Military Power Is InsufficientMacArthur 2018 1st

Learning from Failure in Afghanistan


Lt. Col. John Q. Bolton, U.S. Army


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Sgt. 1st Class Scott Kehn of Company A, 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101 Airborne Infantry Division

The 2021 collapse of the Afghan National Army (ANA) prompted a rollicking debate and recriminations. At issue: Who lost Afghanistan? Lt. Gen. (ret.) H. R. McMaster blamed an apathetic public and political class, saying they sent troops “into battle without dedicating themselves to achieving a worthy outcome.”1 This sentiment is an understandably incorrect reading of what happened in Afghanistan. Though an apathetic public undoubtedly dissuaded accountability and policy makers supported (but often did not endorse) the war, blaming them for Afghanistan is intellectual scaffolding for a profound military failure. Both categorically (the Afghan state collapsed) and by the military’s own metrics (billions spent on ultimately ineffective Afghan security forces), American efforts did not achieve promised outcomes.2 Lt. Gen. (ret.) Daniel Bolger came to a similar conclusion: “As I and my fellow generals saw that our strategies weren’t working, we failed to reconsider our basic assumptions; we failed to question our flawed understanding.”3 For military professionals, acknowledging failure is the hard but necessary medicine required to better our institution. Military leaders should heed three lessons: (1) military strategy derives from political will, (2) poor strategy leads to compromises that mar the military ethic, and (3) technology is no panacea.

Military Strategy Derives from Political Will

The first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish by that test the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature.

—Carl von Clausewitz, On War4

As a host of examples ranging from French and American counterinsurgencies in Vietnam to Russia’s bungled 2022 invasion of Ukraine demonstrate, force alone cannot achieve political outcomes; military strategy requires a political predicate. In Afghanistan, though the initial rationale for intervening after 9/11 was clear, a staying rationale faded over time, certainly after the Obama “surge” ended in 2011. American policy makers clearly did not believe Afghanistan was a vital American interest. Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and Joseph Biden all looked to leave Afghanistan. Each pursued “Afghan good enough” policies minimizing American commitments to Afghanistan. Rather than end, the Afghan war became perpetual, acquiring a momentum of its own. Consequently, military strategy suffered.

Much of the fault lies with military leaders who mistook military competence for national will while becoming unduly attached to a mostly self-prescribed, military-centric Afghanistan strategy. In retrospect, it seems Obama and Trump both endorsed strategies they did not believe in, convinced (or coerced) by a national security establishment that never considered ending the war. In the former, the 2009 leaking of a classified assessment on Afghanistan preemptively tied Obama’s hands; in Trump’s 2017 case, a cadre of retired and current officials pressured him into escalating the war despite his clear desire to withdraw.5 Ambivalent policy makers left a strategic void, and the military proffered a counterinsurgency (COIN) solution that, though intermittently effective, was strategically unsound, operationally expensive, and tactically exhausting. Tragically, presidents, Congress, and the public rarely (and never forcefully) questioned these military assessments or promises.

Even when disasters such as the loss of American soldiers at Wanat or Camp Outpost Keating occurred, the resulting inquiries largely focused on “small bore questions of specific orders and decisions” rather than the broader question of whether putting small units of Americans in tactically untenable locations served a larger strategic purpose.6 Even the debate over the Afghan “surge” in the early Obama administration was about numbers of troops, not strategy.7 According to one journalist, had Obama questioned military arguments, “he might have turned the tables on the military’s leadership and told them that they needed to sort out their command structure and use the existing troops [in Afghanistan] more efficiently.”8

Because these debates were limited to superficial arguments about troops and tactics, the corresponding lack of political will and strategic theory of victory negated American advantages in firepower, technology, and money, ensuring military efforts would fail over time. The Taliban simply had a willpower asymmetry over Western forces. An eschewing of political reality in favor of military action occurred in Vietnam as well. In his analysis of that war, Lawrence Summers argues American military officers “see war as something separate and apart from the political process.”9 Similarly, in Afghanistan, military leaders ignored signs that the American public undoubtedly “supported the troops,” but the American political system did not embrace loftier military-endorsed goals of endowing Afghanistan with a parliamentary democracy. Policy makers may share “blame” insofar as they drifted from supporting the war to ambivalence to wanting American troops out.10 But it was military assessments regarding a “sustainable approach” and a “declining Taliban” coupled with prognostications about the supposed effectiveness of COIN doctrine that convinced (cajoled) Congress to keep American troops in Afghanistan.

