Why the US has failed in its war in Afghanistan

After the 9/11 attacks, the US and its allies attacked Afghanistan and defeated the Taliban with the help of the Northern Alliance within three months. Since then, the US has fought a 17-year war, but has failed to translate its early military victory into a political victory.

When the US overthrew the Taliban government, it should have attempted to co-opt the Taliban, which was ready for dialogue. A lasting political solution was the easiest way to resolve the Afghan issue. A war did not serve this purpose; remember, the Taliban has an extreme religious ideology and fighters felt proud to be killed in a war with foreign forces.

The Bonn conference in 2001 and Loya Jirga in 2002 were historical events through which the future of Afghanistan was to be decided, but the Taliban was not invited to either event. And thus, early opportunities of peace were missed.

This was a mistake. Although the Taliban represented a small fraction of the Afghan population, they could not be entirely excluded from the country’s political, social and economic life. As a result, the Taliban, who wanted a political solution, went to the eastern and southern border areas following the US crackdown. This led to the group’s resurgence later.

The US has fought its longest war, spent $1.07 trillion and lost over 2,400 troops, but has not won the war on the battlefield.

Ignoring the people and neighbourhood

There are several reasons behind the US’s failure to win the war in Afghanistan. In fact, it is these reasons that compelled it to choose a political solution after 17 years of war.

Afghanistan’s neighbors Iran, Pakistan, India and Russia were deeply involved in its affairs, especially after the Saur revolution in 1978.  US policymakers didn’t make an effective regional strategy that had the support of these regional powers to rebuild Afghanistan.

The insurgency mostly operates in the country’s remote rural areas where the government’s role is weak, and the insurgents have been trying to get the support of the people through violence and coercion. It is these people who were the main victim of the war too, especially in the areas where they tried to resist the Taliban. Mobilising and engaging these local communities in counterinsurgency operations could play a pivotal role in reducing conflict.

Moreover, the high collateral damage has made a large number of ordinary people the victims of war, and as a result, they hate the Americans and Afghan forces. It is no surprise that whenever innocent people suffered during airstrikes or other operations, they sought revenge by supporting or joining the Taliban. In fact, many politicians, including former Afghan President Hamid Karzai, have criticised the US’s night bombing missions.

‘Jihadi literature’

In the 1980s, the US spent $50 million on a “jihad literacy” project in Afghanistan to support a religious war against the Soviet invasion. The militarised books were continuously reprinted and widely circulated, which described all described all Russians and infidels as the enemy.

The textbooks went a long way in boosting resistance to the Soviet Union, finally compelled them to leave Afghanistan. But these textbooks also become an enormous issue for US and NATO forces because they describe all non-Muslims as the enemy, and were still used in schools in areas under the Taliban control.

Perhaps these books should have been banned and replaced with literature on peace in order to change the extremist mindset of the local populace.


Presently, the Afghan Taliban enjoys outside support and sanctuary. 

There are two kinds of external actors in Afghanistan. The US, NATO forces and the UN are the major external actors that support the government and making institutions in order to rebuild Afghanistan. On the other hand, external actors like broad jihadist networks including al Qaeda, and religious political parties in the neighboring countries provide a safe haven.

The Taliban’s main leadership, expect Mullah Akhtar Mansour, and Shura, its policy and decision-making body, are in these safe havens.

The existence of a safe haven for the Taliban creates a severe threat to the stabilisation of Afghanistan. Winning the war in Afghanistan is impossible without ending the Taliban’s sanctuaries around the border.

 The US and its allies should have changed the perceptions of those countries that backed the Taliban as it was a threat to international peace and security as well. Unfortunately, US diplomacy failed in ending the behaviour.

Besides, a large great amount of the jihadist funding comes from wealthy Muslims around the Middle East and particularly from Gulf states. It was crucial to eliminate this funding route to achieve any sort of success against the Taliban.

Out but not forgotten

The US may be on its way out of Afghanistan, but it should not ignore or forget the country.

At the end of the Cold War as tensions between the Soviet Union and the US ebbed, Afghanistan slipped down the ranks in American policy relevance. As the Taliban strengthened their grip on Afghanistan, successive US governments, and indeed many others around the world, did not pay much attention. The 9/11 attacks changed this.

The US and its allies may be on the way out of Afghanistan, but they should not ignore or forget the country. Without a political solution in place, the situation in Afghanistan is only likely to exacerbate, and this does not bode well for global security.

Hizbullah Khan is a freelance journalist and analyst. He writes about South Asian political and security issues