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Afghanistan War America

How did Americans Get Afghanistan Wrong?

To comprehend today’s Afghanistan, we must return to the Cold War power dynamics of the 1970s. Following the toppling of the last king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, in 1973, the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), led by Daoud Khan, formed the government. However, Daud’s overthrow and subsequent assassination in 1978 caused internal political turmoil in the country.

To end the unrest, “tens of thousands of Soviet combat troops crossed the Oxus River (which forms the Soviet-Afghan border)” and began the country’s military occupation on December 27, 1979.[1] The Soviet Union’s military mission in Afghanistan was to put down the “burgeoning insurgency, consolidate the government, train the army, and withdraw”.[2]

Moscow’s new puppet regime of Babrak Karmal and his PDPA had placed numerous limitations under the guise of social revolution. The result was a curb on press freedom, increased factional struggles, and widespread political violence.[3]

Soviets in Afghanistan and the Rise of Mujahedeen

The arrival of Soviet troops in Afghanistan sparked widespread discontent among Afghans, severely undermining the legitimacy of the PDPA regime. The American intelligence consolidated this discontent by training the Mujahedeen (Holy Warriors) to fight the Soviets. Historian Tariq Ali writes,

The United States utilised the intelligence services of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to create, train, finance and arm an international network of Islamic militants to fight the Russians in Afghanistan.[4]

The Soviet army could not combat guerrilla warfare in Afghanistan’s hilly terrains due to inadequate military tactics. Subsequently, the Soviet military withdrew from Afghanistan in February 1989, following a humiliating defeat that cost the lives of a million Afghan civilians, “as well as 90,000 Mujahideen fighters, 18,000 Afghan troops, and 14,500 Soviet soldiers”.[5]

Following the withdrawal of Soviet troops, Afghanistan saw yet another period of political unrest, warlordism, factional violence, and the rise of Islamic terrorist groups. While Islamabad (with Saudi and American support) tried to “impose its pawn”, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in Afghanistan, Iran supported the Shia sect of Hazaras, and France supported Panjshir’s Ahmad Shah Massoud, resulting in a series of “vicious civil wars”.

However, the Pakistani military supported the Taliban when Hekmatyar failed to quell internal unrest. The Pakistani intelligence agency “trained and despatched” the Taliban across the border to combat other Muslims who “they were told were not true Muslims”.[6]

Taliban: As Seen By Others

Ahmad Rashid’s (2000) Taliban: Islam, Oil and the New Great Game in Central Asia is an essential treatise on the resurgence of the Taliban.[7] The group members were drawn from the Pashtuns, which comprises around 40 per cent of the Afghan population.

Most recruiters were young students from the hundreds of madrassahs established in Pakistani refugee camps for Afghans. Since boarding and lodging were free, Afghan refugees and the poor peasants who couldn’t afford to feed their children flocked to these madrassahs.

The imams who taught in these madrassahs derived their legitimacy from Koran and the Hadith.[8] The aftereffects of this training were quickly apparent when the Taliban resurfaced dramatically by the end of 1994. 

The Taliban formed a medieval-minded government in Afghanistan with the support of “Pakistan’s military and Saudi Arabia’s financial backing”, enforcing horrific punishments and Sharia Law-based gender laws.[9]

The regime implemented “an extreme interpretation of Sharia or Islamic law,” closing all girls’ schools, curtailing women’s freedoms, and prohibiting entertainment like music, television, videos, sports, and games.[10]

During Taliban rule, Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaeda commander formerly fostered by U.S. intelligence to fight the Soviets, turned against the U.S. and the West. Bin Laden swore “jihad” against the U.S. in August 1996, and al-Qaeda launched a series of terrorist strikes against U.S. embassies.

The United States and the Global War on Terror

Following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the U.S. launched the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), which would shape Afghanistan for the following two decades. Days after the attack, U.S. President George W. Bush declared the “War on Terror” to dismantle al-Qaeda and Islamic State terror networks and those “governments that support them” in an official speech to a joint session of Congress on October 7.

In his emotional address to Congress, President Bush noted, “The leadership of al-Qaeda has great influence in Afghanistan and supports the Taliban regime in controlling most of the country. In Afghanistan, we see al-Qaeda’s vision for the world”.[11] In the following months, U.S. and NATO forces succeeded in toppling the Taliban regime in Kabul.

