It took barely two months after the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001 for the U.S. mission to point itself toward defeat.
“Tomorrow the Taliban will start surrendering their weapons,” the Taliban’s spokesperson, Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, announced Dec. 7, 2001. “I think we should go home.”
But the United States refused the group’s surrender, vowing to fight on to shatter the Taliban’s influence in every corner of the country.
That same week, Washington oversaw an international agreement to establish a new government in Afghanistan that would be “by some accounts the most centralized in the world,” said Frances Z. Brown, an Afghanistan expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
This left the United States pursuing dual missions — eradicating the Taliban and installing a new, highly centralized state — that were not, at least at first, irreconcilable. But a series of choices put them increasingly at odds, engineering what became a fatal contradiction into the American effort, which President Joe Biden announced he is ending after 20 years of war.
“Those two things set up the disaster we now find ourselves in,” Brown said.
By the end of that decade, the United States had backed itself into a mission at odds with itself: to impose a new order from the top down while seeking to destroy a group — the Taliban, representing a crucial rural Pashtun constituency — that was building its own from the bottom up.
In essence, the United States was trying to enforce a lasting peace between Afghanistan’s factions while standing in the way of reconciliation with one of the most important ones.
It was a contradiction rooted in the ambition and idealism of the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations. In an aversion to the trade-offs inherent in ending civil war. And in what Michael Wahid Hanna called the Americans’ “hubris” of believing they had figured out how to overcome those trade-offs, and the decadeslong slog of rebuilding a failed state, by installing a “government in a box.”
“There was this idea that they’d cracked the code,” said Hanna, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a think tank. “It’s all fantasy, and we see the results.”
Peace without reconciliation
Two years after the United States invaded Afghanistan, another generation-long war, halfway around the world, ended under terms typical of such deals.
Liberia, the West African republic, had been ground down by 14 years of fighting between a despised government, patchwork militias known for brutality and extortion and foreign backers. The state had effectively collapsed.
The terms of the peace aimed at two complementary goals: reconciling with the warlords and insurgents, almost regardless of their crimes, and rebuilding the state by incorporating the rebels who effectively ran much of the country already.
It was a frustrating, ugly peace. Many Liberians were condemned to live under their oppressors. Bloodthirsty killers were rewarded with government ministries. War could have easily returned any day.
Still, it gave all sides a reason to buy into peace. And it imposed a patchwork order that gradually grew, from the bottom up, back into a functional state. Which is why the formula had long been applied to wars like Liberia’s and, seemingly, Afghanistan’s.
But the United States rejected that model from the outset, refusing even the Taliban’s modest terms of surrender: that its leader be allowed to return home after fleeing to Pakistan.
Bush had framed the war on terror as one of monolithic good and evil, and of remaking the world to be safe for U.S. ideals. This made reconciling with the Taliban “impossible in the mindset of the time,” Hanna said.
Instead, Bush’s administration oversaw a new constitution that wholly re-imagined the Afghan state, once decentralized but stable for generations, into a supercentralized presidency meant to rule every corner of Afghanistan directly from Kabul.
“Imposing this maximalist, intrusive state model,” Brown said, was meant to end the ethnic strongholds and warlordism that had helped give rise to the Taliban.
But she said it created a winner-take-all dynamic that left very little room to grant insurgents local autonomy and control, as had helped ease so many other conflicts.
That system was foreign to many Afghans, in some cases displacing local, traditional institutions. Its centralization made it prone to corruption, with elites buying access and favor that disadvantaged the communities they were meant to serve.
And it required imposing that central government on every valley and village, dislodging whatever group controlled it. By 2005 or so, that was often the Taliban, which had exploited U.S. inattention during the Iraq invasion to reconstitute.
“It put us on this path to what has become a nation-building exercise,” Hanna said, even if no one had intended as much.
By the time Obama took office in 2009, Afghanistan had a government: ministries, officials, a president, a national assembly that nodded to regional representation. But in much of the country, it did not have a state. Years of fighting effectively left nobody in control. President Hamid Karzai, a common joke went, was little more than the mayor of Kabul.
Rather than reconcile the tension between imposing authority from the top down while defeating insurgents who held that authority on the ground, Obama’s administration sought to achieve both through brute force, surging troop levels to about 100,000.
It was the era of counterinsurgency, in which U.S.-led troops would pacify an area by force, install an outpost of the central government, then wait for locals to embrace the new order.
“The rationale was, ‘We’re going to help the Afghan state outgovern the Taliban,’ that an insurgency is fundamentally a contest for governance,’” said Brown, at the time a U.S. Agency for International Development official in Kabul.
“But there’s no room for reconciliation in that,” she said. “It was very zero-sum.”
It meant that the Americans spent their energy overturning local fiefs outside Kabul’s control, then installing new rulers who were ordered to treat the old as mortal enemies, turning each village and valley into its own little power struggle.
Rebuilding a broken state takes, in virtually every instance, generations. Local factions and central governments learn to coexist, then cooperate, and only then reintegrate. In Liberia, nearly 20 years later, local strongmen and warlords are still ceding power to a central government that is rebuilding its authority house by house.
“You can’t actually parachute in a consolidated state,” Brown said. “But that’s what we were trying to do.”
But the Americans resisted this ground-up, conciliatory approach for years, even undermined it.
And the military’s battlefield victories, much as in Vietnam decades earlier, gave it confidence that political victory would follow, obviating any need to negotiate.
“They were beguiled by their tactical successes,” Hanna said. As a result, during the years of heaviest U.S. presence, “We squandered that moment of leverage.”
With us or against us
By Obama’s last year, he had slashed U.S. troop levels to about 8,000, a tiny fraction of their peak and, to many, implicit acknowledgment of U.S. failure.
But he refused to negotiate peace directly with the Taliban, insisting that it first hold talks with the Afghan government, which the group rejected as a U.S. puppet.
President Donald Trump lifted that restriction, and after months of talks his negotiating team signed a deal with the Taliban for a U.S. troop withdrawal. But the difficult, and crucial, details that might lead to reconciliation and power-sharing were left to a later phase of negotiations between the Taliban and Afghan government that have been bogged down in hostility.
Many in Afghanistan fear that the United States severely weakened the government’s hand in those talks with the sweeping terms it agreed to in the troop withdrawal deal with the Taliban. Even as the last U.S. troops prepare to leave, it is unclear whether the Taliban intend to honor their agreement to talk with the Afghan government, or will simply try to fight for total victory.
Worsening matters, for two decades, the Americans had maintained an approach that Hanna called “with us or against us.”
Warlords and fighters were expected to join the central government against the Taliban. Those who did not were treated as the enemy. It flowed from the strategy of installing a unified state and defeating the Taliban.
But it blocked local groups from consolidating control by forcing them into the wider war. And it essentially forced them either to side with the Taliban, strengthening that group, or to align with a U.S.-backed order that increasingly seemed unable to survive U.S. departure.
That turned much of Afghanistan into a network of strongmen held together by the Americans, wrote Dipali Mukhopadhyay, a University of Minnesota scholar of Afghan state-building, in 2019.
And it meant that when the Americans did leave, Mukhopadhyay warned, “the incentives for Afghan power brokers to go it alone and engage in predatory, even cannibalistic behavior, may prove irresistible.”