Sean D. Carberry
Did I Do Enough to Promote a Softer Landing in Afghanistan?
I am not surprised that the Afghan government and military collapsed, and that the Taliban is back in power. For years I (and m any others) had been arguing that this was the likely end state. However, I was surprised, as many were, by the way it played out. That was the result of the Biden’s inept execution of a bad deal brokered by President Trump and his team.
The question I am asking myself right now is, did I do enough to prevent this outcome?
I never held enough power or influence inside or outside of government to change the course of the war in Afghanistan. However, I did have soapboxes from which I pointed out flaws and fallacies, questioned strategies and tactics, and showed that the narratives promoted by policy makers did not square with realities on the ground.
Could I have been louder? Could I have been more forceful? Could I have found better examples to show that it was all a house of cards? I honestly don’t know, but I can’t stop wondering.
I first set foot in Afghanistan in January 2009. I was there for two weeks to report a story on the challenges of securing the border with Pakistan and preventing the Taliban from crossing into Pakistan for refuge, training, and resupply. In my two weeks on the ground, I saw a handful of Afghan forces at most. I saw many U.S. forces. The security situation had been trending in the wrong direction according to generals I spoke with.
In the area of Laghman province I visited, much of the violence was perpetrated by locals who took money from the Taliban to plant bombs or shoot at U.S. and Afghan forces. The fundamental problem was the lack of economic opportunity that drove otherwise law-abiding people to engage in violence. To solve that problem required an economy that was decades away at best.
The big takeaway from that trip was that securing the border was impossible and the Taliban would continue to have a safe haven in Pakistan. History has shown that insurgencies with an external patron are extremely difficult to defeat.
I returned to Afghanistan in October of that year. On that trip I saw some of the early attempts to create an Afghan military. It was not encouraging. One Afghan unit I saw was made up of mostly illiterate men sporting a hodgepodge of uniforms, gear, and footwear. They looked about as intimidating as a company of mall cops. At that point, if they showed up for duty, that was considered a success.
The strategy at that time was to build an Afghan force of about 216,000 army and national police. Counterinsurgency experts posited that Afghanistan needed anywhere from 271,000 to 640,000 forces to properly implement COIN strategy and defeat the insurgency. Even generating a competent force of 216,000 was unrealistic given the human capital limitations of Afghanistan.
To be less clinical, in a country with a population of roughly 30 million people and some of the lowest literacy and education rates in the world, fielding a competent, sustainable security force a third of the size of the U.S. Army was simply impossible.
My takeaways from 2009 were that Pakistan was providing sanctuary and resource, which meant the Taliban could sustain their fight; the United States didn’t have nearly the force size needed to wage a counterinsurgency campaign; Afghanistan did not have the talent pool needed to build a large security force; and the Afghan government was weak, corrupt, and unable to provide the governance and stability functions needed for COIN to succeed.
I reported what I could through the program I worked for at the time. The audience was not that large, and the impact was limited. Any opportunity I had to provide feedback to policy makers—which was minimal—I told them the math didn’t work.
In 2012, I moved to Afghanistan and covered the country for NPR until the end of 2014. I had a much larger soapbox, but I was fighting a much more aggressive information war. The U.S. military and the International Security Assistance Force were promoting the narrative that the Afghan forces were growing stronger by the day, taking on more responsibility for security in the country, and they would be able to defeat the Taliban. After all, it was the policy at the time that U.S. forces would leave Afghanistan by the end of 2014, and therefore Afghan forces had to be capable of securing the country.
Yet, that was not the reality on the ground. There were some good Afghan units and there were terrible ones. A good commander could drive troops to perform well on the battlefield and a bad one could ruin an otherwise decent unit. There was almost no institutional backbone. Security ministries were rife with corruption. Military units could not maintain their equipment and couldn’t get food and ammunition where it needed to be.
The Afghan National Police was so incompetent that the Army spent half its time bailing out the police when the Taliban overran police checkpoints. Drug use among the police was rampant. Many Afghan units preyed on local populations.
The thing is, I didn't know all of this just from my own observations: U.S. commanders and advisors would say as much off the record.
They all knew the whole time they were building a house of cards. The challenge was how to report that when no one would say it officially. In fact, they would publicly deny such allegations.
On the record, they touted the constant improvement of the ANDSF, the numbers of kids going to school, the improved health indicators, the talking points that turned into a Manchurian Candidate post-hypnotic mantra.
Then, there were the deliberate public relations stunts. There were a lot of well-intentioned people funding and supporting initiatives to promote Afghan women and youth, to show that Afghanistan was becoming a “normal” country. There was the Afghan Women’s Cycling Team, the Women’s Soccer Team, the Afghan Circus and Skatestan—both designed to empower Afghan kids by teaching them juggling and skateboarding and other skills—there was Sound Central and projects promoting Afghan musicians.
They were all mirages. Not one was changing the fabric Afghanistan for the better. Those initiatives benefitted the participants and organizers, but they were not making Afghanistan a more educated, stable, economically viable, or progressive society. They were building up the expectations of the kids and donors.
Those initiatives received huge amounts of media coverage, and how could they not? Everyone loved the images of little Afghan girls juggling or skateboarding.
I felt conflicted about covering those programs. I faced a lot of pressure to cover them. Many were perfect sound-rich NPR stories. I did end up reporting on the juggling competition, the music festival, and the women’s soccer team.
