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I must admit I haven't followed the war in Afghanistan for many years. I know US went in there to find Osama, and they did so in 2010 or something (he was in Pakistan). Then they spent another 10 years there, and now they're out.

But I don't get what exactly the US and NATO have been doing in Afghanistan for 20+ years. That's a long time for the biggest militaries in the world to be doing ... something ... what is that something?

Because now that they've left, the Taliban are simply taking back over like nothing happened, and I read somewhere that the Taliban have 100.000 soldiers. So what exactly has the US been doing there? Who have they been fighting against? Who have they been killing? The Taliban seems alive and well, with 100K soldiers, so what have the US/NATO done over there for two decades?

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    Closely related question: Why did the USA stay in Afghanistan for 20 years?
    – Erwan
    Aug 19 at 8:16
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    There are good answers. So I will just add one more point. There is no "Afgan" nation. Afganistan is a country with too many identities and the common theme among these identities is religion upto a certain degree. Therefore fundemantals of nation building was lacking which is the nation itself Aug 19 at 11:54
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    Many comments deleted. Please don't use comments to debate the question matter or some related point. If you would like to answer, please post a real answer. If you would like to discuss, please use the chat function. Please try to limit these comments to suggesting improvements to the question.
    – JJJ
    Aug 19 at 17:12
  • Think you answer your own question with "taking back over". For 20 years, the Taliban haven't been in power, and all of there operations were hinder by the need for secrecy and the US's opposition. Sure we had other goals other than pinning the Taliban, but that's not nothing.
    – yesennes
    Aug 20 at 16:35
  • I think this is a legit question that is answerable and needs to be answered, though a little too broad. I think the OP shall narrow the questions to one he cares about the most.
    – r13
    Aug 20 at 20:47
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TLDR:

It would be grossly unfair to think that the NATO and US military did not try their very best to win this. Many soldiers paid a very high price and are now justifiably very distressed. Pretty certain however is that the US and NATO governments were careless and overconfident when they engaged in yet another hard-to-win guerilla war.


For 20 years, the US + NATO were involved in a counterinsurgency war. Those are very hard to win for a foreign power, Malaysia(UK)* was about the only one I can think of after WW2 involving a Western democracy **.

Some counter-insurgencies that were won, by local troops:

  • Peru vs Shining Path. 75K deaths, about 25K of those civilians killed by the government.

  • Spain vs. ETA. UK vs. IRA. More police actions vs. narrow terrorist bases than full-on wars.

  • Indonesia vs. Communists. Extremely bloody, 500K-1.2M deaths. (quite possibly not a real insurgency but rather a pretext to suppress political opponents by Suharto - txs @timeskull)

Counter-insurgencies that were lost:

  • Afghanistan. Soviets lost.
  • Vietnam. The US lost.
  • Algeria. France lost.
  • Vietnam. France lost.
  • (almost forgot) Iraq. The US was asked to leave and the present Iraqi government is a liability rather than an asset most of the time, being Iran-aligned, minority-oppressing, and incompetent at dealing with ISIS.

Why are they so hard to win.

Picture yourself as a "good guy" foreign soldier fighting against "bad guys" insurgents. Your goals are to:

  • protect and bring over to your side the civilians

    • you don't speak the local language or know the customs

    • development projects, if successful, can help you

    • winning over local leaders helps too

    • having a competent and credible government that the population likes is the gold standard. Don't mess this up (but it's your home politicians' responsibility and you can assume they'll drop the ball).

    • one strategy calls for establishing safe areas for the population by having dispersed troops in outpost providing local security and then spread out your influence. This however puts you in a static defensive posture and leaves many more-or-less isolated units at risk.

  • kill bad guys. However, since insurgents are essentially badly armed civilians fighting you, every time you kill one, you may anger his cousin/brother/buddy into becoming an insurgent.

    • the bad guys look just like local civilians. be sure not to kill civilians by mistake! Hint: fast aircraft suck at this.

Now, say you are an insurgent, fighting against the foreigners. Your goals are:

  • kill anyone collaborating with the foreigners and neutralize development projects. Kill any competent local officials. This is why talking about nation-building is easy, but hard to pull off.

    • neutralize foreigner-population communication, which is why killing translators is a popular goal
  • provoke foreigners into killing civilians, preferably with media exposure

  • keep the population either on your side or too scared to oppose you.