American military leaders, who exercised enormous influence over Afghanistan policy, failed in three regards.

A Long-Term COIN Approach

First, military leaders pioneered, developed, endorsed, and deployed a long-term COIN approach while ignoring obviously diminishing political support at home (see figure 1). In seeking a decent interval by killing enough Taliban while building the Afghan Security Forces, military leaders oversimplified the qualified success of the Iraq “surge”—which was due as much to Sunni politics as additional American forces—to promise likewise results in Afghanistan. According to scholar and former military advisor Carter Malkasian, the surge let “policymakers, military officers, and commentators [used the surge] to show how the right numbers and methods could defeat an insurgency.”11 For many military leaders and supportive policy makers, COIN doctrine became dogma—a remedy for any conflict rather than a localized approach with, at best, 50 percent success rates.12 Moreover, as documented by the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), military leaders consistently oversold incremental ANA progress and often masked capability shortfalls that American airpower or expertise covered.13


The story of the Iraq surge became simultaneously a stretching of real success in Iraq and an oversimplification. Slapping a semisuccessful approach used Iraq onto Afghanistan, military leaders argued that all they needed was time and money. Sufficient troops, bombs, and dollars could make Afghanistan a democracy, complete with a competent army, modern notions of women’s rights, and a diverse, participant electorate. This story was initially well-received, especially in its first decade when officials used the legacy of 9/11 to argue failure in Afghanistan would invite another attack on the American homeland. But the good story employed specious assumptions about Afghanistan as a base for terrorism, the utility of force in transforming societies, and the tactical efficacy of American/NATO forces. These linkages were never really challenged, either by Congress, policy makers, or the public. Afghanistan became the albatross no one wanted to support but still lingered on, especially after Osama bin Laden’s death in 2011.14

Defense scholar Mara Karlin argues military leaders framed recommendations as apolitical “best military advice,” which presented policy makers binary choices on issues of profound complexity. “Best” implies no other options while “military advice” tends to ignore political realities, placing risk unduly on policy makers.15 This Huntingtonian model of separate spheres—political directors and military doers—is deeply embedded in the U.S. military. Too often, however, to avoid partisanship, military analysis and recommendations avoid politics and political factors entirely, benefiting neither policy makers nor the military.

These failures are shared by a generation of military commanders and policymakers, who let occasional tactical successes in a counterterrorism mission become a proxy for a strategy that never was … it was subtly abetted by journalists … [who] let the senior officials continue their magical thinking.

—David Ignatius16

Lack of structural changes. Second, the military made surprisingly few structural changes despite endorsing long-term occupations. Foremost was using unit-level deployments. Aside from limited niche specialties, units rotated wholesale to Afghanistan. Military analyst John Amble argues turnover created repeated losses of local knowledge as unit-level operational focus swung wildly between “key leader engagements and firefights, funding projects, and launching raids.”17 While the rotational model has benefits, it is less effective during long-term stability operations, a fact the Army/Marine COIN field manual points out.18 Additionally, nearly every deploying unit employed ad hoc to build training teams; not until 2018 did the Army employ a purpose-built training organization. Though the security forces assistance brigade is a competent force structure, its creation took nearly two decades.

Two Air Force officers called this metrics-driven, short-term approach coupled with unit turnover the “perfect storm of myopic decision-making.”19 Required to demonstrate performance during twelve- or nine-month deployments, units inevitably confused measures of performance with measures of effectiveness.20

Mirror imaging. Third, military leaders time and again replicated Vietnam-era “mirror-imaging” errors in building the Afghan military. The ANA resembled the American military—diverse, ostensibly meritocratic, with effective special operations forces, and dependent upon aerial fires and manuever.21 Profoundly misreading (or ignoring) Afghan’s diverse cultural makeup, the American-supported, NATO-coordinated program to recruit and train the ANA overrode Afghanistan’s tribal structures. Rather than work through local culture, NATO and American forces supplanted it with Westernized bureaucracy. A Pashtun recruit from Kandahar might attend basic training in Kabul and then find himself guarding the Afghan-Uzbek border alongside an Afghan Tajik who likely spoke a difficult language. Though anathema to Western sensibilities, cultural differences built over millennia of geographical separation and empowered by religious fervor could not end by forced integration or Western training. This culturally uninformed approach contributed to ANA ineffectiveness.22

