The United States' war in Afghanistan may be over, but the debate over the legacy of America's longest war has just begun. Congress has already promised to investigate the U.S. exit in the coming months. Long after the political world moves on, scholars and soldiers still will be dissecting the two-decade-long war. And the U.S. defeat in Afghanistan raises many questions for these postmortems to explore: Why did the United States lose? Who was to blame? And what comes next for Afghanistan, for the United States, and the world at large? Yet for the future of American defense strategy, perhaps, one big question stands out above all: Does the United States still have the grit necessary to fight and win long wars anymore?
The war in Afghanistan, at its core, was a war of endurance. While there is a lot of focus on the United States' lack of cultural understanding as the key to its defeat, the fact is that insurgencies, rarely, if ever, are won by “winning hearts and minds (PDF).” Rather, they are mostly snuffed out quickly, often with force. If the insurgents are disciplined, have access to external sanctuaries, or enjoy foreign backers, insurgencies can last for decades. In those cases, the governments win only once they eventually either crush the opposition, like Sri Lanka did with the Tamil Tigers, or exhaust them to the point that they seek peace, as with the Irish Republican Army or the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. Ultimately, these wars come down to a battle of wills, and the side with stronger will prevails.
This is how the Taliban succeeded. Neither crushed nor exhausted, they ground the United States, its allies and the Afghan government down year after year. In the end, the Afghan military evaporated and the Afghan government fled rather than fight—a fact that has become central to the United States' post-hoc justification of its withdrawal. As President Biden argued, “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves.” But before Americans cast stones, it's worth noting that Afghanistan lost 66,000 soldiers and policemen—not to mention civilians—over the past two decades. That's more than the United States did in Vietnam, and Afghanistan today has a fifth the population that the United States had during that war, magnifying the human impact of the conflict.…
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A multiple tour veteran of the Iraq War, Raphael S. Cohen is the acting director of the Strategy and Doctrine Program, Project AIR FORCE, at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on Lawfare on October 3, 2021. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.