However, the Global War on Terror continued with the pursuit of Bin Laden, who had fled to Pakistan. The defeat of the Taliban and Hamid Karzai’s selection as interim president resulted in relative peace in Afghanistan.[12]

With Karzai at the helm, the United States began its democratisation project in Afghanistan. The initial signs of success were evident in the improvements in healthcare, education, the economy, and people’s general well-being.[13] Women, previously who the Taliban had confined to their homes, attended colleges, entered the workforce, and joined the administration.

Thousands of girls who had been denied an education owing to Taliban rule could now participate in schools. A thriving independent news media emerged in Afghanistan.[14] While the democratic experiment allowed Afghan society to enable more women to participate in societal roles, it also produced a system that rendered the Afghan state overly reliant on U.S. financial assistance.

The U.S. spent more than $430 billion on military activities in the “Middle East, Africa, and Asia” in the first five years of the Afghan occupation, more than the annual GDP of “89 per cent” of the countries in the world.[15] Afghanistan became engulfed in a democratic quagmire sustained by NATO troops and corrupt political elites.

Reconstruction of Afghanistan and the Iraq War

While the reconstruction of Afghanistan was underway, the United States began the war in Saddam Hussain’s Iraq in 2003. The “Bush administration diverted scarce intelligence and reconstruction resources to Iraq,” undercutting the efforts to search for al-Qaeda terrorists.[16]

Meanwhile, the Taliban fighters who had fled to Pakistan re-entered the fray, intensifying suicide strikes and forcing NATO forces to retake positions. Jones (2009) notes that by 2006, most groups, including the Taliban, the Haqqanis and al-Qaeda began a “sustained effort” to dismantle the US-backed regime in Kabul.[17]

As a shift in the policy in the Middle East, President Barack Obama redeployed troops in Afghanistan. It is reported that, by mid-2010, the number of troops in Afghanistan had risen to 100,000. Osama bin Laden was killed by a U.S. Navy SEAL team in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in May 2011. He had been living there for years.

The killing of Osama bin Laden had heightened calls for the United States to speed up the rehabilitation of Afghanistan and hand it over to a democratic government. With the war at a standstill, President Obama announced the culmination of “major combat operations” in 2014 and shifted his focus to training and assisting Afghan security forces.[18]

In 2019, the Washington Post published “The Afghanistan Papers,” a well-documented investigative story into U.S. participation in Afghanistan.[19] Several U.S. military officials stated they had no idea what they were doing in Afghanistan. The war was directionless. Several observers have commented on Afghanistan’s “forever war”.[20]

Finally, in February 2020, the Taliban and the Trump administration reached a deal that called for evacuating all American soldiers from Afghanistan by May 2021. The Taliban promised to terminate ties with terrorist organisations like the Islamic State and al-Qaeda, stop the bloodshed, and communicate with the Afghan government that the United States backs.

After two decades of tumultuous occupation, the U.S. withdrew its last forces from Afghanistan in 2021, ending the “forever war”. On August 31, 2021, U.S. President Joe Biden announced, “The United States [has] ended 20 years of war in Afghanistan – the longest war in American history”.[21]

Watson Institute has estimated that the U.S. has “spent $2.3 trillion” in Afghanistan since 2001.[22] The U.S. occupation of Afghanistan has claimed the lives of 241,000 individuals, including 71,000 Afghan civilians.[23] More importantly, Taliban rule has returned to Afghanistan with its medieval-minded sharia-based regime.

The tragic end of the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan effectively encapsulates the paradox of the messiah state.

Factors causing America’s Failure in Afghanistan

The failure of the American democratic experiment in Afghanistan can be attributed to four factors: (i) cultural differences, (ii) new political elites, (iii) Taliban, and (iv) resistance to occupation.

Cultural Differences

The most striking feature of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan has been the display of stark cultural differences with the West and its inability to come to terms with it. Afghanistan is a tribal country infused with tribal affiliations and Islamic religious practices.