ANA equipping likewise overemployed means (money) without considering ways (effectively spending funds), giving Afghans fantastic equipment but not necessarily what they needed. Whether Afghanistan’s security situation or geography needed a combined arms army instead of an effective police force seemed irrelevant. Money became a literal “weapons system” in military doctrine.23 The United States spared no expense, providing over $50 billion in rifles, night-vision googles, vehicles, and aircraft.24

An anecdote illustrates this folly. In 2017, I asked the senior American commander in Afghanistan why we were providing Afghanistan UH-60M utility helicopters when their on-hand MI-17s were nearly as effective but more familiar and less reliant on American contractors. He responded not with the common refrain that Congress directed U.S. sourcing but with a performance-based rationale: “Because we want them to have the best equipment … to be able to conduct air assaults above 8,000 feet.”25 Despite its mountainous geography, most of Afghanistan’s population lives below six thousand feet. The pressure to give them “the best” coupled with a utilitarian desire to sell weapons overrode basic force design.

The ultimate point of failure for our efforts wasn’t an insurgency. It was the weight of endemic corruption.

—Ambassador Ryan Crocker26

Ultimately, American largess hindered ANA effectiveness. American war managers did not seem concerned that Afghans could not handle the heavy maintenance burden of modern equipment amid a tenuous supply chain only made possible with American maintenance contractors and logistical support.27 The SIGAR found profound lapses in accountability for equipment given to the Afghans. With Western spending and aid comprising over 50 percent of Afghanistan’s GDP, millions worth of equipment unsurprisingly found its way off ANA bases and fueled corruption. Moreover, the glut of Western money led to ANA commanders fudging the rolls, creating the so-called “ghost soldiers.”28 This hollow force of supposedly two hundred thousand collapsed as approximately fifty thousand Taliban advanced.

We must focus our energies beyond the guns and steel of the military, beyond just our brave soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen. We must also focus our energies on the other elements of national power that will be so crucial in the years to come.

—Secretary of Defense Robert Gates29

Despite the billions poured into the ANA, stability-producing forces such as the Afghan National Police were relatively underfunded.30 This partly stemmed from a never-realized civilian surge which forced nonmilitary training requirements the military.31 Units habitually assigned marginal personnel to police and governmental training teams, leaving them undermanned, underskilled, and untrained.32 In one case, an incoming division headquarters disbanded police advising teams to “focus on kinetic strikes” seventeen years into the war.33

Thanks to bureaucratic momentum, Afghanistan enjoyed an undue share of senior officials’ time. Afghanistan is markedly front and center in the memoirs of senior Obama administration officials, despite some pundits calling the war “small” or “manageable” (see figure 2).34 That this prevalence occurred during the Obama administration’s supposed “pivot” to Asia illustrates troubling aspects of bureaucratic capture. The time and attention of senior leaders is finite, and Afghanistan ultimately took resources and focus precisely when the Obama (and Trump) administrations wanted to focus American foreign policy elsewhere.35

How could military leaders pursue this politically and historically ignorant strategy? Because policy makers and Congress allowed it to do so. Aside from reviews during the early Obama administration, the military strategy in Afghanistan encountered little oversight from the White House or Congress. Applying French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau’s oft-cited adage that “war is too important to be left to the generals,” the military would have likely employed different strategies had policy makers directed more circumspect policy or skeptically interrogated military promises. Instead, policy makers weighed the political risk of a terrorist attack from Afghanistan against the negligible political costs of continuing the war. The military strategy, despite its costs, folded nicely into this void by promising eventual success but eschewing difficult tradeoffs.

David, you shouldn’t have assumed I wouldn’t do what I told the American people I would [regarding Afghanistan].

—President Barack Obama to Gen. David Petraeus regarding a drawdown of troops in Afghanistan in 201236


And while policy makers placed (some) limits on troop levels, a military operating without constraints is unrealistic. Complaints that commanders “weren’t supported” or “faced constraints” ignore the historical record (see figure 3). All militaries face constraints, and all wars have limits, whether geographical, political, or in terms of means employed. The U.S. military restored the ex status quo ante in Korea amid constraints that prevented full-scale war with China or World War III with the Soviet Union. The means to achieve “victory” had limits based on global factors and resource scarcity. Blaming policy makers for reasonable boundaries is a bit like complaining to a banker about account balances.

