Afghanistan – What Went Wrong | Andrew Trovalusci


In the last few weeks the Taliban have captured regional capitals across Afghanistan including Herat, Kandahar and Kunduz – a major city linked by highway to the capital of Afghanistan, Kabul. At time of writing they are pressing in on Lashkar Gah (the capital of Helmand province) and Kabul is expected to be under siege in 30-60 days. Tobias Ellwood MP, Chair of the Defence Select Committee, has said that the UK’s ‘shabby withdrawal’ risks allowing Afghanistan to once more fall under Taliban rule and once again become a ‘terror state’ – a staging base for terrorist groups to plan attacks on the West.

For twenty years the coalition pounded the Taliban from the air and sent thousands of troops to fight them on the ground; it took just two months for the United States to liquidate the Taliban Islamic Emirate in 2001. Rightly, the question on everybody’s mind is this: how did we lose? 

The key to understanding how a militia armed with AK-47s defeated a coalition led by the most technologically advanced military on earth lies in a few key decisions made at the very beginning of the war. The truth is that the seeds of failure were sown barely a few months after the war began, when a succession of mistakes pushed the conditions for victory just beyond what was reasonably possible. 

Right off the bat the Americans proceeded without an official idea of what the aims of the war were and in what order they should be pursued. The closest that military planners received was a declaration by President George Bush ten days after 9/11 that they were going to ‘destroy Al-Qaeda and the Taliban’ – straightforward enough but not a substitute for a formal and ordered declaration of war goals. 

The British government set out more clearly defined objectives – bringing Al-Qaeda leaders to justice, destroying Al-Qaeda’s capability to carry out further attacks and ensuring that Afghanistan would not be used as a staging base for terrorist activity in the future – but these were more or less swept under the rug as the United States took the lead and Britain was expected to follow. The Afghanistan War got off to a muddled start with different American military departments understanding their war objectives differently. 

The consequence of this muddled approach was America’s original sin in Afghanistan: choosing to fight the Taliban to the bitter end. President Bush made it clear early on that his government would ‘make no distinction between terrorists, and, crucially, ‘those who harbour them.’ Instead of destroying Al-Qaeda and bringing those responsible for 9/11 to justice, the US military waged war on the Taliban, destroying Al-Qaeda camps as it went and allowing Al-Qaeda militants to escape into nearby Pakistan. 

Instead of regime change being a means of getting at Al-Qaeda it became an end in itself and thus, in the first months of the war when the Taliban state was disintegrating, Taliban offers of surrender were refused. The Taliban were excluded from peace talks in Bonn in 2001 and thus the stage was set for thirteen years of bitter fighting in which Britain had no choice but to be dragged along for the ride.

The next big blunder was made during the famous battle of Tora Bora. The CIA received intelligence that Osama bin Laden, almost the entirety of Al-Qaeda high command and thousands of fighters were hiding in a cave system set deep in the Tora Bora mountain range. 1650 bombs were dropped on the area before British and American special forces went in alongside thousands of allied Afghan militia. Once again the US refused to accept a negotiated surrender and so Al-Qaeda were forced to fight to the bitter end – and a bitter end it was sure to be. Interviews with captured militants would suggest that the Taliban footprint at Tora Bora was minimal; this was Al-Qaeda’s moment and an opportunity to end the Afghanistan war just months after it had started. Al-Qaeda were flushed out and bombed but the mountain range provided cover for some 1500 of them to escape across the border to Pakistan, only 15 miles away. Those who escaped included most of Al-Qaeda command and, allegedly, Bin Laden himself. 

The big mistake occurred when a request was put to US Central Command for 800 US Army Rangers to seal the border between Tora Bora and Pakistan – only for this request to be denied. The reason was simply caution on the part of the Americans who wanted to minimise their footprint in Afghanistan at the time. Thousands of US troops were based in air bases around Tora Bora but unfortunately, the will was not there to deploy them. They were stuck guarding airfields and cleaning latrines instead. Again, a muddled US approach to the war played a role here. The CIA was intent on capturing Bin Laden but the rest of the US military was not and so their focus was on winning the battle rather than capturing militants. The task for sealing Tora Bora was left to the Pakistani army who captured several hundred of them, but Bin Laden was not among them and an opportunity to end the Afghanistan War slipped through the fingers of the US military. 

Until that point, Britain played a supporting role in what was very much an American war. That would change however, when a mister Anthony Blair would pass up a chance to duck out of Afghanistan on a high, with the Taliban defeated, and instead commit Britain to a long and painful programme of nation-building.  In April 2002, Royal Marines of 45 Commando were deployed on Operation Jacana to mop up pockets of militant resistance that supposedly remained in the aftermath of Tora Bora. The Royal Marines spent three months chasing shadows and trading shots with trigger-happy tribal militia; Al-Qaeda and the Taliban had left. 

This was Britain’s opportunity to declare the war won, declare the Taliban defeated and get out. Instead, Tony Blair decided to pioneer the use of force for humanitarian intervention (an entirely post-cold war invention) and so kept British troops in Afghanistan. Close but not quite world police, Tony Blair wanted Britain’s armed forces to be a ‘force for good’ in the world and was in favour of a decidedly more muscular and interventionist foreign policy than his predecessor, Sir John Major. Put simply, Blair kept Britain in Afghanistan beyond 2002 because he sincerely believed that it was Britain’s responsibility to deliver liberal democracy to the world. In hindsight his conviction, although admirable, was idealistic and short-sighted. 

One of the justifications for the continuation of the war that Blair presented to the press was that in 2001 the majority of the heroin on Britain’s streets came from Afghanistan. It was supposedly in Britains direct interest to smash the Afghan drug trade. Unfortunately, this did not go according to plan. 

Afghanistan was the opium capital of the world during the Soviet Mujaheddin war, when farmers turned to poppy as a hardy and profitable cash crop. In 2000 the Taliban banned the cultivation of poppies, declaring drug use ‘unislamic’. Opium production plummeted from over 3000 metric tonnes a year to below 200. This was a miracle – hilariously, one of the only victories of any country ever in the long, global war on drugs. Of course, overthrowing the Taliban all but removed the ban, and opium production shot back up to the 1000’s of metric tonnes after the invasion. 

Coalition attempts at ban enforcement were useless; officials would attempt to buy poppy crop off of farmers, but opium was more profitable than any amount of money the Americans could provide and money given to provinces to support the agriculture of other kinds of crop was just pocketed by local warlords. By 2004 opium production was up at 4200 metric tonnes – worse than it had been before the invasion. The counter-narcotics mission in Afghanistan was an abject failure. 

Later, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) set up to rebuild Afghanistan would find itself stuck in a quagmire of competing clan loyalties, propping up a deeply unpopular and corrupt government while fighting an insurgency that drew strength from the increasingly angry and resentful local population. Afghanistan was unwinnable precisely because the bar was set too high at the start and we placed the conditions for victory firmly out of our own reach. Sprawling bureaucracy created a confused and disordered war effort and idealism prevented Britain leaving while it still could. A negotiated settlement to the war early on, with the Taliban bowed but not crushed, might have been the best possible outcome. 

Hindsight is, of course, a wonderful thing. While it’s important to scrutinise decisions in order to learn from them and understand history, it’s also important to remember that such decisions were taken under immense pressure and with far less information than we have access to today. All we can do is analyse, learn, and pray for a better future for the Afghan people, who have suffered the most from this conflict. 


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