Multiple ethnic groups — Pashtun, Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazara – with long-standing ethnic divisions have coexisted for centuries in Afghanistan. Sadr (2014) calls Afghanistan a “terra incognita—the land of tribal societies, the home of warlords, and the graveyard of empires”.[24]

Traditionally governed by Pashtuns, Afghanistan has been impacted by tribal honour codes and interpretations of Islamic law. Pashtunwali is a word that denotes a set of moral and legal norms that help to govern Afghan society and define social roles and expectations from individuals.

After the defeat of the Taliban in 2001, Afghanistan became an experimental case for exporting democracy. While many Afghans welcomed the idea of democracy, it did not sustain its appeal over the following two decades. Few observers today would dispute that the imposition of Western liberal democracy on Afghan society did not resonate with the Afghan people.

The U.S. government did not make a concerted effort to understand Afghan society’s socio-economic and political dynamics. The United States “forced Western technocratic models” onto Afghan society. They trained the Afghan military in an “advanced weapon system” they did not understand—let alone maintain.

They imposed a democratic regime on a country whose tribal groups resolved “disputes through informal” mechanisms.[25] In such a society, democracy became a hollow experiment. Without popular support and consensus, democracy became an illusion for Afghans.

The widespread illiteracy, extreme poverty, cultural insecurity, and the rise of new local elites could not elevate the democratic experiment to take root in Afghanistan.[26] President Biden’s statement made it clear that the United States failed to transform Afghan society into a “modern, stable democracy” after two decades of conflict.[27]

New Political Elites

Several observers have extensively documented the role of elites in the democratic project in Afghanistan. While the political elites were expected to support a stable, inclusive, and democratic government, the rampant corruption in political institutions made it impossible for resources to percolate to the vulnerable.

The reconstruction money that flowed into Kabul was either “stolen or misappropriated by Afghan officials and warlords. As a result, even fulfilling the “most basic needs of citizens” became a luxury for the Afghan government.[28] Governance in Afghanistan became debilitated due to widespread corruption in civilian governments, prompting resentment among millions of people.[29]

Afghan leadership failed to provide good governance for their citizens by all accounts. SIGAR, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, John F. Sopko, had warned against the “more serious and widespread” corruption that has permeated the country since 2001.[30]

However, U.S. officials had turned a blind eye to the corruption, criminal intimidation and warlordism which pervaded the political and administrative system.[31]


After their defeat in 2001, the Taliban forces fled to Pakistan and operated along Afghanistan’s border. However, with the U.S. shifting its focus toward Iraq, the Taliban began mobilising again, retaking rural areas, carrying out suicide assaults on NATO forces, infiltrating the Afghan military, and regaining legitimacy from the rural populace.

The Taliban leadership preached jihad (holy war) to reclaim “occupied” Muslim territory. They sought to reintroduce an Islamic way of life based on a “radical interpretation of Islam” devoid of local customs and traditions. As a result, “a supply of rural villagers disgruntled by a failing government and a demand for recruits by ideologically motivated leaders”.[32]

At the same time, American forces were deployed haphazardly. Many U.S. military commanders have admitted that the “war was directionless” since they had no idea why they were in Afghanistan or what they should be doing.[33] Due to a lack of planning and direction, the U.S. had lost track of rebuilding Afghanistan. At the same time, the Taliban had mobilised and strengthened across the country.

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Resistance To Occupation

The most visible feature of all foreign attempts to invade Afghanistan is their failure. Local Afghan resistance has thwarted all imperial powers that have attempted to invade them, from Alexander the Great to Imperial Britain and the Communist Soviet Union. The United States is the latest addition to this list. Alexander the Great and his army suffered heavy losses in their brutal campaigns against Afghans around 330 BC.

Russia and Britain were engaged in what became known as “the Great Game” in the nineteenth century, with Afghanistan serving as a “buffer” in their conflict. To oppose Russian influence, the British waged three bloody wars in Afghanistan between 1839 and 1919.

Due to the resistance of the Pashtuns, they could not conquer them.[34] In 1979, the USSR invaded them, but the Mujahadeen resisted the Soviet forces until 1989 when they were forced to retreat.

PS: These notes were made in excess of the paper I have been writing and grappling with.


[1] Tariq Ali, The Forty-Year War in Afghanistan (London; New York: Verso, 2021).