But unclear policy or strategic guidance does not abrogate military responsibility. If Clausewitz’s first dictum is to not start a war without being clear-eyed about one’s goals, the military corollary is to help policy makers understand the utility and limits of force. As Karlin illustrates, ignoring political realities is the fatal flaw of the “normal” theory of civil-military relations.37 Policy makers don’t simply make goals and hand them off to burdened military officers for execution as Huntington suggests. Policy making is an active process, requiring political and military input throughout. When military options outstrip evident political will or obligations require what Petraeus called a “generational commitment”, military leaders must encourage an honest, if unequal, dialogue with policy makers.38

Poor Strategy Leads to Compromises that Mar the Military Ethic

These military choices—endorsing a long-term strategy despite insufficient political support, rotational force deployments, and building a first-world army for a third-world state—inevitably created contradictions. But few of the prognoses below were scrutinized.

Afghanistan military, economic, political, and diplomatic activity … has shown interesting progress. I think 2005 can be a decisive year.

—Gen. (ret.) John Abizaid, 200539

I am not prepared to say that we have turned the corner… the situation is serious but I think we have made significant progress in setting the conditions in 2009, and beginning some progress, and that we’ll make real progress in 2010.

—Gen. (ret.) Stanley McChrystal, February 201040

2011 will go down as a turning point in Afghanistan.

—Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, December 201141

I think we are on the road to winning.

—Gen. (ret.) John Allen, February 201342

[I am] confident that we’ll continue to be successful. The road before us remains challenging, but we will triumph.

—Gen. (ret.) John Campbell, December 201443

I would say overall our mission in Afghanistan is on a positive trajectory.

—Gen. (ret.) John Nicholson, March 201644

[We] have turned the corner … the momentum is now with Afghan security forces.

—Gen. (ret.) John Nicholson, November 201745

As Sen. Elizabeth Warren exclaimed during a 2018 hearing, “We’ve supposedly turned the corner so many times that it seems now we’re going in circles.”46 Of course, contrary reports existed. In 2012, a U.S. Army officer’s op-ed wrote that conditions in Afghanistan bore “no resemblance to rosy official statements by U.S. military leaders.”47 Some nongovernmental organizations said NATO reports were “sharply divergent” from reality and cautioned that military reports were “intended to influence American and European public opinion” rather than provide “an accurate portrayal of the situation [in Afghanistan].”48

But, as in Vietnam, reporting optimism wandered into deceit. Positivity was rewarded while negative reports could potentially be seen as “not being a team player.”49 Endowed by inaccurate assessments from senior officials, the endemic pressure to make reports “green” or “complete” corroded the military ethic. As described by Leonard Wong and Stephen Gerras in a scathing 2015 Army War College report, “repeated exposure to overwhelming demands” had made Army officers “ethically numb” and untruthfulness “surprisingly common.”50 Lt. Gen. (ret.) Dave Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel argued prevalent cultures of dishonesty resulted from the “corrosive effects” of long-term rotational deployments. They argue a mindset of “taking care of the troops” morphed into dishonest compliance as leaders struggled to balance a culture of zero defects with limited time and troops.51

The U.S. military deserves credit for mostly avoiding the worst types of wartime atrocities.52 Criminal incidents such as Abu Ghraib or the rape and murder of an Iraqi girl by a company descending into madness as described in Blackhearts are rightly condemned as aberrations from the American military ethic. Certainly, the moral failure of the Special Immigrant Visa program was mostly nonmilitary.53 Nevertheless, widespread false reporting is troubling both professionally and practically. The military relies on implicit trust between the profession of arms and the American public. The trust allows for management of internal affairs and freedom of action. Practically, the Russian army’s failings throughout 2022 show the deadly consequences of a force built on false reports.

No one expects our leaders to always have a successful plan. But we do expect—and the men who do the living, fighting, and dying deserve—to have our leaders tell us the truth about what’s going on.

—Lt. Col. Daniel Davis54

In 2018, the Modern War Institute at West Point debated the merits of optimistic versus pessimistic generals.55 Optimistic leaders are certainly endorsed within the U.S. military. Leaders naturally want their units and partners to do well. But excessive optimism contributed to an inability to accurately assess Afghan forces. In an email circulated during the evacuation of Kabul, an Army general conceded this bias: “I was naïve … I knew and spoke about [corruption] … It was a debilitating pall cast over everything we tried to accomplish … But I served with some true Afghan heroes … they were patriots in their own way. I now know and accept that these honorable, noble Afghans were unrepresentative.”56

More important than personality debates, however, is the honesty military professionals owe Congress, presidents, and the American people. As shown by the Washington Post, years of Afghanistan policy hinged on tortured explanations of incremental progress often informed by biased, if not outright false assessments of Afghan security and ANA progress.57 This yearslong cavalcade of senior leaders offering Theranos-like promises of eventual success undoubtedly projected confidence. This façade masked the reality of Afghanistan and set the stage for the apparently “shocking” collapse of the ANA in 2021.

