The failures of the Afghanistan War, explained

Prominent voices from USC and other communities detail 20 years of inadequate policy in the Middle East.

Soldiers look out into a valley.

The two-decade Afghanistan War had a monumental impact on the United States and ripple effects around the world. This reach has been felt at USC, where the news of U.S. troop withdrawal and the subsequent collapse of the Afghan government presented some students with a difficult moment during the start of the semester.

Aisha Sarwary, a fifth year student majoring in public policy, has family in Afghanistan. Sarwary, the president of the USC Afghan Student Association, has watched with disappointment as the situation in Afghanistan unfolded.

“There is no other way to characterize the overall 20-year war as anything other than failure,” Sarwary said.

She and other people within the Afghan diaspora feel there are a myriad of overlooked issues that should have been at the forefront of discussions as the occupation carried on year after year.

Sarwary feels the attention on Afghanistan is far too little, far too late—especially considering the amount of lives lost, the amount of money spent and the amount of resources exhausted in Afghanistan.

“We are angry and tired,” Sarwary said. “We are tired of the media trying to whitewash 20 years of brutal occupation with cheap propaganda pictures of Marines holding our babies.”

The Forgotten War

Arguably nothing is more emblematic of war in America than images of an engaged public, whether that’s through the collective effort of Americans to work in factories to produce war-related equipment during World War II or the anti-Vietnam War protests in the 1960s in response to the draft, which sent nearly two million men overseas.

This time around, the wars that followed that dark morning in September 2001 consisted of an all-volunteer military force, one that allowed the American public to be removed from the direct impacts of the war.

Ali Olomi was in middle school when the U.S. invaded Afghanistan in response to the Sept. 11 attacks. Twenty years later, Olomi is now a professor and historian of the Middle East and Islam at Penn State Abington University, teaching about the war that has been ever-present throughout his life and the lives of his students.

“We’ve gotten used to it as simply a reality that’s going on in the background,” Olomi said. “It’s a war that’s there, but we’re not really paying attention to it. It’s not forefront in our minds. We’re not worried about it. We’re not anxious about it.”

USC Clinical Professor of Communication Robert Scheer expressed similar sentiments about the attitude surrounding the war in Afghanistan through the past few decades.

“Clearly the public is not tuned in, has not raised tough questions about [the war] and it has just gone on like a video game that people can watch if they feel like it or not,” Scheer said.

Olomi emphasized that the increased attention from the media and U.S. officials towards the crisis in Afghanistan is an aberration, rather than the norm.

“Now we’re paying attention because there’s a humanitarian crisis, but this humanitarian crisis is not new—it’s simply a new iteration of the 20 years of devastation and destruction that has been waged in Afghanistan, both by the Taliban who have carried out violent terrorist attacks, but also from the U.S., which has been a military occupying force in the country,” Olomi said. “So Afghans have been caught in the middle.”

Similar strategy, similar fate

Critics believe the war and occupation has been a repetition of historically unsuccessful U.S. military campaigns to engineer a society similar to theirs through the installation of allied governments, economic stimulation and domestic policy changes.

Philip Seib, professor emeritus of journalism and public diplomacy at USC, said the U.S. has been trying to democratize foreign countries for decades.

“Nation-building doesn’t work, and it is time that U.S. policymakers recognized this,” Seib said. “Trying to impose ‘American values’ on a foreign society is a waste of time, money and lives.”

The practice, in this case, was an attempt by the U.S. to rebuild Afghanistan in its own image; to bring peace and stability to the region by funneling billions of dollars into training a national army and implementing a centralized capitalist government among other policies.

However, the reality on the ground was much more dire. The Washington Post’s “Afghanistan Papers” revealed a defective state, riddled with corruption and a society unprepared to handle the burden of idealistic, unrealistic and flawed American impositions on Afghanistan.

Much of the discourse around the beginning of the war often centered around the fight for women’s rights in the country, the safety of children and defeating the Taliban. Despite these goals, women still experienced violence, children were abused and the Taliban remained intact and strong. Meanwhile, U.S. forces gave away hundreds of thousands of dollars that ended up in the hands of the people they were supposed to be fighting through payments made to protect U.S. supply truck convoys from the Taliban and other warlords. This, along with the killing of civilians and lying to the American taxpayers paying for it, defined just a few examples of incompetence in the war.

“We share responsibility for the U.S. casualties and for civilian casualties where a war is taking place,” Seib said. “American voters are affected by not only the moral dimensions of this, but also by economic and other geopolitical factors related to ‘endless war.’”

The U.S. also sought to introduce a spin-off of its own war on drugs to curb the production of opium in Afghanistan, as well as a pricey boot camp for Afghan national security forces and a widespread distribution of infrastructure funds.

What actually transpired is a counternarcotics program—whose tenure overlooked almost $9 billion spent—that saw Afghanistan produce around 90% of the world’s illicit opium supply and become a narco-state with opium accounting for nearly half of the country’s gross domestic product by 2008.

