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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchWhy America Failed in Afghanistan, and Why It Can Recover From Failures...

Why America Failed in Afghanistan, and Why It Can Recover From Failures Like Afghanistan and Iraq

Author: Henry Kissinger/ Robert D. Kaplan

Affiliation: Former US Secretary of State and National Security Advisor/ the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Organization/Publisher: The Economist

Date/Place: August 23/25, 2021/UK

Type of Literature: Two Articles in One Brief 

Word Count: 2500 


Keywords: American Failures, Afghanistan, Iraq, Diplomacy, Geography, and the Future of American Power 


This brief presents the most prominent reasons that made the United States lose its long war in Afghanistan, according to Henry Kissinger. It also identifies the most important factors that have enabled the US to overcome its historical failures and which will also enable it to recover from current failures such as Afghanistan and Iraq, according to Robert Kaplan’s perspective, which is based on the geographical factor. For starters, Kissinger expresses his displeasure with the US withdrawal decision from Afghanistan, which was taken without much thought or consultation with allies or the people most directly involved in 20 years of sacrifice. He also wonders “why the basic challenge in Afghanistan has been conceived and presented to the public as a choice between full control of Afghanistan or complete withdrawal.” Kissinger argues that the core reason behind the US failure in Afghanistan was Washington’s imagination that only by transforming Afghanistan into a modern democracy can it prevent the re-establishment of terrorist bases there after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in 2001. The author warned in 2010 that a very lengthy process of state-building would not succeed, rather it would turn non-jihadist Afghans against the entire effort, as Afghanistan has never been a modern state. The establishment of the state presupposes a sense of common obligation and centralization of authority, while Afghanistan lacks these elements. The peoples that make up the Afghan entity have always strongly resisted centralization throughout history due to the nature of Afghan society and its mentality based on clan and ethnicity, whose parties usually enter into a latent conflict against each other. The union between them only occurs when some external powers seek to impose centralization and cohesion in Afghanistan (Britain 1839, Soviet Union 1979, United States 2001). Thus, the author sees in the nation-building effort in a war-torn country that absorbed large US military forces, that the Taliban could have been contained but not eliminated. Furthermore, Kissinger notes that the US has torn itself in the counterinsurgency effort due to its inability to identify achievable goals and link them in a way that is sustainable by the American political process. The military objectives have been too absolute and unattainable and the political ones too abstract and elusive. The failure to link them to each other has involved America in endless struggles and plunged into a quagmire of local conflicts. The military defined the counterinsurgency effort as advancing, while the political side treated it as a disaster. In addition, instead of building permanent military bases, Washington could have activated creative diplomacy and coordinated joint counterinsurgency efforts with Afghanistan’s neighbors, but such an alternative has never been noticed. Finally, Kissinger believes that America cannot escape from being a major component of the international order due to its historic capabilities and values. This cannot be avoided through withdrawal. He calls for the activation of appropriate diplomacy, and whatever international order it will be able to establish. He also acknowledges the need to recognize that “no strategic move is available in the immediate future to offset this self-inflicted setback, such as by making new formal commitments in other regions. American rashness would compound disappointment among allies, encourage adversaries, and sow confusion among observers.” Despite this setback, Robert Kaplan argues that America can recover from it and similar failures thanks to the advantages that geography offers it over its competitors. The basis of American power from the beginning has been starkly geographical. Geography is the most stable component of national power, as Hans Morgenthau argued. The US is blessed by a vast continent, rich in resources, with a vast economy and maritime lines of communication; most importantly, oceans protect it from the turmoil of the Old World and it has no strong and hostile neighbors, unlike its main competitors (China and Russia). This geographic advantage helps explain why the US has recovered after failing in successive wars, unlike smaller or less well-situated countries, which have little margin to make mistakes. Therefore, the scenes of chaos at Kabul airport accompanying the American withdrawal were just an image rather than substance. The US continued to win the Cold War after the fall of Saigon in 1975, and it can continue its victories now as well. Therefore, Kaplan sees an exaggeration in some current arguments that claim American decline. The geographical advantage also explains the quasi-imperialism that has characterized American history. It also explains the American elites’ obsession with human rights, as the US—protected by oceans—is still able to stand aloof and make moral judgments accordingly, question and criticize the realpolitik pursued by countries with unsafe land borders. What currently threatens American power are the internal challenges that geography cannot fully defend, such as the challenges of social cohesion and inequality (such as the negative impact of social media which causes an increase in polarization), which have been exacerbated by the outcomes of globalization. Nevertheless, America’s domestic tensions are out in the open, which helps the American democratic political system to address and overcome them, unlike the domestic tensions in competing countries such as China and Russia, which are more ambiguous and less transparent and are difficult to bypass, especially with authoritarian regimes that hide profound social and economic divisions in their countries. In the context of comparison, China and Russia each have less fortunate geographic advantages than the United States. China has difficult border regions, is surrounded by powerful states, and resorts to repression in order to manage ethnic and religious minorities. As for Russia, it is an unsafe land power that has been subject to invasion throughout history, which is the deep reason behind its aggressiveness. Thus, the author wants to draw attention to the importance of comparing the weaknesses of the three great powers, rather than focusing on the strengths between them and rushing to prove that the US decline is due to committing mistakes such as in Afghanistan and Iraq. Kaplan finally argues that American democracy has the ability to adapt, renew itself, and overcome its mistakes unlike other systems and that the US geographical bounty still offers lessons of considerable hope. 


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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