Technology Is No Panacea

A technology-centric approach abetted professional dishonesty by distorting views of the battlefield. True understanding about Afghanistan remained incomplete despite decades spent there. As in Vietnam, aside from major campaigns in 2010–2013, the enemy in Afghanistan retained the initiative (see figure 4). With few Western troops living among the population, intelligence assessments were often little more than speculation.58 Rather than temper assessments, operating with opaque views of the enemy and unclear information, senior military leaders were free to select assessments that suited narratives of progress.


The military’s preference for information over understanding was years in the making. A plethora of ’90s-era technologies promised “information superiority,” which would simplify battlefield complexities. It was “Clausewitz out, computer in.”59 But instead of a clear picture of battlefield and political realities, military leaders became overwhelmed with information. In the late ’90s, a prescient U.S. Army captain recognized as much: “In the mythical world created by the most devoted information age disciples, our enemies lie helpless before our forces while we, armed with complete and perfect information, dispatch them at our leisure. While such images are fun to contemplate, they are altogether unlikely.”60 Instead, as McMaster explained, supposed omniscience can create intellectual “recidivism and resistance to changes.”61


Undoubtedly, the drone is the prototypical example of this technological bias. Interlinked, near-continuous battlefield observation via drones is a phenomenal achievement, but even this technology gave only snap shots or “soda straw” views. Drones too often replaced good analysis based on insightful local knowledge. A drone-centered, bombs-over-boots approach increased “kinetic” action at the cost of innocent lives (see figure 5).62 Every errant airstrike eroded support for the Afghan government and Western troops. Faced with nighttime raids and often indiscriminate death from above, many Afghans found even brutal Taliban actors provided better governance than empty promises from Kabul.63

The Military after Afghanistan?

After Afghanistan, the military can retreat into cloistered corners, lamenting how the public and politicians failed them as the Army did after Vietnam. Adopting a “stabbed in the back” mentality, however, is dangerous because, as Barno and Bensahel point out, a professional force “faces a greater risk than a conscript force of developing a belief that it is morally superior to the society it serves.”64 Additionally, a distant military will increasingly be a political football as American politics becomes polarized. Military leaders should instead focus on three issues.

First, the military needs a renewed relationship with Congress, one that emphasizes honest discussions on the limits and utility of military power. One way to avoid trouble is for policy makers to better understand the means of getting into it. Scholar Hal Brands makes this point: “Expansion can create vulnerabilities that must be defended at a high price.”65 Therefore, accepting limits in some regions to ensure security elsewhere is good, rational policy. The clear prospect of budget cuts for the Army makes limits even more prudent.


Second, military leaders must rejuvenate the professional military ethic. As Wong and Gerras show, perverse incentives can corrode institutions. Unclear goals and poor matching of ends to means can warp institutional values in ostensible service of the mission. Institutional honesty is paramount, especially if the military is to retain a position of trust with the American public. This requires both training and honest dialogue. Placing officers in ambiguous training scenarios tests their character and actions under pressure and fosters a culture of operating in environments characterized by uncertainty and limited resources. However, senior leaders and commanders at all levels must foster discussions about use of training time and be willing to accept “red” or “incomplete” marks on some tasks (nonessential training or otherwise). Discussion regarding the pressure officers felt to manipulate reports on Afghanistan is a good start.

Third, the military must reinvest in professional military education (PME). Much ink has been spilled on training versus education and whether PME is “rigorous” or even necessary.66 But the failures of strategic assessment described above could have been ameliorated, or at least mitigated, by an officer corps predisposed to skeptical interrogation of the battlefield and implicit operational assumptions. Fundamentally, this involves the crafts of research and writing. As scholar Eliot Cohen has argued, “More than one might think, sound foreign policy making rests on the basics of bureaucratic behavior: clear and concise memorandums, crisply run meetings, well-disseminated conclusions, succinct and unambiguous guidance from above. Good process does not guarantee good policy, but it increases the odds of it.”67 Reinvigorating PME to emphasize writing, research, and making strategy toward limited ends using limited means is paramount.

Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid

More broadly, PME has not resolved the seemingly intractable problem of mistaking tactical ability for strategic success. Col. (ret.) Antulio J. Echevarria II argues that, despite twenty years of COIN (and perhaps because of it), the U.S. military still substitutes tactics for strategy. In his words, “[America’s military] assumes winning battles suffices to win wars.”68 PME cannot fundamentally fix American political dysfunction or force policy makers to provide clear guidance. But PME can, however, create an officer corps that is endowed with the historical understanding to prompt better civil-military relations and explain the utility and limits of force. PME can prepare officers to discuss political ramifications and requirements of policy while nevertheless remaining apolitical.

No three steps alone can be simple panacea for the post-Afghanistan military. However, senior military leaders can move the institution forward nobly by learning from Afghanistan rather than blaming others. An honest assessment of the failures in policy, doctrine, and execution seen over twenty years is vital—as is renewing the professional ethic so essential to a professional military culture and proper civil-military relations. The three areas described above can be a foundational start.


  1. H. R. McMaster, “Honor Veterans by Having the Will to Win a War,” Wall Street Journal (website), 10 November 2021, accessed 29 August 2022,
  2. Jason Dempsey, “Coming to Terms with America’s Undeniable Failure in Afghanistan,” War on the Rocks, 11 February 2019, accessed 29 August 2022,
  3. Daniel Bolger, Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014), i.
  4. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, ed. Beatrice Heuser, trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Oxford World’s Classics (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 30.
  5. For the pressure that Gen. Stanley McChrystal leaked placed on President Barack Obama, see David Sanger, Confront and Conceal: Obama’s Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power (New York: Crown, 2013); Bob Woodward, Obama’s Wars (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2011); Chuck Todd, The Stranger: Barack Obama in the White House (New York: Little, Brown, 2014), 150–52. For the Trump 2017 “surge,” see Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman, “Angry Trump Grilled His Generals About Troop Increase, Then Gave In,” New York Times (website), 21 August 2017, accessed 29 August 2022,
  6. Jack Fairweather, The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan (New York: Basic Books, 2014), 325–28.
  7. Jeffrey W. Meiser, “Ends+Ways+Means=(Bad) Strategy,” Parameters 46, no. 4 (December 2016): 81–91,
  8. Fairweather, The Good War, 328.
  9. Harry G Summers, On Strategy: A Critical Analysis of the Vietnam War (New York: Presidio Press, 1982), 65.
  10. Anna Shortridge, “The U.S. War in Afghanistan Twenty Years On: Public Opinion Then and Now,” The Water’s Edge (blog), Council on Foreign Relations, 7 October 2021, accessed 29 August 2022,
  11. Carter Malkasian, Illusions of Victory: The Anbar Awakening and the Rise of the Islamic State (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 9–11; see also Fred M. Kaplan, Daydream Believers: How a Few Grand Ideas Wrecked American Power (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2008).
  12. For the military’s embrace of counterinsurgency doctrine, see Gian Gentile, Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency (New York: New Press, 2013). Regarding the success of counterinsurgency doctrine historically, see David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice (Westport, CT: Greenwood/Praeger, 2006); Wesley Morgan, “Is the Top General in Afghanistan in Too Deep?,” Politico, 5 March 2018, accessed 29 August 2022,
  13. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR), Collapse of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces: An Assessment of the Factors That Led to Its Demise, SIGAR 22-22-IP Evaluation Report (Arlington, VA: SIGAR, May 2022), 28–29, accessed 29 August 2022,
  14. Shortridge, “The U.S. War in Afghanistan Twenty Years On.”
  15. Mara Karlin, The Inheritance: America’s Military after Two Decades of War (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2021), 165–68.
