The War in Afghanistan started in 2001 and there is still no end in sight, despite the fact that the world’s most powerful military organizations and capabilities – of the United States and NATO – are deployed to Afghanistan.
The War in Afghanistan is the longest war in American history.
There are arguably at least four (complimentary) explanations for this failure and unfortunate state of affairs:
(1) Wrong means and capabilities. Because the military capabilities and organizations the US and NATO deploy are designed to fight identical capabilities and organizations, they are ill-equipped to fight a rather loose collection of highly elusive tribes. Armies are optimized to fight armies.
(2) Wrong methods. The US/NATO uses counterinsurgency tactics and techniques (at least since 2009) in Afghanistan, whilst there is actually not an insurgency taking place. Counterinsurgency is also not a strategy as is often assumed. The assumption of an insurgency is that certain groups or parts of a population revolt against the legitimate authority of the state (its government). Afghanistan does not have – never had – a legitimate and effective government. Restoring authority and legitimacy that never existed in the first place, does not make sense. The concept of (counter)insurgency does not apply.
(3) There is no basis – a sufficient basic social structure – for a political solution. In the end, to end a war, a permanent and sustainable political solution is required. Because of the tribal structures in Afghanistan, such conditions do not exist; Afghanistan lacks the minimal social coherence that allows for the formulation, implementation and maintenance of a political solution. Furthermore, the central “government” lacks legitimacy, and the means and will to control the Taliban.
(4) Sunk cost bias. Not only apply the US and NATO the wrong capabilities and methods in Afghanistan, its decision making process concerned with the continuation of this war, was and still is negatively influenced by irrelevant considerations. It seems to be easier for the US and NATO to continue this unfortunate commitment, than to admit to failure and risk reputational damage. The so-called sunk cost bias also seems to hinder sound decision making: the reasoning seems to be that because of the staggering investments and costs already made in Afghanistan (military capabilities, economic projects, prestige, human life’s, etc.) it is better – and worthwhile – to continue the effort. However, this is an irrelevant consideration: these are sunk costs. To determine if continuation of the war effort is worthwhile, the question should be answered how much should still be invested to achieve a realistic result. Necessary future investments and costs should be the consideration that underpins a decision to start or continue a war.