden administration both for deciding to withdraw all American forces from Afghanistan and then making a complete and tragic mess of the actual withdrawal. Perhaps it was their experience in the war’s final days that led them to question the methods and objectives of both the United States and the West throughout much of the course of the war.
Kilcullen and Mills argue that America never really learned the lessons of Vietnam, namely “the importance of establishing a political and social order.” There is considerable validity to their argument, though part of Washington’s problem was precisely that it tried to establish such an order on the basis of Western models that simply were not appropriate for a country whose population’s loyalties were first and foremost to tribes, and then to sub-tribes, and finally to their ethnic confreres rather than to a central government.
The authors also allege that neither “NATO [n]or the international community offer the resources or sustained attention needed to enable a politically sustainable peace in Afghanistan.” The latter assertion is certainly true. Once Iraq became the prime focus on Washington’s attention, Afghanistan was relegated to a secondary concern.3 By the time America awoke to the reality that peace in Afghanistan was not yet a settled matter, the Taliban had regrouped in Pakistan and had begun to capture ever larger slices of the Pashtu countryside.
On the other hand, the West poured billions of dollars into the country. Indeed, given the levels of corruption that Kilcullen and Mills themselves identify as one of the major reasons for the Kabul government’s downfall, it is arguable that too much money flooded into the country too quickly and without sufficient oversight. Far too much development activity was left in the hands of U.S. Government contractors whose primary concern was their own bottom line and who appeared to have little interest in overseeing the activities of their local sub-contractors, who themselves were all too happy to siphon off as much American money as they could get their hands on.
Kilcullen and Mills also argue that Washington should have extended a hand to the Taliban as early as the December 2001 Bonn Conference, which laid the groundwork for the establishment of a new Afghan constitution and government. In making that argument they are not alone. Carter Malkasian makes the same point in his magisterial account, The American War in Afghanistan: A History. So too did Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations envoy to Afghanistan and convenor of the conference.
Not everyone agrees, however. As Mark Fields and Ramsha Ahmed point out, following 9/11 the American people would never have accepted direct negotiations with al-Qaeda’s sponsors in Afghanistan since it would have been seen as reward for an act of “horrific terror with political concessions.” Moreover, given the nature of the campaign, it was not unreasonable to conclude that “the Taliban was on its last legs.” Finally, even Brahimi himself acknowledged that the Bonn Conference “would not have been possible had the Taliban been at the table because of 9/11 and because other Afghan factions would not have allowed it.”4
Kilcullen and Mills ridicule those who have argued that:
- Afghanistan is not… a nation that people within its borders identify with. Rather it is a collection of warring tribes and clans to which sub-national groups its citizens first and foremost owe their loyalty.
- It is a narco-state without a proper economy.
- A corrupt and incompetent government was never likely to win the support of a majority of its people.
- The military mission represented classic mission creep.
“None of these statements,” assert Kilcullen and Mills, “holds up to the slightest scrutiny. Almost all of them are made by pundits who have never visited Afghanistan, never opened a book on Afghan history or culture, speak no regional languages, have no Afghan friends, have never spoken to a member of the Taliban, who know no actual Afghans (who they often refer to as ‘Afghanis’…) and discovered themselves in 2021 to be instant experts on a war they had forgotten or ignored for years.”
In addition to insulting the likes of Carter Malkasian, who spent considerable time in the country, met with Taliban officials, and has Afghan friends (it is not clear what differences there are between “Afghan friends” and “actual Afghans”), the authors are throwing dirt at many others, myself included, who not only spent time in country, did indeed have Afghan friends (as well as knowing “actual Afghans”), and remained involved with the country from 2001 until the present. Indeed, as Malkasian’s carefully detailed volume demonstrates, many of these assertions are flat wrong.
Like Kilcullen, Malkasian, a brilliant analyst, spent considerable time in Afghanistan as an advisor to several commanding generals, including General Joseph Dunford; he moved back to Washington with Dunford when the latter became Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Unlike Kilcullen and Mills, however, Malkasian’s critique and recommendations are both low key and carry far more substance.
