Taliban officials arrange a Taliban flag, before a press conference by Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid, at the Government Media Information Center, in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Rahmat Gul)

In a cold drizzle that hid the distant Hindu Kush mountains, Army Sgt. John Brawdy and I stood admiring an enormous pile of junk the retreating Soviet army had left behind in Afghanistan 13 years earlier. It was January 2002, and the old Soviet airbase at Bagram was about to be transformed into the center of the American war in Afghanistan. We contemplated the carcass of a Mig-21 fighter and the battered fuselage of a Russian bomber, a couple of burned-out trucks, and the mangled cockpit of a helicopter. Brawdy summed up the view with the sardonic wisdom of a combat NCO.

“Someday it’s gonna be our abandoned junk piled up here,” he said, flicking his cigarette butt into the mud. “And people are gonna look at it and say, ‘the Americans — they couldn’t hold it.’”

That memory stayed with me during my ensuing years embedded with American soldiers and Marines in Afghanistan. Of their courage, their stamina, their generosity and their unquenchable sense of humor, I cannot say enough. I often wished that those directing the war from Washington would listen to their ground-truth sense that things were already going wrong and would get worse.

But it almost did work. Back in January 2002, U.S. and allied commandos, Marines, and the Air Force had won the war. Taliban rule was shattered. The Talibs fleeing into the mountains toward Pakistan offered to turn in their weapons. The senior officials occupying the newly unlocked U.S. embassy building in Kabul told me the job now was to create a small military “footprint” and begin a modest but sustained development effort to give Afghans a head start on remaking their nation.

Neither happened.

Instead of battalions of civilian development experts, battalions of the 10th Mountain and 101st Airborne Divisions landed, and planning got underway for Operation Anaconda, the application of traditional military land-power doctrine to the inhospitable landscape of Afghanistan. (This was the Soviet approach as well.) The idea of a small military footprint gave way to a city of tents. Anaconda sputtered to an inconclusive end. More troops were needed. From that point, it seemed to me that Brawdy’s glum prediction would prove correct.

There are too many points of failure to catalog here. The main lesson is that when we use our military power to achieve a foreign policy goal, we should use it quickly and decisively, and  then withdraw. “Go in, whack ‘em hard and get out,” in the words of Matt Broderick, a retired Marine commander decorated for combat valor.

The military exists to kill. That’s its sole function, and the U.S. military is very good at it. In a very few situations, killing — or the threat of killing – can suffice to achieve limited goals: rescuing hostages, chasing the occupying Iraqis out of Kuwait, even overthrowing the Taliban. But killing has its limits, as military professionals know well.

“If killing people would win this, we’d have won a long time ago,” U.S. Marine Col. William B. Crowe told me in Ramadi, Iraq, where he commanded a regimental combat team in 2007. It’s partly a matter of numbers. “Those targets in Afghanistan will never end,” an infantryman once explained, “because there’s an infinite supply of enemy and a finite supply of us.”

Yet killing, the application of lethal force, remained the central strategy in America’s 20-year campaign to create a stable government in Afghanistan. Why?

When there’s trouble, dispatching the military is not just easy, it’s inevitable. The 82nd Airborne’s ready brigade, now helping to secure Kabul’s airfield, is just that: always ready to launch out within hours from Fort Bragg. Back in early 2002, battalions of the 101st Airborne and the 10th Mountain were likewise prepared and expecting to go. But there were, and are, not enough American civilian experts prepared and ready to deploy to manage and resolve conflict, to get schools built, to help get local governments functioning, to keep power and water on and help local folks design and implement the institutions of governance, justice, and security that they want. For American policymakers, the only tool left is … the military.

“Washington has become overly dependent on military tools and has seriously neglected its nonmilitary instruments of power,” former defense secretary Robert M. Gates pointed out in Foreign Affairs a year ago. “What is so striking about the overmilitarization of the period following the Cold War,” he wrote, “is just how much U.S. policymakers failed to learn the lessons of the seven previous decades.” Gates called for “greater military restraint.”

When the recriminations over America’s failed adventure in Afghanistan begin to fade, a fitting next step will be to rethink how we go about effecting change in the world, or trying to. How much we can achieve that is anybody’s guess. But when we try to do it with military might over a period of years, or in this case decades, we’ll likely fail.

David Wood

Follow David on Twitter @wood writer. David Wood is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who has covered war for four decades. His most recent book, What Have We Done: The Moral Injury of Our Longest Wars, published by Little, Brown, won the 2018 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.