The Ledger: Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan: How the War Was Lost


To a foreigner, Afghanistan seems like a land divided by stark contrasts. At a glance, the prosperous neighborhoods of Kabul and the austere earthen complexes of Helmand province, just a few hundred kilometers apart, could be from different centuries. But what looks like an insurmountable chasm is crossed by relationships that are often invisible to outsiders.

The failure to understand the bond between Afghanistan and its people underlies the West’s 20-year struggle there, a story the early draft of which is masterfully captured in The ledger by David Kilcullen and Greg Mills.

Based on a review of the past that begins with the first engagement in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks, the authors list the opportunities and failures that end with the United States leaving Afghanistan overnight this summer. . Although the seeds were laid early, they are a clear explanation of why the result was not inevitable.

In 2001, Lakhdar Brahimi, UN special envoy to Afghanistan, described the failure to grasp the nature of Afghan community and tribal relations as the West’s original sin. It defined and permeated all that was to follow.

After entering Afghanistan and displacing the Taliban regime, the Western coalition excluded the Taliban from power and politics. The return of the exiled king Mohammad Zahir Shah to the throne was also rejected. The result was that many Pashtuns, Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, who had been part of the patchwork regime known as the Taliban, never saw their future under the Western-backed regime; resistance was inevitable. President Hamid Karzai knew this. The UN knew it. Most of those who gathered in Bonn at the end of 2001 to agree on the new regime knew this. It seems only foreigners did not. Yet, as so often in the history of the Mountain Kingdom, it is outsiders who have the power.

Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of Defense, categorically refused Karzai’s demand to give Taliban leader Mullah Omar a place in this new nation, an error in judgment that caused us to miss the greatest moment of influence on the nation. old regime and put us on an impossible path: the military annihilation of the group which was more of a culture than a body. This entrenched division gave NATO a political problem that military force could never solve.

The authors quote the advice that former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev gave to rulers in Kabul in the 1980s: “Broaden your social base. Continue the dialogue with the tribes. It was a policy that too few leaders of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force were following. Briton David Richards and American John Nicholson were notable exceptions. They retained the commanders in the field and sought to engage.

Mohmandzoi, Barakzoi, Ghilzoi and elders from many other confederations came to see them in Kabul and received them all over the country. For a short time during the first decade of the intervention, ISAF was part of this tribal world and received its own tribal name – Isafzoi. It was the most powerful force in the land, but it had the shortest memory.

Yet we were even fighting against our allies. As Mills and Kilcullen recall, Karzai continued to support the former governor of Helmand, local warlord Sher Mohammed Akhundzada, who had done more than anyone to alienate the community and force people to think about a future beyond. by Karzai.

I have heard all the stories leading up to this point in the governor’s house in Helmand. Sitting for long hours from the sweltering afternoon to the chill of the night, I saw the depth of unwritten history we ignored, like landmines waiting to explode. Stories of disputes that began decades, if not centuries, earlier. The old men who drank green tea knew every decision, every road, every well, and every meeting was political.

ISAF forces meet the elders in Kabul in 2011. “For a short time during the first decade of the intervention, ISAF was part of this tribal world” © Getty Images

Where development workers saw spending targets and auditors wanted results, these elders felt shifts in power. They knew the issues and the risks of change.

It was the society we dreamed of reforming. We have not suffered from the constraints of self-doubt or popular responsibility. We were able to compound our mistakes and tear off the scabs from old wounds without feeling them bleed. We were also able to educate girls, employ women, hire doctors and rebuild highways. These accounts are meticulously drawn up in The ledger.

The authors describe the extension of the government’s mandate in Kandahar as the spread of corruption, not governance. They list the people’s demands – jobs and electricity – and pit them against what aid professionals were determined to deliver: education and irrigation.

Mills, a prolific South African writer on state failure, and Kilcullen, a former Australian soldier and former adviser to the U.S. national security cabal, have amassed evidence and anecdotes to tell the story of the Afghan adventure that many of us have experienced.

The perpetrators were there all the way, from the early days of traveling in slow trucks on dangerous roads trying to figure out local road tax systems to the last days Mills was in the presidential palace before the president Ashraf Ghani does not abandon him for ignominy in exile. Mills reports that in one of his last conversations with Ghani, the president was more interested in academic solutions to management challenges than in the advancing horde in the capital.

In my four years of service in Afghanistan, I have witnessed our mistakes and celebrated our successes, but I have never believed in the inevitability of failure. Sitting with the Musa Qala elders in December 2007, I heard about their trade (mainly narcotics) and their properties (mainly in the Gulf). They were nothing politically. They were also globalized and open to options, but then they were – and could have remained – co-opted.

But our goals weren’t based on their metrics. Our electoral cycles and our national interests have imposed themselves on Afghan life. We would eradicate drugs in three years. It was impossible, but a new British Prime Minister had demanded it. We would start withdrawing our troops soon after the 2008 surge. It was militarily illogical, but a new US president ordered it.

We established programs and timetables that achieved our immediate goals, but undermined the one vital element in winning any war, especially an insurgency: endurance. We lost patience and forced the Afghans to think about a future without us, hurting those who bet that we would stay. Extraordinarily, we were surprised when they made deals that did not include us.

The ledger offers many lessons learned from comparisons with other wars in other countries. It puts the context and data behind the assessment of success turned failure, but its central point is simple: Leadership matters. When we got it, we were able to take risks and keep our commitment. When he failed we pretended Afghanistan was a new Vietnam, and pretending we did.

The painful legacy of our decisions can be seen in Afghanistan today and in the memory of veterans. It can also be seen around the world, as rivals and adversaries test our now challenged resolve. Do we now have the leaders to stay the course and show the patient’s confidence to endure? This story remains to be written.

The ledger: Accounting for failure in Afghanistan, by David Kilcullen and Greg Mills, Hurst £ 14.99, 368 pages

Tom Tugendhat is the Chairman of the UK House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee

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