  • kill foreign soldiers. Not necessarily a huge goal, except it can provoke them to overreact and it's great for morale and propaganda.

The question then becomes whose willpower outlasts the others. If the regular soldiers are not in a do-or-die situation, i.e. if they are foreigners who can return home when their public tires of the war, there is a good chance the insurgents will win.

If the government/outside power can gradually isolate the population from the insurgents' cause, the manpower replacements for the insurgents will wither. Extreme insurgent violence towards civilians can discredit them. Successful governments that win over the people can carry that off as well.

Finally, a minority insurgency that is operating against a government in its own country (ETA, IRA) really leaves the government no choice but to continue the fight or solve via negotiations, as the government can't pull out. The communication problem largely goes away and dead soldiers may turn public opinion against you. Part of the reason why Peru and Indonesia ended up with government wins. This is also the reason Hamas' terrorism is bound to fail: their stance that Israel should not exist backs Israel into a corner.

For the rest, well, standard armies are still trying to figure out a foolproof way to win these wars. Counter-intuitively, you typically need more soldiers than there are badly-armed insurgents to win.

For details on how the US and NATO failed, you might as well read Pete W's linked War Nerd article, it looks pretty solid:

The US government under Rumsfeld***:

  • didn't recognize the importance of nation-building, offering better outcomes to civilians or restraining airpower use early.
  • It didn't commit enough troops in the beginning, as Iraq had priority.
  • Most of all, starting with Karzai it's been bad government after bad government.
  • However I don't agree all that much with that article's conspirational analysis that spending $2.4 trillion was the point, this looks more like an honest error: don't attribute to malice what can be explained by hubris and stupidity.

You also need to consider if you want to "tune" your regular army to be efficient at counter-insurgency: being nice, helping out with development projects, having weaponry useful to that context rather than good at killing peer-enemy field armies. That's why a police force approach is best, if you can pull it off. Also, constant low-level casualties and deployments are a drain on recruitment and retention of career soldiers.

* Malaysia is "pretty special". The Communist insurgents were ethnic Chinese who were distinct from the larger Malay population. And the UK had pretty much promised to decolonize anyway. And see Fizz's comment.

**. Why the post-WW2 cutoff date? Simply put, because Western electorates, over time since decolonization, have become vastly less tolerant of their militaries killing large numbers of people without a critical reason. It is hard to picture modern French people for example accepting the need to kill 300K-1M Algerians to stay in Algeria. Or Americans acquiescing in Rolling Thunder and Linebacker II. See also Fizz and Graham's comments below.

*** Under Rumsfeld? As Secretary of Defense, Rumsfeld had a huge, outsized, influence on Afghanistan/Iraq. In Iraq at least, he managed to sideline the State Department after the initial successful invasion to decide how the US should interact with Iraq.

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    The tactics used in Malaysia involved [forced] population relocation etc., which quickly became unacceptable in human-rights terms (in the West) not much later thereafter.
    – Fizz
    Aug 19 at 1:42
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    The American Revolution, can also be viewed as an insurgency: salon.com/2010/06/03/…
    – ThomasW
    Aug 19 at 7:00
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    I read somewhere that British soldiers were much more successful than US ones in the beginning of the occupation of Iraq, precisely because of the British military's decades of experience with Northern Ireland. I vividly remember an article by an embedded journalist who witnessed both US and British soldiers entering a village. The US soldiers raced onto the village marketplace with their Strykers, yelling orders in English through their megaphones, machine guns locked and loaded. The British soldiers left their vehicles outside the village, entered on foot, weapons down, helmets off, no … Aug 19 at 8:53
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    … sunglasses, no masks, and every solider had learned some basic greetings in the local language, plus, unlike the US soldiers, they had brought a translator with them. I am not surprised that a largely (at least in the beginning) US-led occupation of Afghanistan didn't work out so well. Aug 19 at 8:54
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    You could also add the Boer War. The British won that by inventing the concentration camp, intending to win the war through mistreatment of the families of combatants. This wasn't explicitly intended as an extermination policy (unlike the later Nazi camps), but a 50% mortality rate amongst children and 25% mortality rate overall makes the distinction pretty irrelevant. It's not a way of fighting a war which would be acceptable these days though, even for Russia or Syria.
    – Graham
    Aug 19 at 16:03
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A scathing take, answering the question, or at least going to the origins of the protracted military action, can be found in this 20-year retrospective piece (and rant), entitled "Was There A Plan In Afghanistan?" by John Dolan, better known as War Nerd. Note that it was published well before last week's events. No endorsement of the site linked here is implied (the original article is paywalled at the author's own patreon).

