8 Causes of American defeat in Afghanistan

Shahid H. Raja
15 min readJul 16, 2021



After the announcement of the withdrawal of US/NATO forces from Afghanistan, there is a plethora of articles and a large number of books being written on its causes. While they are using different perspectives to analyse this humiliating defeat of a Superpower of the day, there is one common theme in most of these narratives; the USA loses its every war for the same reasons, again and again. Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan. You name it and you will come across the same strategic blunders, tactical failures, and policy inconsistencies repeated in every theatre of war.

This article enumerates the eight most important causes of the defeat of American forces in Afghanistan and also highlights the reason why we should not blame Pakistan for this American fiasco in Afghanistan


“The war is not meant to be won; it is meant to be continuous”- George Orwell

Since the announcement of the withdrawal date of US/NATO forces from Afghanistan by Donald Trump, officially accepting the 3rd defeat of a superpower in 50 years, there is a plethora of articles and a large number of books being written on its causes. While they are using different perspectives to analyse this issue, ranging from geopolitical on the one hand to the military on the other, there will be one common theme in most of these narratives; the USA loses its every war for the same reasons, again and again. Vietnam, Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan. You name it and you will come across the same strategic blunders, tactical failures, and policy inconsistencies repeated in every theatre of war.

The USA invaded Afghanistan in the wake of worldwide sympathy it was enjoying after the fateful 9/11 attack. Although it was the worst intelligence failure of the American security establishment, Afghanistan was picked as the target of US vengeance. Ironically, Afghanistan had no role in it. None of the 19 suicide bombers was Afghanis nor they had got any training in Afghanistan. All had been getting training for a year in the USA while the plan for this operation was planned in Germany. Even the devil incarnate Osama, who no doubt appreciated the cowardly act, kept on pleading his non-involvement in the 9/11 attacks.

U.S. demand for handing over Osama bin Laden, who had already been wanted by the UNO, and expelling al-Qaeda, was not acceptable to the Taliban without any convincing evidence of his involvement in the 9/11 attacks. Describing this as delaying tactics, the USA launched Operation Enduring Freedom on 7 October 2001 with the United Kingdom. Other NATO forces later joined this Afghan War. Pakistan was forced to join this War on Terrorism by the threat of “bombing into the stone age”

Traditional rivals of the Taliban, the non-Pashtun Northern Alliance sided with the USA which was then successful in driving the Taliban from power within no time. However, most of the Taliban succeeded in fleeing to the remote interior of the country or escaping towards the rugged mountainous No Man’s Land existing between Afghanistan and neighbouring Pakistan.

Post-Invasion Scenario

Now started the ambitious project of state-building and infrastructural development for which the UNO established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), to oversee military operations in the country and train Afghan National Security Forces. At the Bonn Conference in December 2001, Hamid Karzai was selected to head the Afghan Interim Administration, which after a 2002 Loya jirga in Kabul became the Afghan Transitional Administration. Elections were held in 2004 and Karzai was elected president of the country, now named the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan.

In the meantime, the Taliban regrouped themselves and under the leadership of their leader, Mullah Omar reorganized the movement and launched guerilla operations against the NATO forces. According to the official records of the USA, around 2400 American soldiers died in the USA’s longest war in history and more than 25,000 were seriously wounded. Estimates vary but the conservative calculation will put the costs of the Afghan War anywhere between 2 to 3 trillion US$ of American citizens’ tax money.

What went wrong?

So, what were the causes of America’s dismal performance in Afghanistan against a ragtag army of the poor led by a poor for the poor? Here are my two cents on the topic

1. Lack of clear Objective backed by Effective Strategy

Although its public aims were to dismantle al-Qaeda and to deny it a safe base of operations in Afghanistan by removing the Taliban from power, the Operation Enduring Freedom itself was a gung-ho operation, carried out without any proper planning and effective strategy to cope with the situation once the initial objectives were achieved. As such, it was doomed to fail.