For example, Malkasian goes to great lengths to identify individuals and groups by tribe and sub-tribe. He demonstrates that tribal loyalties and not merely ethnicities or variants of Islam have always played a critical role in the functioning of the Afghan state. Moreover, he offers that poppy growing in the countryside has long been a major pillar of the Afghan economy. Rather than generalize about corruption, he identifies in considerable detail how it demoralized and undermined not only the cohesion of the Afghan armed forces and police, but also the civilian population as well.
Kilcullen and Mills assert, without any basis or citations, that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld “misunderstood the Taliban as exporters of extremism. Rumsfeld’s misunderstanding led him to pursue the military annihilation of the Taliban until, bored by the gritty demands of stabilization and reconstruction and distracted by the shiny object of Saddam Hussein, he wandered off to Iraq.” This is all “rubbish” as the authors’ many British interlocutors might say. To begin with, Rumsfeld, and virtually all in the Bush administration and the Congress, reacted not to the Taliban’s internal policies, which had been ongoing for several years, but to the group’s support for and sheltering of al-Qaeda and its refusal to give up Bin Laden and his henchmen after 9/11.
Moreover, as Rumsfeld’s civilian coordinator for Afghanistan, I can attest that he never became “bored” with the place. And it was not Rumsfeld but Vice President Dick Cheney, supported by Rumsfeld’s deputy Paul Wolfowitz, who were most outspoken about the need to rid Iraq of Saddam Hussein. Finally, it was not in Rumsfeld’s nature to “wander off.” It is not clear whether either of the authors ever met the man; what is certainly clear is that they had no idea about how he functioned. Sadly, it is this sort of snide and gratuitous commentary that surfaces far too often throughout The Ledger.
What is most ironic about Kilcullen and Mills’ assertions is that the authors contradict themselves. Indeed, on the very next page after they belittle “pundits” for pointing to the importance of tribal loyalties, they write, “turning Afghanistan around was never going to be easy; this much is true for any country where there is extreme instability with underlying tribal and other divisions.” They actually castigate the “West” because it “did not appreciate the personal and tribal” nature of Afghan politics, an assertion that they repeat more than once. Similarly, after arguing that the United States did not put enough money behind its efforts in Afghanistan, the authors point out that “$137 billion was earmarked for reconstruction and development,” hardly a miniscule sum.
Similarly, although the authors mock “pundits” for pointing to corruption as a major reason the Kabul government was doomed to failure, they say exactly the same thing several times themselves, in one instance citing the parallel with Vietnam: “Phantom soldiers on the personnel rolls in Vietnam bloated pay packets the surplus then collected by commanders, just as positions were sold in Afghanistan and rents then collected.” As it happens, these latter assertions, though unsupported by any documented research, are nevertheless quite correct, as Malkasian documents in considerable detail.
In contrast to Malkasian’s careful amassing of primary and secondary sources, buttressed by interviews with Afghans from a variety of tribes, ethnicities, and political persuasions, Kilcullen and Mills populate their volume with a host of allegations and unsupported assertions, some of which, like their characterization of Rumsfeld, are true howlers. For example, they assert that “the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan in December 1979 was in support of an existing and relatively well functioning regime.” Actually, the country was coming apart because of the rift between the increasingly bitter divide between Nur Mohammed Taraki, the communist head of state, and Hafizulla Amin, leader of a rival communist faction. Amin had Taraki assassinated; the country was hardly “well- functioning” when the Soviets invaded two months later. Indeed, the authors quickly reverse themselves and write of Soviet “fears of [the country’s] complete collapse.”
Kilcullen and Mills do make some valuable observations that offer lessons learned for the future, although, typical of their hyperbole, they assert that “there are literally a million things the international community, and the U.S.-led coalition forces, could have done differently if they cared enough to avoid the catastrophic endgame of 2021.” They rightly point out that “there was a lack of civilian expertise, reluctance of aid organizations to integrate efforts with the military, endlessly rapid rotations, and civilian risk-exacerbated by the underwhelming quality of some, though by no means all, the agencies involved.” The last caveat is important: among the bravest and most capable civilians in Afghanistan were individual contractors, who for bureaucratic reasons AID would not hire, but who interfaced “outside the wire” with the Afghan populace at the risk of their own lives. They deserve more than a brief subordinate clause.
