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Strategic mistakes made by the U.S. and NATO during the war in Afghanistan

The U.S. decided to withdraw all troops from Afghanistan, putting an end to the 20-year war in this South Asian country. What made this war become the costliest and longest one in the U.S. military history? This article will present an analysis of strategic mistakes made by the U.S. and NATO during the war in Afghanistan.

In spite of the fact that America and a number of NATO member states always had absolute superiority in terms of personnel and equipment, they failed to gain victory in a war which had been thought to happen “one-way” only in Afghanistan. According to many analysts around the world, the U.S. and NATO made a lot of strategic mistakes during the war in this South Asian country.

First of all, America and NATO used the pretext of “combating terrorism” to conduct the war on terror on a global scale. Immediately after the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, the then U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law the Authorisation for Use of Military Force (AUMF). According to this law, the U.S. President could use violence against nations, organisations, or persons that aided the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 and it was the legal foundation for America carry out military activities in Afghanistan (however, later on U.S. Presidents used the AUMF to militarily intervened in many other countries in the world). After toppling the Taliban and “routing” Al-Qaeda, the U.S. and its allies continued to maintain their military presence and enhance their economic, political, military, security, and diplomatic influence on this country. Economically, America spent hundreds of billions of USD and urged its allies and other countries to provide financial aid for “restructuring” Afghanistan. Politically, in December 2001, the U.S. started building a civilian government headed by Hamid Karzai and deploying experts to Kabul to assist this country in developing the state apparatus and a legal system from central to local levels, improving the quality of education, and handling other relevant issues, with a hope that the new government would be able to protect the U.S. benefits in Afghanistan and the region. However, poor management and rampant corruption became a threat to the survival of the government “commanded” by President Hamid Karzai and set up by Washington. Militarily, the U.S. and its allies established many military bases to control Afghanistan’s key regions, including the strategic air base of Bagram that was believed to be the general combat headquarters of American armed forces and NATO in Central Asia and Middle East. Besides, the U.S. provided weapons, equipment and training courses for Afghanistan’s military and security forces so that they would protect America’s benefits in South Asia. Diplomatically, the U.S. persuaded the United Nations and other countries to recognise the government of Afghanistan established by Washington and gradually induced Kabul to follow the West’s orbit.

Afghanistan is located in the intersection between Asia and Europe, thus holding a geo-political position of paramount importance to the region. According to many experts around the world, Afghanistan is the key to controlling Central Asia, South Asia, and Middle East. Therefore, this country has always been seen as an “easy prey” for major powers. In the early 1980s, after Soviet Union had deployed troops to Afghanistan, the U.S. and the West provided financial aid, weapons, and equipment for local “Jihadist forces,” including the Taliban and Al-Qaeda to fight against Soviet Union’s expeditionary forces and strengthen Washington’s influence in the region. However, after Soviet Union’s withdrawal of its troops, the Taliban headed by Mohammed Omar gained leadership over Afghanistan. Then the Taliban heightened extreme xenophobia; as a result, the U.S. plan to intervene in Afghanistan was doomed to failure. After the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001 by Al-Qaeda, the U.S. had a pretext for its direct military intervention to realise the plot of controlling this South Asian country. People from Afghanistan and many other countries all over the world exposed the conspiracy of the U.S. and NATO, while opposing the U.S. war on the pretext of “fighting terrorism” in Afghanistan.

Second, the U.S. and NATO conducted a war without understanding their opponent. According to military experts, the war waged by Washington and NATO in Afghanistan is divided into 2 periods. In the first one, they “overthrew” the Taliban. In the second one, they “pacified” Afghanistan. With the absolute superiority in air force, navy, and modern materiel, the U.S. and NATO easily launched air operations against the Taliban’s crucial targets across Afghanistan in the first period. After air strikes, special task units of the U.S. and NATO cooperated with the Afghan Northern Alliance in carrying out military campaigns on land to topple the Taliban. At that time, military officials of the U.S. and NATO hyped the victory over the Taliban as the invincibility of Washington and NATO. Moreover, they hoped the U.S. could develop a new method of warfare - hi-tech warfare in the 21st century. However, in fact, toppling the Taliban was just “a start” of “a terrible war” lasting for two decades between the U.S. and NATO as one side and remnants of the Taliban as the other.

When “pacifying” Afghanistan and fighting against “the rise” of remnants of the Taliban, Washington adopted different policies but failed to avoid making the “same mistakes.” In other words, the U.S. used its absolute military strength against a “stubborn” opponent without any understanding. Many officials of the White House admitted that the U.S. made a “grievous” error in overestimating its military power and considering remnants of the Taliban as motley, fanatical losers. In fact, most remnants of the Taliban were local combatants with good knowledge of terrain and expertise in guerrilla warfare; therefore, although the U.S. and NATO adopted various tactics and modern weapons, the effectiveness of combat was very low. In the period of 2010-2020, when the then U.S. President Barack Obama increased a record number of troops (over 1000,000), Washington and NATO could not defeat the Taliban. More seriously, the U.S. suffered heavy casualties (over 1,000). Meanwhile, despite being provided with state-of-the-art weapons and fully trained, Afghanistan’s national military and security forces were often defeated by the Taliban due to their low combat morale. According to several reports, only one year after the “International Security Assistance Force” led by NATO transferred full security responsibility to the Afghan national security force (2014), a lot of strategic areas fell to the Taliban. Besides, the U.S., NATO, and the Afghan government failed to prevent supplies for the Taliban, particularly sources of drug with massive profits enabling this organisation to acquire weapons and recruit new combatants.

Former US Secretary of Defence Robert Gates believes that the U.S. did not understand and could not understand complicated social, cultural, historical, and human issues in Afghanistan, adding that Washington is expert in overthrowing governments but does not know how to replace them.

Third, the U.S. and NATO conducted the war with violations of human rights. It is thought that the imposition of a democratic regime in order to “Westernise” Afghanistan is, in fact, a new-style colonialist policy and violates international law on nations’ self-determination. Many US officials had to admit that efforts to transform Afghanistan into a stable, safe, wealthy, “Western-style” democracy had completely failed. In addition, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles and special task force to conduct operations from afar allowed the U.S. and NATO to annihilate many senior-level leaders of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, including Bin Laden; however, tens of thousands of innocent civilians were also killed. It is worth noting that Washington’s deployment of new-generation bombs and missiles, including the GBU-43 bomb, aka “Mother of all bombs,” was drastically cricticised for the barbaric intention of turning Afghanistan into a place for displaying the U.S. strength and testing dangerous weapons. Besides, the “divide and rule” policy by the U.S. with its support for the Afghan Northern Alliance and warlords against the Taliban further deepened ethnic and religious conflicts in Afghanistan. More seriously, the massive amount of bombs dropped by the U.S. and NATO on Afghanistan in the past two decades devastated this country with hundreds of thousands of families being split a part and an uncontrollable increase in violence, diseases, hunger, poverty, illiteracy, and social evils. In fact, the U.S. and NATO had to pay dearly for their strategic mistakes when the war in Afghanistan has become the most expensive one in the U.S. history so far, with a cost of about 2,200 billion USD, over 2,400 U.S. troops killed, and tens of thousands of others wounded. “Getting bogged down” during two decades in Afghanistan and then Iraq and Middle East considerably weakens the U.S. military strength and other major powers have taken this opportunity to challenge Washington’s No.1 position.

MINH DUC

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