Once the Taliban had been ousted and al Qaeda had been degraded, America should have tried to establish a broad-based government and left with a strong intelligence presence to keep an eye on the re-emergence of Al-Qaida. Rather it started an ambitious project of state-building and even nation-building- objectives which need decades if not centuries.

Unfortunately, Americans remained clueless about their objectives till the end of the game. And at the tactical level, there was even greater confusion about the objectives and goals of the military intervention- what the actual goal was at the military level. It just jumped in without properly defining any tangible and verifiable goals and objectives in terms of military achievements. On the other hand, the Taliban, like the Vietcong in the Vietnam war, knew exactly what they were doing and why. They wanted an independent sovereign Afghanistan, free of foreign forces.

Consequently, all the Taliban had to do was to drive out the Americans to isolate the Kabul junta from its sources of economic and military support. They finally succeeded in accomplishing this by avoiding a decisive engagement and instead, resorting to hit and run tactics until American forces pulled out of Afghanistan.

Lack of clarity about the overall objective of the military intervention resulted in inconsistent policy and strategy formulation by the Pentagon. Consequently, every change of guards resulted in a different set of strategies. “Heart and Mind” policy was coupled with brutal tactics; killing innocent people through drones became a standard war strategy. Americans tried to use bombing campaigns, advanced weaponry and coupled it with brutal tactics to show how strong it was, and how futile it was for the Taliban to continue resisting. It wanted them to submit by scaring them which worked the opposite way. The images of American atrocities horrified the world, especially America’s population. It did not achieve any objective of America. If anything, it made the local population hate America even more and join the Taliban.

Obama’s presidency was the best time to engage the Taliban for a meaningful peace dialogue; he instead went for the so-called Surge with disastrous results. This inconsistency in policy formulation and implementation adversely affected American troops’ morale and it showed in their lack of performance.

2. Half-Hearted Attempts

If the objectives were so ambitious then the USA should have allocated much larger resources and should have continued with it till these were achieved. Keeping in view the peculiar conditions of Afghanistan with its diverse ethnic composition, mountainous terrain, inadequate infrastructure and institutional backwardness, far more troops and finances were required. Troop levels in Afghanistan never approached that level.

Instead, those battle-hardened troops were sent to Iraq in 2003 where another similar gung-ho operation was launched, allowing the Taliban to re-emerge in the vacuum this created. An easy victory against the Taliban convinced the Americans about their invincibility without realising the peculiar globally favourable circumstances and the wholehearted domestic support of the non-Pashtun warlords. This diversion of attention and power vacuum provided God-send opportunity to Taliban to regroup and become a formidable force to reckon with.

3. Lack of understanding about Political Dynamics

The USA failed to comprehend the political dynamics of the local and regional landscape. Instead of understanding the complex inter-regional and intra-regional conflicts and using them for divide and rule policy, Americans antagonised everyone by reducing all the complex issues into one big “you vs us”. After the fall of the Taliban government, the USA installed a government that was overwhelmingly non-Pashtun. Ignorant of Afghanistan’s centuries-old culture of intensive dialogue leading to consensus decision making, America supported a highly centralized Presidential system heavily dominated by non-Pashtuns.

Passionate appeals by Pakistan to accommodate the moderate Pashtun Taliban who were on the run and amenable to negotiated peace were not heeded. By banishing all the Pashtuns from every decision-making apparatus of the state machinery, they not only created a legitimacy crisis for the new government but also disempowered nearly 50% of the population in one go in the new socio-political set-up. Consequently, it was the Northern Alliance, heavily dominated by the Tajiks and other tribes, hostile towards Pashtun since millennia, who was calling the shots in the national government.

