The Long War, David Loyn. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2021.
Summary: A history of the war in Afghanistan from 9/11 until nearly the end of the U.S. presence in 2021.
It was America’s longest war. Yet I suspect many of us rarely noticed except for the early fight against al-Qaeda and the failed attempt to catch Bin Ladin, the death of Bin Ladin in 2011, and the scenes of the hectic withdrawal in the summer of 2021, eerily reminiscent of the departure of the U.S. from Vietnam in 1975.
David Loyn, a BBC reporter in Afghanistan, and for a year, communications adviser to President Ashraf Ghani, traces this long history. The recurring theme seems to be the lack of a sustained investment in what was needed to decisively defeat the Taliban, protect and invest in the development of the country, and effectively hand over to the indigenous government. It felt like being prescribed an antibiotic and taking it just enough to eliminate symptoms, then backing off, allowing the resurgence and resistance of the infection, complicated by the alternatives to the Taliban–governments reliant on the support of the country’s warlords, powerful and corrupt and resented by the people.
Loyn traces the problems back to decisions made early on. The Bush administration wanted a “light footprint,” reserving forces for the Iraq invasion, which was the military’s primary focus. This led to limited U.S participation in the pursuit of Bin Ladin, allowing his escape. Efforts to eliminate al-Qaeda’s allies, the Taliban, were hampered by the character of the international force and the complicated rules of engagement under which each company operated. Nevertheless, the Taliban was pushed back from Kabul and Kandahar and into the mountainous borders with Pakistan.
This allowed the Taliban a chance to re-group and take an insurgency approach, using IED’s and other disruptive measures against occupiers, gradually regaining ground rather than engaging in open warfare, protected by supposed US allies, the Pakistanis. By 2009, at the beginning of the Obama administration, it became clear a new strategy was needed. Special ops raids to strike key Taliban targets often resulted in civilian casualties and an increased hatred of the foreign presence. And as the US fell into disfavor with the Karzai government, the Taliban succeeded in recruiting disaffected Afghanis. And so the US “surged” troops, engaging in both counter-insurgency and counter-terrorism approaches under a succession of generals (McKiernan, McChrystal, and Petraeus). McChrystal continued to press for more troops, as much to protect the population as to kill terrorists. He got part of what he wanted and timetables for withdrawal, first by 2012 and then 2014, that hamstrung these efforts.
Both the Taliban and the U.S. began to explore talks, often cutting out the Afghan government, further rankling relations. As US and UN commanders sought to train Afghanis, the number of incidents rose of Afghanis turning on and killing their supposed allies. As the pullbacks continued, sometimes temporarily interrupted during the Trump administration, the Taliban continued to regain more of the country.
Loyn’s account ends before the hurried flight of the US from Afghanistan and the victory of the Taliban over the disappearing Afghan military and government. But it is pretty clear what was coming. It was the predictable end result of efforts to fight the war “on the cheap” (even though it ended up quite costly in money and lives). He shows the folly of unclear war aims, inadequate resources to do what needs to be done, ignorance of the nature of the culture, and a labyrinthine command and operational structure.
Loyn’s perspective seems to be that a longer term investment in counter insurgency with sufficient resources to defeat the enemy while winning the people and giving the young government breathing space would have led to a different outcome. We pretended not to be nation building until we were nation building, ambivalent in our investment of resources and troops and ignorant of the warlord structures that siphoned off so much of what we spent there. It seems to me that we were never quite clear why we were there, especially after the initial offensive against al-Qaeda and the Taliban. That itself seems to be problematic.
I suspect all this will be debated for years to come. Loyn’s book is a good starting point, tracing the decisions made, the different parties to the war, and its unfolding over twenty years. Let us hope that after Vietnam and Afghanistan we will learn how to avoid embroiling ourselves in these things.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.