I was nonplussed by the claim by Carter Malkasian at Foreign Affairs that our adventure in Afghanistan was a “good war” or that we might have succeeded there:
The United States failed in Afghanistan largely because of intractable grievances, Pakistan’s meddling, and an intense Afghan commitment to resisting occupiers, and it stayed largely because of unrelenting terrorist threats and their effect on U.S. electoral politics. There were few chances to prevail and few chances to get out.
In this situation, a better outcome demanded an especially well-managed strategy. Perhaps the most important lesson is the value of forethought: considering a variety of outcomes rather than focusing on the preferred one. U.S. presidents and generals repeatedly saw their plans fall short when what they expected to happen did not: for Bush, when the Taliban turned out not to be defeated; for McChrystal and Petraeus, when the surge proved unsustainable; for Obama, when the terrorist threat returned; for Trump, when the political costs of leaving proved steeper than he had assumed. If U.S. leaders had thought more about the different ways that things could play out, the United States and Afghanistan might have experienced a less costly, less violent war, or even found peace.
That is arrant nonsense from top to bottom. It was never a “good war”. There are justified wars. There are unavoidable wars. There are necessary wars. There are wars of choice. There are tactical wars. There shouldn’t be but there are. No war is good. War means killing and suffering and pain and destruction.
In the instance of Afghanistan a punitive action against Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Afghanistan was completely justified and, sadly, was politically and psychologically necessary. It went wrong almost from the beginning when we elected to remove the Taliban government and replace it with one more to our liking. Once that had been done the die was cast.
All of the impediments to a “better outcome” were true and known to be true by anyone who actually knew anything about Afghanistan before the first American soldier set foot in Afghanistan. Talking about “hindsight” or “in retrospect” is foolishness. Better to talk about fecklessness and heedlessness.