Conflict and Leadership
The War in Afghanistan as a Textbook on US Strategy, or How I Came into the Profession of Studying American Wars


As strange as it sounds, I have to thank the United States for its strategy in Afghanistan. Studying this incredible phenomenon taught me to find implicit patterns in American politics and explain the behaviour of the United States in subsequent international crises. Ultimately, this provided me with a job and profession that I love.

In the fall of 2001, I was studying at the Faculty of History and had finished my summer reading - "The Gallic Wars" by Julius Caesar. The September 11 terrorist attack and the lightning-fast US invasion of Afghanistan resembled an ancient Roman chronicle - history unfolded literally before our eyes. However, the opponents of the United States - the Taliban (banned in Russia), were not defeated, they dissolved among the civilian population, like the Celtic warriors at the sight of the Roman legions. Could the United States handle the guerrilla movement better than Caesar?

In the spring of 2003, I was studying at the military training department and, together with my comrades, watched the American invasion of Iraq. This poorly prepared and mediocre operation initially contained many gaps. It was backed by fake intelligence reports fabricated by Paul Wolfowitz's Pentagon team. The sober-minded American military and intelligence officers - for example, Eric Shinseki,  chief of staff of the US Army, or Paul Pillar, head of the CIA's Middle East department - said that a contingent was needed that was 2-3 times larger to invade and control the situation in Iraq than the United States was ready to send. David Kelly, head of the US-British Commission to search for chemical weapons in Iraq, admitted defeat to his mission and committed suicide. However, only experts could combine all these details into one picture of the impending defeat.
The overall panorama looked different - the United States, with all its power, decided to refute the laws of nature and build a democratic paradise in the Middle East. Washington seemed to be amazed at itself, its achievements, its power – like there were no barriers at all.

Frankly speaking, the doctrine of democratisation did not seem quite wise to me even then. It was an incredibly expensive experiment that only countries with no other vital interests could afford. At the military training department during this period, we were working on leaflets that called on the Afghan mujahideens to hand over the portable MANPADS of the Soviet army for a fee. Could such a leaflet have worked for the radicalised Pashtun underground in 2003?

In 2005 I entered postgraduate school. When determining the topic of my research, I constantly returned to the idea that the United States is conducting an incredible experiment before our eyes and is trying to challenge the laws of history. My inherent scepticism did not allow me to believe that the Americans would succeed. But in the United States there were so many bright, energetic, convinced people that it was fascinating to watch their behaviour. As we later established in our study, the leaders of American diplomacy, primarily Condoleezza Rice, had created a new normative framework for foreign policy - the vivid normative theses in speeches far outnumbered substantive ones. In other words, reality was less important than the projected future. So, the study of the US experience in the "democratisation" of Afghanistan and Iraq became the topic of my dissertation.

After a series of bright political initiatives and military experiments, the politicians and experts in the United States began to come to the conclusion that both operations were unable to instigate changes which would take root politically. The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq were increasingly seen as a mistake. In 2006, I received my first American visa, and in response to a question from a consular officer about the purpose of my visit, I spoke about my research on US strategy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Raising her eyes, the diplomat sadly asked: "Is there any strategy at all?"

In 2007, apparently thinking in a similar way, General David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, at a Senate hearing for the first time formulated a new goal of the war - not to build democracy according to Jefferson, but to create conditions that would allow the US to withdraw its troops from that country. In 2010, Petraeus tried to extend a similar strategy to Afghanistan as the new commander of the Multinational Force in that country.

Around this time, the United States began first secret and then simply informal negotiations with representatives of the Taliban in Qatar. The Taliban set maximalist goals for the withdrawal of US troops and responded evasively to counter-offers. They had a unique resource on their side - time and perseverance. This is precisely what the United States has never had enough of, with its short political cycle and constant changes in foreign policy priorities. In one of my first independent studies in 2009, I wrote that the leaders of the Pashtun tribes inhabiting the Afghanistan-Pakistan borderlands, now have the initiative in the conflict: "Washington can make the conditions of Afghan reconciliation easier for itself only by understanding and satisfying the demands of one of the parties - the tribal elders or the Taliban."

The United States could achieve its goals if it was capable of full-fledged negotiations with an opponent. However, Washington actually denied reality. In 2013, I wrote that the US had a distorted perception of many regional security problems associated with ethnic separatism, religious extremism and drug trafficking. By inertia, the regional processes in Central Asia, western China, Iran and even in allied Pakistan were viewed in Washington as a confrontation between tyrannical regimes and freedom-loving rebels.

Conflict and Leadership
Afghanistan: A New Vietnam for the West
Alexander Rahr
The US, NATO, EU and the West – they failed miserably in Afghanistan. The withdrawal from the Hindu Kush and the resulting disaster are comparable to the ignominious defeat of the USA in Vietnam half a century ago.
Expert Opinions



Failure to understand and respect rivals, or at least build trust with its client - the government in Kabul - made the US withdrawal from Afghanistan resemble its catastrophic exodus from Saigon.
Against this background, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in 1989 was exemplary, and Soviet support for the Najibullah government was enough to allow him to hold power in the country for another three years.

As we later established in our 2020 study, the Soviet practice of pragmatic relations with former opponents was perceived by the American elites as too cynical and therefore practically not studied.

The war in Afghanistan is an extraordinary textbook on the American strategy that can be summed up as a growing up novel. Inflated expectations, a sense of omnipotence, which, through a series of crises, gives way to deep disappointment and the overestimation of goals. Most of the picture of this process became clear by 2014, when I published my book, America's Small Wars, in which I described how the goals of the United States' political strategy in Afghanistan were changing inconsistently.

Due to the fact that the United States speaks in detail and openly about the reasons for its failures, in the coming months we will learn a lot about the nature of the American defeat. Leaks, interviews with protagonists and disclosed documents will include data on systemic corruption, the ineffective spending of public funds, unclear goals, their inability to find common ground with Afghans, and lack of trust with allies. This painful experience for the United States was too expensive, but perhaps it will push it to become more sober in the future. At least this is precisely the meaning of the romance with adulthood.
Conflict and Leadership
Biden’s Withdrawal From Afghanistan: Consequences for the United States and Russia
Maxim Suchkov
America’s image as a “responsible superpower” has faltered, but it is unlikely that American allies in other regions will learn from this story. For Eurasia, the Taliban’s coming to power is fraught with not leaving, but returning the topic of combating terrorism to the current agenda, and the advanced American weapons left in Afghanistan hypothetically bring this struggle to a new technological level, writes Valdai Club expert Maxim Suchkov.
Expert Opinions
Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.