US Army War College

Dr. Todd Greentree – “What Went Wrong in Afghanistan?”

Released 24 January, 2022.

Critics of the Afghan war have claimed it was always unwinnable. This article argues the war was unwinnable the way it was fought and posits an alternative based on the Afghan way of war and the US approach to counterinsurgency in El Salvador during the final decade of the Cold War. Respecting the political and military dictates of strategy could have made America’s longest foreign war unnecessary and is a warning for the wars we will fight in the future. Click here to read the article.

Episode Transcript:

Stephanie Crider (Host)

Welcome to Decisive Point, a US Army War College Press production featuring distinguished authors and contributors who get to the heart of the matter in national security affairs.

Decisive Point welcomes Dr. Todd Greentree, a former US Foreign Service officer who served as a political military officer in five conflicts, including El Salvador and Afghanistan. He’s a member of the Changing Character of War Center at Oxford University and teaches in the Global and National Security Policy Institute at the University of New Mexico. Greentree is the author of “What Went Wrong in Afghanistan,” featured in Parameters winter 2021-2022 issue.

Welcome, Todd. I’m so glad you’re here. Let’s talk about your article. Some people would argue the Afghan war was unwinnable. You assert it was unwinnable the way it was fought. What do you mean by that?

Dr. Todd Greentree

Thank you, Stephanie. Great to be here. The idea that it was unwinnable the way it was fought is really tied to the purpose, sort of the reason why I was writing it, which is not just about what went wrong in Afghanistan, what lessons can be derived about counterinsurgency. This is really an article about US strategic behavior. Afghanistan was my fifth war. And I like to write what I know. So really, the origin of the article is from my own story.

I   got the idea that we were maybe not doing this right, sort of when I stepped off the helicopter at Bagram in 2008. My first war had been El Salvador in the early 1980s. And so everything I learned were all from guys who had been in Vietnam. There’s more about that in the article. For the next four years, though, I served with people who were…most of the people were from the 9/11 generation, and I was a political adviser to combat units out in the field and was super impressed with the astuteness that everybody was showing. So first, I was in Regional Command East, where General Mark Milley was the deputy commander for operations. But there was a problem with the entire effort in Afghanistan. We were on economy of force. But that economy of force was not being exercised for a strategic purpose, just to minimize the cost, because Iraq had sucked up all the attention and the bulk of the resources.

Then I moved to Regional Command South into Taliban home country, and they had been raging there since 2006. It took three years for the US to adapt. I came back to Kandahar in 2010, at the height of the surge, with the 10th Mountain Division. They were in command of Regional Command South. And this was the main effort at the height of the surge. It was a strong coalition team. They knew what to do, how to partner with the Afghan army. They took it seriously. They were serious about aligning political and military strategies, which was my part of this. The overall strategy of the US, by 2009, was coming into focus, we’d had Stan McChrystal’s math, the idea, here’s our most experienced Special Operations commander who had come to the realization, as had many of the SOF guys, that attrition generates more insurgents. This led to a shift in the understanding of focus on the population rather than exercising firepower.

General Petraeus, following McChrystal with Field Manual 3-24 and counterinsurgency doctrine and all of that. The problem was that when Obama announced the surge, he time-limited at the same time, which was a strategically incorrect thing to do because, for the Taliban, all they had to do was wait it out. And for them, jihad was forever.

But by 2011, when the surge was peaking and then over, that was 10 years into the war. It was just way too long to be fighting and to get it right.

My big point is that military operational excellence was essentially what we were exercising–a series of operations in a context of strategic incoherence. So, there was warfighting, but it was associated with this wildly ambitious nation-building that was very well-intentioned and made a lot of progress, but it was far too complex for the United States to sustain at that level. We certainly can’t blame the Afghans. In the end, I arrived at the same conclusion that Bob Komer did in 1973, when he, as the head of counterinsurgency in Vietnam, wrote this incredible paper called “Bureaucracy Does Its Thing: US Performance in Vietnam.”

That conclusion was: if you find yourself doing Big COIN, it’s too late.


