What went wrong in Afghanistan? Policy expert examines U.S. missteps

Harris scholar discusses how phases of withdrawal led to ‘cascades of surrender’

Nearly two years ago, the Washington Post published the Afghanistan Papers, sensitive materials revealing how Afghan forces were unable to hold back the Taliban.

Those government documents revealed the deep problems in the war in Afghanistan—from bureaucratic corruption to poorly trained soldiers. They also validated research being conducted by University of Chicago scholar Austin Wright, which examined declassified military records.

“The data showed that even though Taliban violence was reduced, they were still present and had freedom of movement,” said Wright, an assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy. “They weren’t being beaten; they had chosen to withdraw.” 

The results of that research, Wright said, suggested that U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan would almost certainly be messy and violent. What he didn’t anticipate was just how quickly the Afghan government would collapse after U.S. troops departed—surrendering to the Taliban in a matter of days.

An expert on the political economy of insurgent violence, Wright said the Taliban’s rapid takeover of traces back to prior missteps by the U.S. government. In the following Q&A, he discusses where the U.S. went wrong, and why military involvement in Afghanistan might not be over.

The plan to withdraw from Afghanistan didn’t just occur over the past few months. What unfolded here? 

The overall transition should be considered in three phases. What we've just seen is the third phase, which is the final drawdown. The first phase was the scheduled commitment that the Obama administration made with President Hamid Karzai in 2010, where political and operational military authority would be transitioned from the U.S. to local Afghans. The second phase was the physical withdrawal of U.S. troops down from roughly 140,000 to 10,000. And this year, we saw the third phase.    

In the first phase, there were significant reductions in Taliban violence—which made it appear that local Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) were actually quite effective. And that was very surprising. Then, during that second phase, our data showed that violence skyrockets, immediately reversing the gains from phase one.

This suggested that the phase one reduction in violence was strategic, and the Taliban were just holding back their fighting capacity until the troops physically withdrew. This was the first sign, evident back in 2017, that there was something very unusual happening. The idea that the war effort was going well, and that we had a strong partner in ANSF—maybe wasn’t an accurate assessment.  

Were you surprised by how chaotic the final withdrawal was? 

The part that was surprising is how quickly the Taliban won the last 25% of the country: the Northern resistance areas and the capital of Kabul. What analysts may have missed was the impact that mass-scale surrender can have at the end of the process. In this instance, it created its own momentum. And in these “cascades of surrender,” there were maybe 65-70% of ANSF soldiers in and around Kabul in the North who see the dominoes falling around them. And then they're suddenly realizing: “Maybe my best option is to just stand down completely. Maybe this government is not viable, and in a few weeks, the government will have absolutely no leverage whatsoever over the Taliban.”

To the extent that the U.S. government could have done better—how should we think about that? Four different administrations have been involved in prosecuting this war. 

This entire process really came to a head under the Trump administration. Trump wanted to meet with the Taliban at Camp David right around this time in 2019, around the time of the anniversary of 9/11. He was focused on the “art of the deal” and he didn't realize how short-sighted his approach was. One of the things that the Taliban requested—which the Trump administration folded on—was that they would not negotiate with the United States if the elected Afghan government was present.

So what does this do? Well, it means that the United States abandoned the democratically-elected government of Afghanistan for the “art of the deal.” Without the active involvement of the Afghan government—and without a sustained commitment to supporting the elected Afghan government—it set the stage for a very messy final withdrawal.

What about Biden? 

So Trump leaves office, and nothing is fully resolved. Biden moves back the line in the sand to the end of August. Biden is in a difficult spot when meeting with Afghan president Ashraf Ghani, because one of the things that Ghani understandably requests is that the United States not begin to evacuate people. Ghani anticipates that if the U.S. begins to evacuate people as the Taliban moves in, there will be this cascade – which is exactly what ends up happening. A cascade of people would overwhelm the airport, overwhelm the borders, because the United States will have signaled that it doesn't believe that the Afghan government can sustain its war effort. There was no easy answer. 

Couldn’t the U.S. have just gotten people out of there quietly?

The Biden administration could have ignored Ghani and said, “We’ll do it in secret. We’ll find a way to start moving people out while avoiding a public scandal, but we need to get this process started.” But that might have triggered the collapse of the Afghan government anyway. A lot of parties bear blame, but it’s important to recall that the failure of this settlement with the Taliban emerged under the terms determined by the Trump administration, which was hunting for a quick win and not thinking about the long game.

But could the Biden administration have better handled the final withdrawal?

The Biden administration has failed the Afghan allies who were deployed on the front lines alongside American soldiers and reconstruction teams. Many people who were engaging in incredibly risky support to the U.S. mission are still waiting to figure out if they're going to be able to exit the country—even though they filed for exit years ago.

This is because of how broken the U.S. system is for transporting people out. By law, the process is only supposed to take nine to 12 months, but the average duration from application to exit is three years. The Biden administration, for example could have used its executive power to mandate the evacuation and providing emergency support, temporarily streaming the process for relocating Afghans. Another piece of leverage the administration could have used more effectively was the holdings of the Afghan Central Bank, or reconsidered the shutdown of Bagram Air Base.

What should we expect going forward?

I’m not sure that saying the war is over is entirely accurate. This is just the new phase of what's going to happen in Afghanistan. As we've seen over the last week or so, the U.S. will probably be involved in Afghanistan in the long run—just in a very different form. The Taliban are not allies to ISIS and have actively fought ISIS. If ISIS did indeed conduct the recent suicide bombing that they claimed credit for, we’ll likely see the U.S. mission change. There will probably be a shift to more remote warfare, with drone strikes and other tactics. That's probably what we're going to see.

What did we learn from all of this?

What we’ve seen is the culmination of both intelligence failures and failures of political will. Just because there's a failure of political will doesn't put all the blame at the feet of the people who provided the intelligence. As a research team, we knew the weaknesses, we anticipated there would be violence, and we anticipated that the final withdrawal would be coupled with complete disruption. It’s strange to see the predictions we made two, three years ago actually play out on the ground—except for the speed of the final collapse. And I think that’s because we didn't fully account for how impactful these cascades of surrenders can be.

The effort to study the withdrawal rigorously will have value, both for the future of Afghanistan and for how we should think about other conflicts. Just because the war is lost doesn't mean the effort that went into evaluating the conflict was all for naught.