[2] Badri and Tripathi, “The Paradox of Messiah States.”

[3] Ali, Forty-Year War, 22.

[4] Ali, Forty-Year War, 36.

[5] Alan Taylor, “The Soviet War in Afghanistan, 1979 – 1989,” The Atlantic, August 4, 2014,

[6] Ali, Forty-Year War, 38.

[7] Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (London, UK: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd, 2000).

[8] Ali, Forty-Year War, 43.

[9] For a comprehensive discussion on the Taliban regime, refer to Ahmed Rashid (2000), Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia, London, UK: I.B. Tauris & Co Ltd; also refer to Carter Malkasian (2021), The American War in Afghanistan: A History, Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, for a comprehensive contextualization of Taliban in Afghanistan history.

[10] Rashid, Taliban, 25–28.

[11] Seth G. Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires: America’s War in Afghanistan (New York, NY: W. W. Norton, 2009).

[12] Carter Malkasian, The American War in Afghanistan: A History (Oxford University Press, 2021), 125,

[13] David Rohde and David E. Sanger, “How a ‘Good War’ in Afghanistan Went Bad,” The New York Times, August 12, 2007, sec. World,

[14] Zucchino, “The U.S. War in Afghanistan.”

[15] Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires.

[16] Rohde and Sanger, “How a ‘Good War’ in Afghanistan Went Bad.”

[17] Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires.

[18] Zucchino, “The U.S. War in Afghanistan.”

[19] C. Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War (Simon & Schuster, 2021).

[20] B. Ahmadi et al., “U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan: End to an Endless War?,” United States Institute of Peace, April 15, 2021,; T.B. Watson, C. Wente, and J. Laurain, “The Debate – The End of the ‘Forever War’: What Future Awaits the Afghan People?,” France 24, August 31, 2021,; Paul Wolfowitz, “The ‘Forever War’ Hasn’t Ended,” Wall Street Journal, August 27, 2021, sec. Opinion,

[21] The White House, “Remarks by President Biden on the End of the War in Afghanistan,” The White House, August 31, 2021,

[22] Watson Institute, “Human and Budgetary Costs to Date of the U.S. War in Afghanistan, 2001-2022,” 2021,

[23] Watson Institute, “Afghan Civilians | Costs of War,” The Costs of War, 2021,

[24] Omar Sadr, “Understanding War in Afghanistan: Politics, Culture and Social History,” Fair Observer (blog), October 14, 2014,

[25] John F. Sopko, “What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction,” SIGAR 21-46-LL, August 2021, XIII,

[26] Shahrbanou Tadjbakhsh and Michael Schoiswohl, “Playing with Fire? The International Community’s Democratization Experiment in Afghanistan,” International Peacekeeping 15, no. 2 (April 2008): 252–67,

[27] The White House, “Remarks by President Biden on the End of the War in Afghanistan.”

[28] Zucchino, “The U.S. War in Afghanistan.”

[29] Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires.

[30] Sopko, “What We Need to Learn.”

[31] Nazanin Azizian, “Easier to Get into War Than to Get Out: The Case of Afghanistan,” August 2021,

[32] Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires, 45.

[33] Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War.

[34] Jones, In the Graveyard of Empires, 46–47.

Cover Photo by Mohammad Husaini on Unsplash

2 thoughts on “How did Americans Get Afghanistan Wrong?”

  1. Adarsh, I have finally found a quiet moment to read and think about this post. I found it fascinating…and distressing, but not surprising. It seems that the US often gets involved in the politics of other countries without fully understanding cultural factors and consequently makes a mess of things. After the failures of Britain and Russia in Afghanistan, we should have carefully considered if and how to become involved there. I am all for equal opportunities and democracy, but maybe war was not the best approach. Thank you for sharing your research. I hope your paper is well-received. <3

    1. Thank you for reading, Cheryl!

      It has taken me a year to develop a cogent argument around America’s behaviour in the international system. I still face certain difficulties in trying to grapple with some of the challenges in its behaviour. However, America’s behaviour since 1990s could be understood from a different framework–of that of a saviour. I have tried to develop this idea further. I will share the research outputs as and when it is published. Many thanks. You are one of the consistent readers and supporters of my blog. Please continue to do so…

      Warm greetings!

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