How the US Lost Afghanistan

More than 14 years after American troops invaded Afghanistan, the Taliban is as strong as ever and perpetual civil war seems likely. What went wrong?

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Feb 1 2016, 4:10pm

In anticipation of the upcoming fourth season of our HBO show, which will premiere February 5 at 11 PM, we are releasing all of season three for free online along with updates to the stories. Today's installment follows up on a segment exploring the ongoing aftermath of the US invasion of Afghanistan, and what the withdrawal of American troops means for the country and its people.

Ben Anderson has spent an enormous amount of time in Afghanistan. "I went there in 2007 to make a film about the vicious fighting between undermanned, under-equipped British forces and the Taliban in Helmand, Afghanistan's most violent province," the reporter wrote in 2013. "But I became obsessed with what I witnessed there—how different it was from the conflict's portrayal in the media and in official government statements."

His extensive reporting in the country has informed a feature-length VICE documentary, a 2012 book, and, more recently, the above VICE HBO segment about what problems Afghanistan is facing now that America has withdrawn the vast majority of its troops. The prognosis is not good: The Taliban is still as powerful as ever, and the men, women, and children who fight them seemed desperate and embattled when Anderson visited them for the segment. President Barack Obama is reportedly reconsidering a plan to reduce the number of soldiers in the country from 9,800 to 5,500, but Anderson says that even with current troop levels the US isn't doing anything but making sure Afghanistan doesn't collapse suddenly—the prospects for anything that looks like victory, or peace, are looking increasingly remote.

We talked to Anderson about the best-case scenario for Afghanistan, how everyday Afghans feel about the country's deterioration, and what mistakes America made to get to this sad point.

VICE: You first visited Afghanistan in 2007. What were your initial impressions of the country back then?
Ben Anderson: There was still ferocious fighting on the ground every day. But the troops on the ground and the diplomats and everybody else had some optimism that they could pull it off—that they could beat the Taliban, that they could train the Afghan army and police. There were soldiers living 24 hours a day beside Afghan soldiers of Afghan police trying to train them.

Of course, as the years dragged and there were more and more attacks by the Afghan police and army against US and UK troops, the training became less and less serious. Eventually I think they gave up on the whole idea and decided to pull out.

Do you think that pulling out is a mistake, or were more serious mistakes made before Barack Obama decided to withdraw the troops?
Dozens of mistakes were made before pulling out. And because of those mistakes, the withdrawal was supposed to be "conditions-based"—that was the phrase Obama used. And it wasn't conditions-based at all. Had they looked at the conditions on the ground they would still be on the ground in just as many numbers. I just think the American public had no appetite at all to keep seeing soldiers return without legs or in body bags, not having any idea what the end goal was.

As we saw in that HBO episode, the country is still a war zone.
It's worse now than it was at the height of the US and UK presence there—in terms of casualties, the war is now in its bloodiest phase. And the Taliban control more land than they have since the initial invasion.

Do you think the failures in Afghanistan are a result of small-scale tactical errors or larger strategic blunders?
Tactically, every time I saw US or UK troops fight the Taliban, they won. I rarely saw the Afghan army or police succeed against the Taliban. Strategically, it was a massive failure. We didn't even try nation-building seriously until 2008 or 2009, and by then I think it was far too late—we had put some of Afghanistan's worst warlords back into power, which enabled support for the Taliban. And it meant that the population was very mistrustful of us and were very resentful of the government we were trying to impose. So much damage was done that by the time we actually took the mission seriously in 2008 or 2009 it was almost too late.

The big problem, of course, was the rush to Iraq. We thought we'd defeated the Taliban in a matter of days or weeks [in 2001], and then rushed all the best men and equipment to Iraq. And that's the problem. I think the quote from George W. Bush back then was "we don't do nation-building"—they weren't interested in anything beyond a shock-and-awe bombing campaign to get rid of the Taliban, declaring victory, and then moving on. People always describe [the Afghanistan War] as "America's longest war," and technically that's true, but we took the first six or seven years of the war off.

How does the Taliban win so many victories against Afghan government forces? Is it better trained?
I think Taliban fighters battle in areas that they come from, which means they have relationships with the local population and can move around freely. They're fighting for their homelands, so they'll fight for years and years and years—whereas if you send some [troops] from the north of the country to the south, a lot of them don't really want to be there and they don't have that same level of commitment.

Also, doing what the Taliban do is relatively easy. Laying IEDs, attacking civilian targets, doing hit-and-run ambushes—that's much easier than clearing areas of Taliban, holding on to those areas, building up government infrastructure.

Can the West do anything to help Afghanistan that it's not doing, given that there doesn't seem to be much public support for sending more troops on the ground?
This is the problem: I think we've lost the appetite for nation-building, which you can't do without a big security force. So at the moment all we're seeing is a fairly limited training role [for US troops], a fairly high—certainly increasing—number of airstrikes, and of course we continue to fund the Afghan security forces, because there's no way on earth the Afghan government could fund its own security forces. Right now, we're just about preventing catastrophe, but not much more. We're certainly not doing anything to improve the situation.

Has the attitude of everyday people in Afghanistan changed since the start of the war?
I think in the beginning there was hope that we would defeat the Taliban and provide all the services we promised. I hear much more scathing comments now about how we failed and then cut and run. Every Afghan I know who has a bit of money has an escape plan that he or she could enact at very short notice if needed.

What do you think is going to happen to the country in the next five or ten years? Will we just get perpetual war, or will there be some kind of ceasefire or equilibrium reached?
At the minute, peace negotiations are not looking good at all and they haven't for years. So yeah, perpetual civil war. I honestly think the best case scenario now is that the Taliban control the southern and eastern areas, and the Northern Alliance control the other areas, with a whole bunch of warlords having individual fiefdoms, and each side is happy with what they've got and don't push for more. But I think it's quite naive to think that that status quo could hold.

If you had told American officials back at the start of the war that that would the best-case scenario so many years later, I think they would have been appalled.
Oh, absolutely.

Do you think American politicians and officials have learned anything from Afghanistan?
I was going to say that they've learned there are no simple solutions to complicated problems like Iraq or Afghanistan, but if you listen to, in particular, the Republican presidential candidates, they seem to have learned nothing.

Certainly, the military has learned a great deal and will probably be reluctant to go in in any large numbers to Syria or Iraq again.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.