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afghanistan, rights, maze, us policy, foreign policy

America’s Maze of Ignorance on Afghanistan

The US didn’t understand the enemy in Afghanistan — and didn’t want to.

Words: Karen Greenberg and Pardis Mahdavi
Pictures: Su Bo

There are many questions about what went wrong with the US presence in Afghanistan and what is to come. In addition to all the strategic and tactical analyses that will emerge, a twist on the Sun Tzu adage “Know thy enemy” can provide some additional insights. 

Sun Tzu, writing in 500 BC, meant the directive as a necessity for conducting war successfully. Upon reflection, the Americans knew neither their friends nor their enemies in Afghanistan well enough. Determined to find the heads of al Qaida, the US often ignored some of the more salient factors of others they had determined as their enemies at the outset. In other words, they needed to want to know the enemy, but instead, the US just kept charging ahead — and the consequences of US ignorance have been tragic and deadly for all involved, especially Afghans. 


There is little question that the US knew all too little about Afghanistan from start to finish of the war. At the outset, as James Dobbins has recently noted, the US failure “to fully appreciate the geographical obstacles” of the country boded ill. Geographical ignorance overlapped with political misunderstanding. For example, a major geographical miscalculation was the fact that the US military had to rely on Pakistan — a country that did not necessarily share America’s stance toward the Taliban — to get most of its troops and supplies into Afghanistan. Along with the US’ inability to fully understand the Taliban’s relationship with Pakistan, appreciation of the possible role that could be placed by other regional forces, such as Iran, eluded US strategists.  

National security officials also did not sufficiently prioritize the need for understanding the Taliban’s ideology, goals or structure, in part because they were focused on the main target: al-Qaida. US military officers’ insistence that the Taliban were fighting the American presence in the country in order to restore their Islamic Emirate proved incorrect — and dangerously one-dimensional. Rather, they claimed to be resisting US occupation out of frustration that a foreign military would be overthrowing their government to punish them for a crime that they insisted they did not commit: The 9/11 attacks

When it came to Afghanistan, US policymakers and generals alike seemed to favor ignorance over acquiring a deeper knowledge of Afghanistan’s political landscape and stakeholders.

Yet, many scholars and experts on the region understood the complexities well, even at the outset. Barney Rubin at NYU’s Center on International Cooperation was writing reports as early as 2002 on the perils of Afghanistan’s fragmentation and over the years elaborated on the misunderstood dimensions of the Taliban, as summarized in a later report from NYU’s Center on International Cooperation based on interviews with members of the Taliban. Rory Stewart contributed stories that added complexity, and even counter narratives to the American portrayals of the Taliban. Even now, as the US faces a post-war Taliban, any consensus on what to expect seems to elude officials. Some see an unending descent into brutality and intolerance. Some see a growing link with terrorist groups, notably al-Qaida. Others consider the possibility of a security partnership with the Taliban, along with economic incentives. 

As Anand Gopal recently pointed out, the overlap of official misperceptions has had profound consequences. Misunderstanding the combination of “a fundamentalist insurgency, battling an internationally recognized government,” as well as “a campaign of revenge by impoverished villagers against their former tormentor,” “a salvo in a long-simmering tribal war” and more, Gopal has scolded the US for not attempting to “settle such divides and build durable, inclusive institutions; instead, it intervened in a civil war, supporting one side against the other.” 

The US efforts were deeply disconnected at times revealing an instance of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing. While the US military was training the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) forces, the CIA was training paramilitary forces like the Khost Protection Force, which ended up undermining the ANSF. This lack of inter-agency coordination highlights both US incompetency and a gross underestimation of the enemy, which eventually resulted in the US making numerous errors in Afghanistan. Even when it came to withdrawing from the country, the US failed to coordinate with NATO and other allies to make the evacuations of Americans and Afghan allies successful.  


The dire consequences of this lack of knowledge and understanding has been particularly apparent when it comes to the enemy we captured, captives from whom the US sought information that could make up for our lack of knowledge about al-Qaida, Osama bin Laden, and the Taliban. For example, the guards and officials receiving the captives from Afghanistan did not know what languages they spoke. When the first detainees arrived at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Arabic translators greeted them. The detainees, however, spoke Urdu, Pashto, among others. When the US sent captives suspected of high positions in al-Qaida to CIA black sites, they often did not know who they were torturing. Abu Zubaydah, for example, the first person on whom torture was used by the CIA, was waterboarded more than 83 times on the confident and erroneous premise that he was a high-ranking member of al-Qaida. To this day, he and others remain at Guantanamo, one of many victims of the country’s decision to torture in a maze of ignorance.

We just learned that even when knowledge of the enemy was on the table, ignorance of the enemy prevailed amongst the higher ups. US officials and generals both have almost always referred to the Taliban as a monolithic group, rather than a collection of factions — a fact that should have become more obvious after the US signed a peace deal with the Taliban leadership under the Trump administration in 2020. Similarly, intelligence agency warnings about the fragility of the Afghan government were ignored. Intelligence officials warned that in the event of a Taliban take-over of key cities, the avalanche would be in full swing, but these warnings were ignored as overly pessimistic. Yet, it wasn’t just wrong assessments of strength, it also revealed a flawed assessment of Afghan will when it came to fighting the Taliban in the decision to withdraw from the country. 

All this is to say that knowing the enemy begins with wanting to know the enemy. What the war in Afghanistan makes clear is that wanting to know the enemy was essential for any constructive steps forward. Knowing the enemy, it turns out, can help limit the scale of the war, counsel against dehumanization and mistreatment, and lead to stability and justice rather than heaping upon one another year after year of warfare, instability, and destruction. Knowing the enemy can lead to a quicker peace and better aftermath. It might actually forestall war completely. The first step, however, is wanting to know. When it came to Afghanistan, US policymakers and generals alike seemed to favor ignorance over acquiring a deeper knowledge of Afghanistan’s political landscape and stakeholders.

Karen J. Greenberg, an historian, is the Director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law and author of “Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump.”

Pardis Mahdavi, an anthropologist, is Dean of Social Sciences and Professor in the School of Social Transformation at Arizona State University.

Karen Greenberg and Pardis Mahdavi

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