We Must Learn From the Afghanistan Experience—Starting With the Withdrawal

COMMENTARY Middle East

We Must Learn From the Afghanistan Experience—Starting With the Withdrawal

Feb 4th, 2022 3 min read
COMMENTARY BY
Peter Brookes

Senior Research Fellow, Center for National Defense

Peter researches and develops Heritage’s policy on weapons of mass destruction and counter proliferation.
Taliban fighters guard at an entrance as women wait in a queue during a World Food Programme cash distribution in Kabul on November 29, 2021. HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

We need to answer questions about our deeply troubling pullout in August. 

Few would argue that the August withdrawal was an unqualified success. Most would call it chaotic, at best, if not downright disastrous. 

These after-action studies are critical to uncovering and discerning the important, sometimes bitter lessons from America’s now-longest war.

The 2022 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), currently stalled in the Senate, calls for an independent bipartisan congressional commission to conduct a comprehensive examination of America’s involvement in Afghanistan from 1996 to our withdrawal this summer.  

That provision, introduced by Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) and others, is a good one. No doubt we can glean valuable lessons by looking at the totality of our Afghanistan experience, including our diplomatic, military and intelligence activities in that country from the early 1990s to today. 

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But that sort of thoughtful, exhaustive undertaking would certainly take months, probably years, to collect, analyze and report on. And we need some answers sooner than that. Specifically, we need to answer questions about our deeply troubling pullout in August. 

Congressional commissions don’t spring up overnight. The Republican and Democratic Party leadership and the chairs of the armed services, intelligence and foreign affairs/relations committees will need to find and pick 12 to 16 qualified commissioners, arrange for a suitable staff director or directors, find office space and staff up with competent researchers. That alone will take months—and only then can the real work start.  

Even as this commission gets situated and prepares to go about its important historical review, there is an urgent need for another, shorter study focused solely on what happened in Afghanistan this year. 

Such an independent, unclassified study (for both public and private consumption) could be done in six months and would actually have something useful to say.  

Despite the herculean work and heroism of our service members and other U.S. government professionals on the ground and in the air in Afghanistan and beyond, few would argue that the August withdrawal was an unqualified success. Most would call it chaotic, at best, if not downright disastrous. 

There are many questions that need to be answered soon. Among the most important: 

  • How did the interagency process to quit Afghanistan unfold within the Biden administration? Were there flaws in this process that could be improved upon to inform future contingencies?  
  • Why did we decide to withdraw all U.S. forces, leaving us and our allies blind to potential counterterror threats? Were other options discussed in the interagency and, if so, why weren’t they chosen?  
  • What was the intelligence community’s assessment of the situation and the potential fallout from the precipitous withdrawal?  
  • Why did we surrender Bagram Airfield, leaving U.S. forces to rely on Hamid Karzai International Airport as the sole point of departure? What was learned from the hasty evacuation?  

And so on.  

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Both a long-term study of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan from 1996 to 2021 and a short-term study of our 2021 withdrawal have merit. They should be undertaken as soon as practicable with the goal of improving our performance in future diplomatic and military contingencies.  

These after-action studies are critical to uncovering and discerning the important, sometimes bitter lessons from America’s now-longest war for not only reflection but implementation as needed across the challenging foreign policy landscape we face today.  

The results will be vital to informing current and future policymakers in Congress and the executive branch so that better outcomes in the future are within grasp.  

Equally important, the American people, who shouldered so much of the burden of this conflict, deserve answers to these questions about Afghanistan. It’s time for bipartisan congressional action to require both a short-term and a long-term study of America’s involvement in Afghanistan.  

This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 12/07/21