  16. David Ignatius, “Good Intentions and Seductive Illusions: Scenes from Afghanistan’s Long Descent,” Washington Post (website), 17 August 2021, accessed 29 August 2022,
  17. John Amble, “After 9/11, the United States Didn’t Fight a Twenty-Year War, but Twenty-One-Year Wars. But What Does That Actually Mean?,” Modern War Institute at West Point, 25 November 2021, accessed 29 August 2022,
  18. Field Manual 3-24, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, December 2006), 1-34, accessed 29 August 2022,
  19. Ben Buchheim-Jurisson and Joseph Mellone, “Helping the Leadership Lead,” War on the Rocks, 30 June 2022, accessed 29 August 2022,
  20. Cole Livieratos, “The Subprime Strategy Crisis: Failed Strategic Assessment in Afghanistan,” War on the Rocks, 15 September 2021, accessed 29 August 2022,
  21. Dempsey, “Coming to Terms with America’s Undeniable Failure in Afghanistan.”
  22. Susannah George, “How Afghanistan’s Security Forces Lost the War,” Washington Post (website), 25 September 2021, accessed 29 August 2022,; Rod Nordland, Ash Ngu, and Fahim Abed, “How the U.S. Government Misleads the Public on Afghanistan,” New York Times (website), 8 September 2018, accessed 29 August 2022,
  23. Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) Handbook 09-27, Commander’s Guide to Money as a Weapons System (Fort Leavenworth, KS: CALL, April 2009), accessed 29 August 2022,
  24. Data on waste in Afghanistan is plentiful, but the best single summary is SIGAR, What We Need to Learn: Lessons from Twenty Years of Afghanistan Reconstruction (Arlington, VA: SIGAR, August 2021), accessed 29 August 2022,
  25. Conversation between 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne), 25th Infantry Division, staff and Gen. Nicholson, FOB Gamberi, Afghanistan, o/a 15 October 2017.
  26. Ryan Crocker, quoted in SIGAR, What We Need to Learn, 14.
  27. Matthew Cancian, “Stop Undermining Partners With ‘Gifts,’” War on the Rocks, December 2021, accessed 29 August 2022,
  28. “Afghanistan’s Ghost Soldiers Undermined Fight Against Taliban - Ex-Official,” BBC News, 10 November 2021, accessed 29 August 2022,
  29. Thom Shanker, “Defense Secretary Urges More Spending for U.S. Diplomacy,” New York Times (website), 27 November 2007, accessed 29 August 2022,
  30. Mike Jason, “What We Got Wrong in Afghanistan,” The Atlantic (website), 12 August 2021, accessed 29 August 2022,; Jonathan Schroden, “Who Is to Blame for the Collapse of Afghanistan’s Security Forces?,” War on the Rocks, 24 May 2022, accessed 29 August 2022,
  31. “U.S. ‘Civilian Surge’ To Afghanistan Goes Slow,” NBC News, 31 August 2009, accessed 29 August 2022,
  32. SIGAR, What We Need to Learn, x, 24, 29.
  33. Author’s personal experience during a 2017–18 deployment.
  34. Max Boot, “Better a Stalemate Than Defeat in Afghanistan,” National Security and Defense Program (blog), Council on Foreign Relations, 23 February 2017, accessed 29 August 2022,
  35. Hillary Clinton, “America’s Pacific Century,” Foreign Policy (website), 22 February 2021, accessed 29 August 2022,
  36. Rajiv Chandrasekaran, Little America: The War within the War for Afghanistan (New York: Vintage Books, 2013), 325.
  37. Karlin, The Inheritance, xiv–xv, 50.
  38. David Petraeus, “Afghanistan Did Not Have to Turn Out This Way,” The Atlantic (website), August 8, 2022,
  39. John Abizaid, quoted in Paul Szoldra, “Here’s How Top Military Leaders Have Described US ‘Progress’ in Afghanistan Over the Last Decade,” Task and Purpose, 23 August 2018, accessed 29 August 2022,
  40. Stanley McChrystal, quoted in Thom Shanker, “Top U.S. Commander Sees Progress in Afghanistan,” New York Times (website), 4 February 2010, accessed 29 August 2022,
  41. Leon Panetta, quoted in Luis Ramirez, “Panetta in Afghanistan, Calls 2011 a ‘Turning Point,’” VOA News, 12 December 2011, accessed 29 August 2022,
  42. John Allen, quoted in “Afghan ISAF Commander John Allen Sees ‘Road to Winning,’” BBC News, 20 February 2013, accessed 29 August 2022,
  43. John Campbell, quoted in “Transition Ceremony Kicks off Resolute Support Mission,” North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 28 December 2014, accessed 29 August 2022,
  44. “Department of Defense Press Briefing by General Nicholson via Teleconference from Afghanistan,” Department of Defense, 28 July 2016,