Dolan argues that in the critical first years, nation building was nowhere to be found among the priorities of the DoD under Rumsfeld. Moreover, the policy planners intentions and attention was already on Iraq, then considered more strategically promising. Thus the long term aspects of the postwar Afghan endeavor were even more weakly supported.

Subsequently, the reason for not leaving became, for many years, to wait for these increasingly futile nation-building, or at least security-building efforts to be completed.

However the expenditures were not at all aligned with this reasoning, even without the fact that much of the money transferred was lost to corruption. The figures below are from War Nerd quoting the NY Times (original linked within his piece).

  • $1.5 trillion - spent on war (regular DoD budget, OCO, base construction)
  • $500 billion - on interest (i.e. finance)
  • $87 billion - to train Afghan military and police
  • $24 billion - on economic development
  • $10 billion - on counternarcotics

Postscript (my own interpretation):

Among the many factors, the subject of corruption and bribery comes up here and in almost every other answer. Afghanistan's GDP is something like $20B/year (part of which came from the US transfers, that in large part for Afghanistan's own security functions). Given the far larger sums actually spent on the whole thing ($100B+/year as NYT reckons), one possibility may have been to increase, rather than decrease, the bribes- but apply them more intelligently, for instance on civilian infrastructure and programs.

Applying the funds locally to produce more lasting outcomes did not and could not happen, because the Stateside defense industry had priority and claimed as much of the budget for itself as possible. As the budget figures show, leaving just barely enough for the nation building to prevent collapse in the short term, because they didn't want to stop this profitable game.

IMO, this fragile state of affairs had another final effect. IMO, the rapid Taliban takeover was possible because they were able to pull together a better long term package deal (bribery, political concessions, protection racket) for various Afghan political groups. The money part had to be financed from alternate sponsors, and I think we will discover it was. The 20 years of lowball civilian spending and stunted postwar recovery significantly lowered the bar for this outcome.

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    Can you please summarize the key points of the article. While it seems like a very relevant article, link-only answers are strongly discouraged
    – divibisan
    Aug 18 at 23:47
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    There's no reason to have an image for what are effectively 5 bullet items.
    – Fizz
    Aug 19 at 0:36
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    @Fizz - Author's own presentation. See actual article, there's a more colorful pie chart too, but it didn't show the negligibly small (in comparison) development budget items, which are the main point here IMO
    – Pete W
    Aug 19 at 1:54
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    I take @Fizz meant there isn't any reason to show text as screenshot in the answer, since the answer contains a link to The War Nerd: Was There A Plan In Afghanistan?
    – apaderno
    Aug 19 at 8:34
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    can we get rid of zee image vs table debate? Aug 20 at 7:57
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The best answer out there, which at the same time is also the answer to the question "What went wrong?", is the "Afghanistan Papers", published by the Washington Post in 2019.

If you follow the link, you will find an exhaustive source of information about what the USA & Co tried to do and how they failed spectacularly at it.


A very brief summary:

Basically, for the last 20 years, the USA & Co have tried to engage in nation-building without having any coherent plan taking into account the various difficulties and cultural challenges that they would be inevitably facing going forth.

Since no one had any idea what they were doing, the main "success" of that endeavor turned out to be fostering a tremendous amount of corruption, permeating Afghanistan from the head of the government over the courts and agencies to the lowest ranks of the newly-trained army.

The people involved already knew that they were failing several years ago, but covered it up and pretended that everything was going according to plan.


Sadly, the Afghanistan Papers, when they were released two years ago, gained nowhere near the attention that they deserved, which is why you now see so many people genuinely surprised by how quickly the Taliban steamrolled over Afghanistan.

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  • While it is true the PP did not receive much attention, I think the surprise goes a bit beyond people simply being ignorant of the realities on the ground. afaik the speed of the collapse was a surprise to basically everyone -- even the worst case scenarios of the most pessimistic experts were suggesting it would take on the order of 3-6 months, not days.
    – eps
    Aug 19 at 22:38

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