It was, therefore, just a matter of time, when the accumulated errors of omission and commission on the part of NATO forces in Afghanistan in general and the Afghan government, in particular, effectively pushed the majority of Pashtuns towards the Taliban who needed the space and sympathy of the people to carry out their mission. Survey after survey has suggested that the majority of Pashtun people are supporting the Taliban not only out of fear but also for being more trustworthy as compared to the present regime. Pashtuns considered the Taliban movement as an indigenous liberation movement without any affiliation with the Al Qaida or global Jihad. They still consider it as a continuation of their centuries-old war against foreign invasion or occupation-whether British or Soviet or American.

4. Intelligence failure of the CIA

CIA is an overrated institution that failed at both levels-strategic and tactical, a classic example of an intelligence agency not only lacking foresight and a clear direction but also neglecting the fundamentals of intelligence gathering. It failed to gauge the scope of the war and underestimated the strength of the Taliban. It was compounded by confusion about definitions, faulty accounting techniques, and figure fudging. Focussing too much on technology instead of Human Intelligence (HUMINT) resulted in a disconnect that prevented the integration and fusing of information to achieve efficient, accurate intelligence assessments. These failures, in turn, led the USA to adopt conventional military solutions for an unconventional problem

They even failed to understand that any coalition of various groups like the Taliban has its inter-group difference which could have been exploited and created a wedge among them. With the right amount of coercion and cooperation, the CIA could have coopted one or two components of this eight-group conglomerate. As explained below, it is the so-called Quetta Shura led by Haibatullah Akhund which controls the bulk of the fighters but he is challenged by several groups of dissidents. All these groups maintain a considerable degree of autonomy and negotiate deals and agreements without even reporting them to Quetta Shura.

5. Inefficient and Corrupt Government

Despite massive military and financial aid by the NATO forces, the Afghan government could not deliver in terms of security or delivery of basic services. Both Karzai and his successor Ashraf Ghani proved to be disasters. Besides rigging elections, both are guilty of massive corruption and nepotism. According to a 2009 DFID survey,

“Most ordinary people associate the [national] government with practices and behaviour they dislike: the inability to provide security, dependence on foreign military, eradication of a basic livelihood crop (poppy), and as having a history of partisanship (the perceived preferential treatment of Northerners).”

Read any annual report issued by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Relief (SIGAR) showing how mass corruption, bribery, payoffs and drug money had fatally undermined US efforts to build a viable Afghan society. Unfortunately, everyone blames the Afghani elite for being corrupt while ignoring the role of American corporations and the NGOs for whom Afghanistan was a gravy train.

6. Terrain-the Killing Fields.

Americans must have learnt a lesson from their previous excursions in Vietnam and Iraq that terrain plays an extremely crucial role in any war. They failed to subjugate Vietcong guerillas because Vietnam is a land of swamps and jungles, ideal for Vietcong fighters to attack and hide. I do not believe in the theory that Pashtuns cannot be defeated. They have been subjugated by Alexander the Macedonian, Genghis Khan, Timur, the Moguls and the Sikhs. Even the British had successfully invaded Afghanistan. However, invading a foreign country like Afghanistan which is sparsely populated, mountainous and bleak is one thing; maintaining your occupation for long is impossible. The proverbial bravery and tenacity of the Pashtun tribes through their wars of attrition ultimately saps the morale and drains the finances of the occupying power. The same was happening with the American forces in Afghanistan

7. Taliban had strong Backers-Russia and Iran.

After their defeat in Vietnam, Americans started to destabilise Afghanistan to take revenge from the Soviet Union for this humiliation. By 1980, the CIA had recruited and trained thousands of fighters from all over the Islamic world and started infiltrating Afghanistan. Americans were ultimately successful and USSR had no option but to leave Afghanistan, defeated and humiliated.

The American invasion of Afghanistan was a God-sent opportunity for the Russians to pay them back in the same coin, knowing full well what was in store for the Americans in the long run. They not only provide maximum support to the Taliban, particularly in the form of military equipment but also endorsed them as a major stakeholder when Russia convened a series of high-level regional meetings on Afghanistan, inviting the Taliban as a party.

