PBS recently ran Frontline’s three-part documentary, “America and the Taliban,” produced by award-winning journalist Martin Smith. In two six-week visits to Afghanistan in 2021 and 2022, Smith interviewed people on all sides. Journalistically it was a fabulous job — and also, to me, unsatisfying.
After losing a war, the obvious question is, “Why did it happen?” Smith’s sources make several pithy comments about that. “The Americans did not have a strategy for Afghanistan,” says Barnett Rubin, a Pentagon adviser for Afghanistan, 2022-2013. Our government did have a strategy, though. It was to beat back the Taliban with a counterinsurgency program of high-tech weapons and “boots on the ground.” America would underwrite the Kabul government until they didn’t need us any more.
The problem was, it didn’t work.
“We didn’t have the will,” says a commenter. Another says, “We had a good amount of it, but they had more.” U.S. governments, Republican and Democrat alike, had 20 years’ worth of will. In our political system that’s a lot, and it wasn’t enough. The question I wanted addressed was what lesson to learn so it wouldn’t happen again. I thought Martin Smith might have something to say about that. He had been covering the war for 20 years.
In particular, I recalled Smith’s Frontline documentary from 2009 called “Obama’s War.” Its most memorable scene showed a squad of U.S. Marines confronting bearded and robed Afghan farmers in a wattle-and-daub village in Helmand province. The Afghans have closed the village market after the Taliban threatened to kill them if they didn’t. The Marine sergeant wants them to reopen it. He tells the men that U.S. forces will protect them. They stare at him, not believing.
“Listen to me right now, all right?” the Marine says. “You all are not cooperating.” They’re not. They say they have no power to help him. Really they are afraid to help him, and for good reason. To them, the Taliban are a danger, but they are of Afghanistan. The Taliban will stay and the Marines will not. Their government will tire of the war and send them home.
The new Frontline documentary says, “By 2016, a growing number of Americans had lost patience with the war in Afghanistan. It was too expensive, and no longer in America’s best interest.” Note the choice of words. To say that the war was “no longer” in America’s best interest implies that maybe at one time it was.
To illustrate Americans’ loss of patience, Frontline runs clips of candidate Donald Trump bellowing, “Afghanistan is a total and complete disaster.” To most of Frontline’s PBS audience, Trump is a foreign-policy know-nothing. To make Trump at a MAGA rally the spokesman for the antiwar point of view is to dismiss it.
On the other side, Frontline offers well-spoken military and political people. Like a good journalist, Martin Smith tells the story of what happened in Afghanistan by interviewing the people who were there. He talks to American diplomats and soldiers, Afghan diplomats and soldiers, Afghan civilians and, crucially, leaders of the Taliban. But all these people had a stake in the war. They believed in their side, whatever that side was.
What’s missing from Frontline’s three hours of documentary, in my jaundiced view, are some people who were not there — military analysts and historians who never believed in the war, and, especially, veterans of Vietnam who could have compared the recent war with the one that went down in Southeast Asia in 1975.
“Afghanistan is not Vietnam.” That was the line for years. I remember the Vietnam war, though I never served in it. The details of the two histories are different, but the story is much the same. Each was a poor country in Asia that had successfully resisted a colonial power. Each had a homegrown insurgency motivated by radical ideology (Marxism, Islamism) and a proud nationalism. In each case, the United States wanted a modern, pluralistic government more than the people there wanted such a thing. The government we supported was, in local terms, an exotic and alien species. In each case, a flood of U.S. dollars watered a hothouse of urban wealth and a rot of dependency and corruption, especially in the country’s army. In each case, a zealous, disciplined, ascetic enemy held the hinterland, coming at night to kill countrymen who had sold out to the foreigners.
Frontline quotes an Afghan general, Sami Sadat, bellyaching about the U.S. withdrawal: “The Americans pulled out all the support elements, all the contractors…We didn’t have the laser-guided bombs and missiles.”
Well, neither did the Taliban. For 20 years, the insurgents’ most feared weapon was the homemade bomb, the improvised explosive device. Frontline’s video shows the Taliban army entering Kabul: non-uniformed soldiers waving captured M-16s and riding on Toyota pickups and commandeered Humvees. The scene is much like the Khmer Rouge entering Phnom Penh in 1975. Once again, the Americans and their clients are beaten by an enemy with no air force and no million-dollar weapons, but an incomparable will to fight and die.
As in Vietnam, the will of the people back home in America had run out. America’s leaders turned to “negotiations,” which began as a search for a face-saving compromise and ended as a lunge for an exit. The Frontline piece on Afghanistan shows the negotiations held in Doha in 2019 and 2020. It quotes a former Afghan official, Nader Nadery: “We reached the conclusion that the Taliban are not believing in a shared future. They will not accept a political settlement. They are only looking for a military takeover.”
Well, yes. Why compromise if you can win? Ho Chi Minh didn’t.
Unlike the “peace talks” in Paris half a century ago, which began with an argument about the shape of the table and where the South Vietnamese would sit, at Doha the U.S. government didn’t allow its client state at the table. Officials in Kabul felt betrayed when the Taliban agreed not to attack the Americans, if the Americans would leave, but made no such promise to the government in Kabul. As part of that deal, the American negotiators agreed that the Kabul government would release 5,000 Taliban prisoners — and, reluctantly, the Kabul government did as it was told. And the Taliban called them puppets.
Smith talks to Gen. David Petraeus, who was the U.S. commander in Afghanistan 2010-2011. The Doha agreement, Petraeus says, was “an instrument of surrender.” To surrender is to submit. The Kabul government surrendered; the Americans withdrew. But what was the alternative? Staying on as long as the client claimed to need us?
Frontline doesn’t address that question. It does show, graphically and brilliantly, what did happen. As in Vietnam, when the Americans cut off the money, the local forces collapsed suddenly and shockingly. Men threw down their weapons and went home. The insurgents rolled into Kabul unopposed, and the Afghans who had put their trust in Americans mobbed the flights out.
Toward the end of Frontline’s final episode, it shows President Biden saying that even after 20 years of help, when the Kabul regime was on its own, “The Afghan military collapsed, sometimes without trying to fight.” Which it did. Smith then interviews a retired lieutenant colonel, Jason Dempsey, who is angry that the President would blame the Afghans.
Smith asks: What would you say to the American soldiers who volunteered to fight in Afghanistan? “We failed you,” Dempsey admits, with the “we” being the U.S. government. “And let’s not say, ‘Oh, well, at the end of the day, it was worth it.’ It wasn’t.”
For Dempsey, what made the war not worth it was that we lost. Several thousand Americans dead and more than a trillion dollars spent, and nothing to show for it. His implicit message, which Frontline puts at the end of the three-part series, is that it was a righteous war, a war that might have turned out better had his leaders made better decisions.
And I think, if that’s the message Americans take from this war, we will do it again — with the same result.