The Afghanistan National Defense and Security Force effort, which the U.S. helped to rebuild, resulted in armies teeming with corruption—fed with billions of dollars of grossly unaccounted support—who were unwilling to fight for the government they were hired to protect.

A government, largely inexperienced with handling the billions of dollars the U.S. was pouring into it, ended up rife with corruption and wealth disparity and saw a harrowing toll on ordinary citizens.

Historians and former military officials point to some of the most pertinent problems that stemmed from 20 years of occupation.

“The U.S. basically set up a predatory kleptocracy in Afghanistan that victimized the people of Afghanistan,” said Matthew Hoh, a former U.S. Marine and State Department official. “This government was no better than the Taliban government that it replaced. This is why you can see how so many people are supporting the Taliban victory in Afghanistan, because it’s an end to the predation of the Afghan government.”

Hoh, who gained national attention when he became the first U.S. official known to resign in protest of the Afghan war, told Annenberg Media that America’s influence proved to be harmful to the Afghan population.

“You had in Afghanistan [the U.S.] putting into power these warlords and drug lords that brutalized the people, that preyed upon the people,” Hoh said.

Olomi, however, points out that some aspects of Afghan society did get better and there were moments of hope for the people of Afghanistan. The growth of society and the development of certain institutions—like women’s education and participation in public office—are some examples that beckoned optimism for people.

“It was also a lot of the same,” Olomi said. “We saw the corruption expand. We saw the government get very wealthy. We saw warlords take over, drug traffickers end up cutting deals with the United States and the Taliban.”

Basket of beneficiaries

“As an Afghan, I strongly believe America came to our country to make money,” Sarwary said. “Not only did us Afghans experience death, displacement and trauma but we watched America rape our lands from its natural resources.”

If there were any winners to come out of this war, it certainly wasn’t U.S. troops or the Afghan population, but rather the defense contractors working behind the scenes, orchestrating deals and negotiations for armaments and mineral excavations.

Headlines from 2010 pointed to the potential value of minerals in the regions. By 2016, despite former President Trump continuously expressing support to end the war in Afghanistan, he struck a deal with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to allow U.S. companies to develop the country’s mineral resources and cement a few more years of the U.S. presence in the country.

An Intercept article reveals the market-defying performance of defense stocks since the invasion of Afghanistan by the U.S. in 2001. The basket of stocks from the five major defense contractors outperformed the market by 58% and rose around 873%. To put this in perspective, if someone had thrown around $10,000 into defense stocks in the fall of 2001, they could’ve cashed out with almost $100,000 today.

“You can’t understand the explosion in wealth in the D.C. region as any other thing than the profits from the war industry,” Hoh explained.

Despite President Joe Biden erroneously assuring a Taliban takeover was not inevitable, former President Dwight Eisenhower was able to predict this pattern of profit from endless war back in 1961.

In his famous farewell speech at the White House, he warned the American people of the rise in “unwarranted” power by the military industrial complex, a junction of defense contractors and the military itself. In the modern military context, this looks like $300 million spent by the U.S. in Afghanistan everyday for 20 years.

What’s next?

Despite the withdrawal of U.S. troops, the state of affairs in Afghanistan remains grim. Violence plagues Taliban rule—Kabul has come under attack by terrorists and U.S. airstrikes aimed at ISIS-K members ended up unintentionally killing 10 civilian family members, including seven children.

While the withdrawal is finalized, some prominent figures in the foreign policy community believe American work is not done in Afghanistan and that the U.S. needs to go back to defeat ISIS, suggesting there is still an incentive for the U.S. to return.

“As Afghans, we are witnessing history repeating itself,” Sarwary said. “When you consider the propaganda that was pushed in 2001… women wearing burqas, individuals ‘concerned’ about women’s rights and assertions that Afghanistan was a ‘breeding ground for terrorists,’ it’s all occurring right now.”

Hoh also mentions this as a hypocritical point for the international community and global media to make, as troop withdrawal has finally completed.

“You’ll hear many Americans talk about it now. We were there to liberate women and protect women,” Hoh said. “How can you say that you’re in a country to protect them when you are shredding them to pieces and burning them alive with your bombs?”

As top military and government officials continue to debate the events that transpired on Aug. 30, people like Hoh and Sarwary believe it is time to also withdraw from making decisions for sovereign countries.

Sarwary makes it clear that even though Afghan Americans do not know what it’s like to live in Afghanistan during these times, it’s important to listen to Afghan voices.

“It’s not our place to dictate what should happen there,” Sarwary said. “The average Afghan is not pro-Taliban or pro-America. The average Afghan wants peace and stability.”

The USC Afghan Student Association started an emergency support fund to donate to various organizations helping refugees and victims of the war. For more information, visit https://bit.ly/3ixMYZw