The motive behind the Russian move to show its tilt towards Taliban had three strategic motives- asserting itself as a superpower as USSR used to be in its heydays, to keep American forces bogged down in global conflicts so that they could not destabilise Russia or the countries in its immediate security zone, and lastly, to bolster the Taliban as a counterweight to ISIS. After the introduction of ISIS in Afghanistan, which Russian consistently blamed the USA for creating and transporting its members from Syria in “un-marked helicopters” to Afghanistan, the Taliban became an even more palatable option for Russia.

Similarly, Iran which was deadly against the Taliban for the atrocities committed by them against the Shia population of Afghanistan when in power, started supporting them for its strategic objectives once the Taliban were cut to size. The Iranians, like the Russians, became convinced that the USA created ISIS and after its defeat in Syria, had transported hundreds of ISIS jihadists to Afghanistan to destabilise Iran. In this changed scenario, the Taliban became their allies by default. For the Iranians, ISIS claiming to be a universal movement interested to export its militant ideology by force is a graver threat than the Taliban who have been emphasising again and again that their struggle only concerned with foreign occupation of Afghanistan, fully respect geographical boundaries, and pledged that Afghanistan would not become as a launching pad for attacks on regional countries.

8. American Announcement to Withdraw

Although history will blame Donald Trump and Joe Biden for making a hasty decision of troop withdrawal, the fact is that it was the 2013 announcement by Obama which sowed the seeds of American defeat in Afghanistan. By announcing its withdrawal from Afghanistan quagmire by 2014, the USA repeated the same mistake which the USSR made in the case of its ally Najibullah in September 1991. Boris Yeltsin, determined to cut back on the country’s international commitments, announced that from 1 January 1992, no more arms, petrol and food supplies would be delivered to Kabul. This announcement was catastrophic for the morale of Najibullah and his supporters, who had otherwise survived for more than two years and could have gone for much longer.

Similarly, the above-mentioned announcement by Obama and later on an invitation to the Taliban for negotiations for their possible induction as partners in the government was enough to keep up the morale of the Taliban who might have yielded to Pakistan’s pressure for a negotiated settlement with the Afghan government.

Pakistan’s culpability in American Defeat?

Pakistan has been blamed by anyone who knows a bit about Afghanistan for its so-called duplicity in America’s Afghan fiasco i.e. if Pakistan had not done double-dealing if it had not provided safe havens to the Taliban if it had eliminated the Haqqani network, if it had stopped the supply of jihadis from its madrassas- you name it and there will be a long list of Pakistani actions which allegedly snatched victory from American hands.

Just compare it with the way the Soviet Union took its defeat in Afghanistan. Everyone in Pakistan is very fond of claiming Pakistan’s larger than life role in the defeat of the other superpower of the day in the same killing fields but ignore the crucial role played by the USA and its allies, even the Chinese in this retreat. It was a battle between the Soviet Union and its two dozen allies on one hand and the USA and its more than 50 allies on the other. That’s why the USSR or its successor Russia never blamed Pakistan for its defeat. They were too honourable to demean themselves by putting all the blame for their humiliation on a minion like Pakistan the way Americans have been doing so far

As the tribe from which the bulk of the Haqqani network is recruited, is mostly living in the Pakistani territory, it is assumed that controlling them is the responsibility of the Pakistan government.

Granted. While sympathising with the anxieties and concerns of those who want Pakistan to take firm action against the Haqqani Network, the sad reality is Pakistan was never, and will never be capable of taking any stringent action against them for one reason or other. Let me explain.

  1. Pakistan has Marginal Influence over Taliban

Despite all the wild allegations levelled against Pakistan’s ISI by the foreign press and the exaggerated claims made by a section of Pakistan’s security establishment itself, the fact is that Pakistan has very marginal and mostly moral influence over the Taliban or on Haqqani Network. Any leverage Pakistan had in the past dwindled due to our joining the War on Terror and handing over hundreds of their members to the Americans for their detention in Guantanamo Bay. Naturally, they will never remember Pakistan’s generosity in hosting them for so long; their only memories will be how they were expelled.