They correctly point out that the invasion of Iraq diverted attention from the unfinished business in Afghanistan and that the techniques that made the counterinsurgency campaign in Iraq successful, at least for a time, did not translate to the Afghan environment.
They also argue, with considerable justification, that Western aid would have proved more effective if it had been directed toward areas that were under government control rather than toward the most violent parts of the country. Had they done so, they could have built on their successes and offered a model to those Afghans that up till then had resisted them. In addition, the allies should have focused on local governments, where loyalties tended to lie; Malkasian also argues that such a focus would have had a better chance for success.
Kilcullen and Mills argue for “a coherent strategic plan,” for “strategic patience,” for “unity and continuity of effort,” for “seeking a political solution from military strength,” for “reduc[ing] costs to market,” and for “ensur[ing] regional actors are pushing the parties to a negotiated inclusive solution.” These and a host of similar observations all make good sense in the abstract. The difficulty is implementing them in a real-world context, which, as Malkasian demonstrates, is far more complex, demanding, and indeed surprising to those unfamiliar with its cultural byways.
Ultimately, despite their in-country experience and some astute observations, the book fails to convince because it is essentially a polemic. Moreover, too much of its material derives from the first ten years of the war, and it is focused far more heavily on the British experience than on the American. It also is highly repetitive and could have been at least 50 pages shorter.
The contrast with Malkasian’s effort could not be more stark. He systematically examines the country’s history, culture, and politics, and both details and evaluates the American and Taliban conduct of the war. The volume’s 62 pages of footnotes indicate the extent of his research. And he does so with considerable modesty and respect for a people and country that, despite his ties to both, he acknowledges are in many ways still beyond his ken.
Malkasian’s sense for the subtleties of Afghan culture leads him to offer a far more nuanced picture of President Hamid Karzai than that portrayed in the media, and for that matter, in American government circles. Karzai has always been first and foremost an Afghan patriot. Despite the corruption that he tolerated, and in some cases fostered, Malkasian demonstrates that Karzai nevertheless had a far better understanding of tribal and ethnic dynamics than either Ashraf Ghani, his successor, or the majority of American officials with whom he interacted.
Indeed, Karzai never actually closed the door to the Taliban, recognizing the loyalty that they could command from large swaths of the Afghan population. Moreover, he too commanded considerable loyalty, due not only—indeed not primarily—to his election to the presidency. As Malkasian notes, after Karzai was returned to office in 2009 in an election marked by massive fraud, “I was in Helmand at the time. I recall no Afghans complaining about Hamid Karzai, Popalzai descendent of Ahmed Shah Durrani, founder of the Afghan state. Karzai’s legitimacy rested on much more than a fraudulent election.”
That election marked a turning point in Karzai’s relations with Washington. During the campaign Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, President Obama’s arrogant and self-centered coordinator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, as well as Karl Eikenberry, who had retired from the military and returned as Ambassador to Kabul, both actively encouraged other potential candidates to run against Karzai. Malkasian understands Eikenberry’s motives as deriving from his desire to “help the average Afghan,” which he believed was best done through competitive elections. Holbrooke’s motives were another matter, however. His “role can be chalked up to hubris,” observes Malkasian. He then adds “if Holbrooke truly sought to oust Karzai, he both failed to remove him and through open campaigning embittered him toward the United States.”
Malkasian describes in great detail the changing nature of American military operations and outlines why they ultimately failed. He has high praise for only a few of the generals who commanded American forces during the twenty years’ war. Among these are the last American commander, General Scott Miller, who he considers to be “the most skilled commander of the Afghan war.” General Stanley McChrystal also comes in for high praise. In the one year that he served in Afghanistan before Obama fired him for reportedly disparaging remarks about the White House in general and Vice President Joe Biden specifically, McChrystal “authored the surge that brought the United States back into the war [and]… with his care for improving the Afghan government and reducing civilian casualties…endowed operations with a moral compass.”