On one level, they were great stories. However, I felt terrible about covering them because I was complicit in perpetuating false narratives. Those programs and initiatives were not representative of Afghanistan. They were not transforming the country.
Many young Afghans who did participate in programs like that that the west used to show progress in Afghanistan had to go into hiding. Why? Because broader Afghan society wasn’t changing and didn’t accept women riding bikes, playing soccer, or joining the military for that matter.
I felt that by calling attention to those programs, the west was putting targets on the backs of young Afghans. I wish I had done more reporting about how many of the women who joined sports teams had to flee their families who wanted to kill them for violating Afghan norms and culture. I should have resisted reporting happy stories about little girls juggling tennis balls because it was fueling the false expectation that their lives would be more of the same.
Deep down, I knew all along it was a house of cards propped up by the troops and dollars donated by the international community. Afghanistan was not transforming into a progressive, educated nation. Yes, it was changing, but not nearly at the rate that was portrayed, and even then, a lot of the change was precarious and not fully metastasized.
One of the reports I did that I am to this day most proud of was an exploration of education in Afghanistan. The talking point was so overdone about how there were 10 million kids in school and 40 percent girls that I had to investigate. I spoke with Afghan officials, educators, NGOs, students, and parents.
The reality was, in 2013 there were 9 million kids enrolled in school. On any given day, maybe 50 percent attended class. Young boys often had to skip school to work to help the family buy food. At the age of puberty, girls started dropping out. Most schools lacked classroom space and broke the day into shifts, meaning children would attend class for two or three hours a day. Many of the teachers were not qualified. They lacked books and supplies. The curriculum was in flux and dispute and so different teachers taught different things.
The bottom line was that the amount of quality education being delivered was a small fraction of the fantasy being perpetuated by the talking point of 10 million kids going to school. Yes, education was better than under the Taliban, and that in and of itself was something to feel good about. However, it was turned into such a gross oversell of reality that it only served to perpetuate a false narrative, and advocates of staying the course in Afghanistan continued to use fraudulent information to bolster their cases.
Looking back, I did not do enough to combat the tide of talking points. I did make noise, I did push back, I did try to convey at every opportunity that things were not what was being sold to Congress and the people by the military and government leaders. I think I could have done more.
I had another chance to do so when I worked for the Defense Department Office of Inspector General from 2017 until early 2021. For a year I was the lead writer of the quarterly Lead Inspector General (not the same thing as SIGAR) reports on Operation Freedom’s Sentinel. For another two-and-a-half years, I was the managing editor of the report.
It was even more difficult to speak truth to power in IG reports. Everything in the reports had to be sourced and cited. We could not have anonymous sources or leaked information like media reporting does. That tied my hands to a greater extent, and I had to work twice as hard to push back when a commander made a claim I knew—either from on the ground experience or access to official or classified information—wasn't true.
In late 2017, the commanding general of OFS started making claims about progress that were not backed up by available unclassified information, let alone classified information. He was also repeating talking points about progress that generals had used when I was reporting in Afghanistan—talking points that turned out to be either false or misleading. I took it as a moral and professional obligation to challenge those statements in the Lead IG reports.
I researched past statements by U.S. generals and senior officials. I dug through congressional testimony and other public sources. I found past statements and information that either contradicted what the commander was saying or showed that others had said the same things before, and the predicted outcomes did not materialize.
I did everything I could within the bounds of IG standards and regulations to question the statements of progress made by U.S. commanders in 2017 and 2018. Subsequent commanders stopped using many of the talking points and stopped using a lot of the data that had been promulgated to show progress (or they just made the data official or classified if it was not showing progress).
While the Lead IG reports never came out and said it was all nonsense, the reports went as far as they reasonably could to communicate that all was not what it seemed in Afghanistan. In that regard, I feel that I pushed as hard as I could from my position in the OIG and in the production of an interagency report to call balls and strikes about what was happening in Afghanistan.
One of the reasons I left that position was because I felt I was prevented from saying more and doing more to call attention to the fact that the entire experiment in Afghanistan was destined to fail. I needed to speak more freely and directly about Afghanistan and say that it was crumbling. The only question was how hard and how fast would it collapse?
Ever since I set foot in Afghanistan, I saw that the gap between the hopes, expectations, and promises made to the Afghan people far exceeded the capacity of the international community to deliver. They were not rooted in the realities of Afghanistan—its human capital, infrastructure, resources, governance structures, culture, and tribalism.
I tried to call attention to the need to dial back, to pursue less ambitious goals, and to level with the American and Afghan people about what was possible. I argued that Afghan tectonics would shake off much of what was being built, and the country would revert to the mean. I advocated for gradually letting the air out until there was a soft landing to a place that was better than the Afghanistan of 2001, but nowhere near the CGI Afghanistan being sold to the world by the U.S. government and the punditocracy.
My conscience is for the most part clean. I did report some stories that perpetuated the notion of a transformed Afghanistan full of happy, educated youth who would usher in a new era. However, on balance, I called most of the pitches right: the Taliban was walking and the U.S. was striking out. That’s cold comfort now. I still wish I had done more to make noise and influence policy choices when the United States still had enough leverage to pilot a softer landing in Afghanistan.