Secondly, the Taliban are very shrewd people and understand Pakistan’s weaknesses and deal with the latter’s security agencies on their terms. They have been holding clandestine meetings with the Norwegian diplomat for the resolution of the crises without informing the ISI and had been in contact with the Russians, Chinese and the Iranians on their own to avoid pressure from the Pakistani establishment. For instance, former leader of Taliban Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansour visited Iran several times; in fact, he was targeted by the US drone when he entered Pakistan from Iran.

2. Taliban are Split

The Taliban is not a monolithic group, rather a conglomerate of various groups with complex internal arrangements. It makes it extremely difficult to reach any sort of agreement with them or coerce them to negotiate. While the main group, the so-called Quetta Shura led by Haibatullah Akhund, controls the bulk of the fighters and formulates policies, the so-called Rasool Shura having less than 10% of the fighters maintains no relations with the former. The leadership of Haibatullah is challenged by several groups of dissidents such as those led by Obeidullah Ishaqzai, cousin of Akhtar Mansur, by the Shura of the North, by the Miran Shah Shura and by Peshawar Shura. Even the Mashhad Shura which is on good terms with Haibatullah has not formally recognised him as the leader. All these groups maintain a considerable degree of autonomy and negotiate deals and agreements without even reporting them to Quetta.

3. It is a No Man’s Land

The tribe from which the bulk of the Haqqani network is recruited lives in one of the agencies located in the ex-Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. More than 750 miles long and 150 miles wide, extremely inhospitable and rugged mountainous, this FATA belt on either side of the Durand Line, the official border between Pakistan and Afghanistan, has remained a No Man’s Land for the last two millennia and it is still a NO man’s Land. No army in the world can succeed against a group that takes refuge in such terrain. Even if the Pakistan government had given a free hand to the USA to take any action they like to go after the Network, the USA would not have dared to use its boots on the ground. That’s why the USA had been relying on drone attacks with minimal results and a lot of collateral damage.

4. Pakistan is afraid of Blowback

The biggest handicap the Pakistan government faced was the fear of the blowback of any such action in the form of increased terrorist activities inside the country. Pakistan’s thin resources were already deployed on fighting a four-fronts War- on the Eastern front with Afghanistan, on the Western front with India, fighting with the foreign-sponsored insurgency in parts of Baluchistan and confronting the domestic terrorists. Although after the successful execution of several rounds of anti-terrorist operations, the writ of the state has been established in certain No Go areas, yet it has not got that stomach to open the fifth front.

No doubt, families of Taliban leaders are living peacefully in Pakistan, no one in Pakistan can ever think of harming them. It is against humanity, against Islamic values and Pakistan’s cultural traditions. One foul move by the Pakistani establishment to detain any women folk can result in serious threats for the state of Pakistan.


While it is very easy to condemn Pakistan for supporting the Taliban in Afghanistan, it must be remembered that Pakistan has vital security interests in Afghanistan and no one can deny its right to protect them. It was forced to join America’s Afghan War on the threat of being “bombed back to the stone age” and has been paying a heavy price for this misadventure of others. Besides hosting 4 million Afghan refugees for two decades, it is now a victim of the worst kind of terrorism.

Peaceful neutral Afghanistan is the foremost priority of Pakistan but it is deeply concerned about the Indian involvement in Afghanistan. Until there is a comprehensive peace treaty under the auspices of the UNO and guaranteed by all the regional stakeholders, there is no chance for permanent peace in Afghanistan.

You may like to read also

  1. Why did the USA lose the Vietnam War?

2. Afghanistan: A Tale of Three Wars

From the book “ Internation Relations: Basic Concepts & Global Issues” by Shahid Hussain Raja https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08QZSRWT1