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‘Why did the U.S. lose in Afghanistan?’ A new book explores decades of mistakes

The U.S. may have done more harm than good in Afghanistan, argues Carter Malkasian in his new book, “The American War in Afghanistan.” Despite efforts to build education, health care and infrastructure, the U.S. presence fomented conflict, Malkasian says. Nick Schifrin spoke with Malkasian about the mistakes U.S. officials made over the 20-year war.

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  • William Brangham:

    Returning now to Afghanistan.

    As the country seemingly falls apart amid a U.S. withdrawal, what lessons can be drawn from America's 20-year involvement in that nation? And what were the mistakes made along the way in what has now been America's longest war?

    Before these astonishing gains made by the Taliban this week, Nick Schifrin sat down with the author of a new book examining America's long involvement in that country.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why did the U.S. lose in Afghanistan? That is the question asked at the beginning of a new book, "The American War in Afghanistan: A History," by historian Carter Malkasian, who lived in Helmand Province as a State Department political officer, advised former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joe Dunford on Afghanistan, and now joins me in the studio.

    Welcome to the "NewsHour."

  • Carter Malkasian:

    Thank you very much. It's great to be here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You write that, after 20 years of war: "The U.S. must confront a moral reality. The U.S. may have done more harm than good in Afghanistan."

    What do you mean?

  • Carter Malkasian:

    We went in there hoping to build the country, hoping to improve the country. And, in many, many ways, we did that.

    Education is better. The number of people in schools are better. The number of people receiving health care is better. And for many people in the country, they have had experiences of living in some kind of stability.

    But you have to compare that to that us being there help generate a war. And that war has gone on for 20 years. So, for all the people who have benefited in some way from our presence, there's others who have died, lost loved ones, and have suffered all of the depredations of war.

    And that may have been in the end in our interests. To prevent terrorist attacks on the United States, that may have been necessary, but it is a moral reality that we need to confront.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You write about U.S. mistakes over the years that have gotten us to this point, perhaps fatal mistakes, we could argue.

    And let's go through some of these.

    Let's listen to President Bush here talking in October of 2001.

  • George W. Bush:

    If they want us to stop our military operation, they just got to meet my conditions. And when I said no negotiations, I meant no negotiations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    No negotiations.

    The Taliban the next month were excluded from political negotiations in Germany over the future of the Afghan government. Why was that a mistake?

  • Carter Malkasian:

    Well, it gave up an opportunity that might have led to fewer Taliban fighting.

    There's a famous event in December of 2001, where Taliban leaders come and talk to Karzai. Karzai is at that time marching down with U.S. forces to Kandahar. And Kandahar is eventually going to be taken. A delegation of Taliban come to speak with him. And they apparently said to him, we would like permission to go and live at home, not be not be oppressed on, and other Taliban would like to lay down their arms.

    We don't really know if this meant for the whole Taliban movement or just these few, but we said no. And we lost this opportunity. And so even if a few of them had been willing to not pick up arms, then we would have faced less violence in the future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. was confident in the early years, so confident that the Bush administration opposed the idea of building a big Afghan army to defend the country.

  • Carter Malkasian:

    Yes, we should have done more during that period. We waited too long to invest the money and the resources into creating an Afghan army that was better.

    And that Afghan army, perhaps it should have been larger than the one we built. When the Taliban reemerged, we were so overconfident that the Taliban weren't going to come back…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Right. About 2006, they reemerged.

  • Carter Malkasian:


    So they reemerge, and there isn't an army there at that time. Or they're — the army units that are there are very small. So, when the Taliban appear in 2006, there isn't much to oppose them.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Let's fast-forward to 2011 and take a look at a major decision that President Obama made.

  • Barack Obama:

    And as commander in chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Was the surge the mistaken priorities that the U.S. should not have had?

  • Carter Malkasian:

    The surge, in retrospect, probably shouldn't have been undertaken.

    Putting in another 21,000 troops, then 30,000 troops, for a total of 100,000 troops through 2010-2011, that was extremely expensive, about $100 billion each of those years. And the majority of U.S. casualties occurred during that time.

    So you look, in retrospect from today, and look at everything that's been lost, whatever was gained in the surge was lost. And then, looking in retrospect, it's hard to say we should have done it.

    At the end of that, President Obama mentions the withdrawal, that we're going to withdraw in a few years. The Taliban would tell some of the elders that, hey, the Americans are going to be leaving soon.

    But I think the criticism of the timeline can be a little bit overblown, because it's not like, without the timeline, that the Taliban were suddenly going to stop fighting, or they were suddenly going to give up.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    We can't or shouldn't only look at U.S. mistakes, of course, when it comes to the last 20 years.

    Predatory behavior, corruption by the Afghan government, a lack of unity inside the Afghan government and, of course, the Pakistani support for the Taliban, where do you rank those mistakes?

  • Carter Malkasian:

    Pakistani safe haven has to rank high on that.

    The fact that the Taliban always had a place to go back to put them outside the reach of our airstrikes, put them outside the reach of the Afghan government. And so, at the worst of the surge, they had a place to go to recover on and then return to.

    The corruption is pervasive. The corruption is part of how Afghanistan exists. There's no doubt that it meant that there were forces on the front line without enough ammunition, without — often without the number of troops that should be there. And there's no doubt that the corruption also created grievances.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The core of the book, though, it seems you make a more fundamental point perhaps.

    And I'm going to read a couple sentences that you write: "The very presence of Americans in Afghanistan trod on what it meant to be Afghan. Any Afghan government, however good, however democratic, was going to be imperiled as long as it was aligned with the United States."

    What do you mean?

  • Carter Malkasian:

    Afghanistan, like most countries, doesn't want to see foreigners on their soil. It probably is a little bit worse when they're not of the same religion.

    And so, for many Afghan men and women, the U.S. being there was a problem. And that enabled the Taliban to easily paint the government as a government of puppets. You go to the mosque, and the mullah is going to talk probably about jihad and is going to talk about the presence of the foreigners.

    And you will know your own history as an Afghan as having defeated multiple different occupations. So, this is something that's a part of identity. It's not something that can be easily removed. And that is reason that the Taliban have inspiration and the government often doesn't.

    And I'm not trying to say that people in government often don't fight hard. They often fight very hard. But this is a key difference that exists there.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You have seen the pushback to some of your argument, that it's not about religion; it's about the U.S. alienating the population and certain tribes through counterterrorism operations, and that the predatory Afghan government that we talked about, and not the presence of U.S. troops, took away Afghan troops' motivation.

  • Carter Malkasian:

    So, I think those are factors.

    I don't think you can look at a war and, as a historian, say, oh, I know the one reason something happened. There's different reasons that things happen. And some of those reasons change over time.

    But I think, if we don't talk about our presence and how that motivated people, we're missing something that's very weighty. And you can see it in the surveys that are conducted. You can hear it from Taliban. You can hear it from government officials who are fighting the Taliban.

    There's a reason why, when we drive around Kabul, that people aren't smiling at us. There's a reason we're worried about our security. There's a reason, if I go to their homes, they don't want me coming in a taxi. They want me coming in their car covered going in and going out, because to work with the Americans paints you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Carter Malkasian.

    The book is "The American War in Afghanistan."

    Thank you very much.

  • Carter Malkasian:

    Thank you, Nick.

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