  45. John Nicholson, quoted in Paul McLeary, “U.S. Has ‘Turned the Corner’ in Afghanistan, Top General Says,” Foreign Policy (website), 28 November 2017, accessed 29 August 2022,
  46. Jeff Schogol, “There Are Lies, Damn Lies, and Even More Damn Lies about Afghanistan,” Task and Purpose, 14 December 2019, accessed 29 August 2022,
  47. Daniel Davis, “Truth, Lies, and Afghanistan,” Armed Forces Journal, 1 February 2012, accessed 29 August 2022,
  48. Ibid.; United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “Security Reports,” ReliefWeb, accessed 29 August 2022,
  49. James William Gibson, The Perfect War: Technowar in Vietnam (New York: The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986), 126–30.
  50. Leonard Wong and Stephen J. Gerras, Lying to Ourselves: Dishonestly in the Army Profession (Carlisle, PA: U.S. Army War College Press, 2015), ix, accessed 29 August 2022,
  51. Dave Barno and Nora Bensahel, “Lying to Ourselves: The Demise of Military Integrity,” War on the Rocks, 10 March 2015, accessed 29 August 2022,
  52. On the difference between soldiers and warriors, see Ryan Noordaly, “On the Toxicity of the ‘Warrior’ Ethos,” Wavell Room, 28 April 2020, accessed 29 August 2022,
  53. Dan Lamothe and Alex Horton, “Documents Reveal U.S. Military’s Frustration with White House, Diplomats Over Afghanistan Evacuation,” Washington Post (website), 8 February 2022, accessed 29 August 2022,
  54. Davis, “Truth, Lies, and Afghanistan.”
  55. See Trent Lythgoe, “The Case for Realistic Generals,” Modern War Institute at West Point, 13 September 2018, accessed 29 August 2022,; M. L. Cavanaugh, “Why America Needs Optimistic Generals, Modern War Institute at West Point, 6 September 2018, accessed 29 August 2022,; Ryan Leach and David Danford, “Curb Your Enthusiasm: The Case for the Cynical Military Leader,” Modern War Institute at West Point, 7 September 2018, accessed 29 August 2022,
  56. Army brigadier general, email circulated among officers, 17 August 2021.
  57. Craig Whitlock, “At War with the Truth,” Washington Post (website), 9 December 2019, accessed 29 August 2022,; Dempsey, “What We Got Wrong in Afghanistan.”
  58. Author’s personal experience based on writing Afghanistan district stability assessments in 2017–18.
  59. Williamson Murray, “Clausewitz Out, Computer In: Military Culture and Technological Hubris,” The National Interest (website), 1 June 1997, accessed 29 August 2022,
  60. Joseph S. McLamb, “The Future of Mission Orders,” Military Review 77, no. 5 (September-October 1997): 71–74.
  61. H. R. McMaster, Crack in the Foundation: Defense Transformation and the Underlying Assumption of Dominant Knowledge in Future War, Student Issue Papers S03-03 (Carlisle, PA: Army War College, 7 April 2003), accessed 30 August 2022,
  62. Azmat Khan, “Hidden Pentagon Records Reveal Patterns of Failure in Deadly Airstrikes,” New York Times (website), 18 December 2021, accessed 29 August 2022,
  63. Schroden, “Who Is to Blame for the Collapse of Afghanistan’s Security Forces?”
  64. David W. Barno and Nora Bensahel, “When America’s All-Volunteer Force Loses a War,” War on the Rocks, 21 September 2021, accessed 29 August 2022,
  65. Hal Brands, The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry Today (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, January 2022), 242.
  66. Joan Johnson-Freese and Anthony J. Ruoti, “When I Hear PME Types Use the Word ‘Rigor,’ I Gotta Throw the Bullshit Flag,” Best Defense (blog), Foreign Policy (website), 10 September 2015, accessed 29 August 2022,
  67. Elliot Cohen, “The Return of Statecraft: Back to Basics in the Post-American World,” Foreign Affairs (May-June 2022), accessed 29 August 2022,
  68. Antulio J. Echevarria II, “The Persistence of America’s Way of Battle,” Military Strategy Magazine 8, no. 1 (Summer 2022), accessed 29 August 2022,


Lt. Col. John Q. Bolton is an Army Goodpaster Scholar at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He previously commanded Bravo Company, 209th Aviation Support Battalion; and Alpha Company, 1st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 1st Aviation Regiment. He is a graduate of the Command and General Staff College’s Art of War Scholars Program and holds degrees in military history and mechanical engineering. An AH-64D/E aviator with eight hundred combat hours, he has deployed with engineer, aviation, and infantry units.


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January-February 2023