Let’s talk about accidental guerrillas and accidental counterinsurgents. How did this happen in relation to Afghanistan?


Accidental Guerrillas was this great book that Dave Kilcullen wrote–one of his first books. And he had this idea that the Pashtuns, who make up most of the Taliban, were fighting us because we were in their space. My idea with accidental counterinsurgents is merely to hold up a mirror on that idea and say, “well, that’s right.”

And the only reason that we were fighting the Taliban was because they helped al-Qaeda, who got into our space by attacking us on 9/11. The strategic problem with this was that we confused the two. The Taliban were insurgents. They were not international terrorists. They didn’t like the Arabs in al-Qaeda very much, most of them. And they weren’t threatening the US in any way. So, in the end, we were hunting these extreme conservative Islamists, on their home ground, who were fighting jihad against us, the foreign troops who were in combat in the middle of their own people. So you had this incredible conflict, incredible clash, between two warrior cultures–one on their home ground and one on the sort of the “away team” that really didn’t understand this dynamic very well.


Let’s circle back for a minute to your comment about if you’re doing big COIN, it’s already too late. Was there really any other option? What were they going to do? Small COIN?


In El Salvador, small COIN was the model because the Vietnam War had ended less than a decade earlier. So early 1980s. Saigon was evacuated in 1975, so there was no way that the US military or the American public would support involvement in major counterinsurgency. So there was a political imperative that limited the presence of US forces on the ground. But there was more to it than that.

It was also part of the policy to balance political and military strategy. They were in sync with each other. To take that lesson away, keep foreign troops–keep ourselves–out of direct conflict, out of direct combat. Focus on training, assisting, and advising.

And one way to put it is to change one word in Article 15, of the famous article by Thomas Edward Lawrence, T. E. Lawrence of Arabia, the article was titled “27 Articles,” and it was about supporting and fighting with the Arabs in World War I in 1917. Article 15, with one word change (changing Arabs to Afghans) reads, “Do not try to do too much with your own hands. Better the Afghans do it tolerably than you do it perfectly. It is their war, and you are to help them. Not to win it for them. Actually, also under the very odd conditions of Afghanistan, your practical work will not be as good as perhaps you think it is.”

I think that just applies 100% to what was going on in Afghanistan. To take that a step further, is, rather than taking the war over, we should have been doing all along what we were doing at the end, which was keeping the size of our forces small and focusing on training, assisting, and advising rather than combat itself.

The second part of this looking at options and alternatives, though, is equally if not more important. We should have listened to the Afghans. We often treated them and thought of them as our proxies, but we were fighting in their country. They weren’t proxies. They were really joint venture partners in which both sides, both participants, shared strengths and shared risks and shared costs. Just building on that, there’s a lot of blame to go around. That was a culminating point of victory. And we should have entered war termination with them, even while we continued counterterrorism operations against al-Qaeda.

The reason I’m talking about this as an option, as an alternative, was because a new President Karzai, and his fellow Pashtuns and government, had a strategy that was in accord with the Afghan way of war. The Taliban were streaming in to recognize the new winner and swear fealty to President Karzai. The government side was ready to disperse them back to their communities in southern Afghanistan and separate out those leaders who led the Pakistan from the Taliban, but at the same time to bring Taliban representatives, who had sworn fealty and were willing to reconcile, and include them at the table at the Bonn conference, where the new government was being formed.

It was all thought out. The Afghans seemed to know what they were doing. They proposed this, and the Bush administration, principally Secretary defense, Rumsfeld said “no way, we’re not having anything to do with these Taliban people.”

And so we ended up taking over the war with our own set of Afghan warlords, conducting counterterrorist methods by hunting the Taliban, capturing them, killing them, sending them to Guantanamo, and searching around for combat to continue combat–conducting the American way of war. By bringing up this option, it suggests that it may have been possible for the Afghan war to have been entirely unnecessary.


We packed a lot into a few short minutes. Thank you so much, Todd for doing this with me. I enjoyed all of it.


Okay, my pleasure, Stephanie.


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