Just as he presents the American side of events in great detail, Malkasian walks his readers through the creation and organization of the Taliban and introduces many Taliban leaders who are nowhere nearly as well known as Mullah Omar and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, the Taliban’s deputy leader. These include Mullah Akhtar Mohammed Mansour, who served as Mullah Omar’s deputy while Baradar was spending three years in a Pakistani prison and Mullah Dadullah Lang, the brilliant but brutal Taliban commander who led the 2006 Taliban offensive that led to major territorial gains, including half of Kandahar province, and was killed by the British in Helmand the following year.
Baradar’s case is a prime example of Washington’s changing attitude to the war, especially once Donald Trump became President. Under pressure from the CIA, the Pakistanis had imprisoned Baradar. Yet it was the Americans who pressed for his release from the house arrest to which he had been transferred at Hamid Karzai’s request. The reason for the seeming American volte-face was that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and negotiator Zalmay Khalilzad judged that with Baradar as lead Taliban negotiator, not only would the group take the ongoing talks seriously, but so would President Donald Trump, who was pressing for an agreement.
Malkasian’s most important conclusion about the war is that the Taliban won because “it stood for what it meant to be Afghan.” The movement prevailed for two main reasons. First, because their “form of traditional Islam weathered the storm better than the tribes, new warlords, state, or educated Islamism. Such strength portended the movement’s perseverance on the political stage.” Second, the Taliban represented resistance to occupation. Both were “values that ran thick in Afghan history and defined an Afghan’s worth.”
In this regard Malkasian appears to differ from Kilcullen and Mills, when they argue that “perhaps the most critical thing that could have been done differently was to build an Afghan military that mirrored its parent society and reflected how Afghans prefer to fight, rather than mimicking western organization and methods.” There is an element of truth to their assertion, but as Malkasian powerfully demonstrates, the fundamental challenge for the Kabul government was that the Taliban fought both as a nationalist and an Islamic cause, while the government’s forces merely saw themselves as supporting the United States and its allies.
Moreover, Malkasian points out that the competition among tribes undermined the unity of the forces fighting the Taliban. He adds that “this discord can also…be attributed to the structure of the government itself, which was designed to prevent any leader from actually being in charge in any region…. Whatever their own set of rivalries, compared to the tribes and the government, the Taliban were cohesive.” It is surprising, that Kilcullen, an anthropologist by education, did not reach the same set of conclusions.
Like Kilcullen and Mills, Malkasian observes that “the government and its warlord allies treated Afghans poorly, instinctively stealing in order to help themselves and their communities in the unending competition for survival.” He likewise points to Pakistan’s complicity in preventing the United States from defeating the Taliban. He agrees that the Bush Administration erred in not bringing the Taliban to the Bonn negotiating table, though he understands why it did not do so. He notes that the Bush Administration was far too slow in building up the Afghan army and police. He shares the other authors’ views that failure was not inevitable. And, of course, he too recognizes that the war in Iraq sapped much of the energy that the Bush Administration had initially committed to stabilizing Afghanistan.
Though Malkasian’s volume is far more detailed and subtle, it falls short of Kilcullen and Mills’ focus in one major regard: it does not analyze to anything like the same depth the successes and failures of the Western efforts to “reconstruct” Afghanistan; that is, to create a modern society out of one that was still rooted in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, on balance Malkasian offers a nonpareil history of a war that initially was viewed as one of necessity but increasingly became one of choice. His book sets the standard for all future works that will examine the causes and nature of yet another unhappy American military adventure on the mainland of Asia. PRISM
1 Linda Robinson, Tell Me How This Ends: General David Petraeus and the Search for a Way Out of Iraq (New York: Public Affairs, 2008), 99.
3 On this point see my A Vulcan’s Tale: How the Bush Administration Mismanaged the Reconstruction of Afghanistan (Washington, DC: Brookings, 2011).
4 Mark Fields and Ramsha Ahmed, A Review of the Bonn Conference and Application to the Road Ahead in Afghanistan (Washington, DC: National Defense University Press, 2011), 19.