Conflict, Middle East, Power & Security How Not to Build a State

October 5, 2021
By Melissa Lee | Modern War Institute

In the fall of 2001, just over a month after the first US troops arrived in the country, the United States and its allies seized control of Afghanistan, driving the Taliban from Kabul and out of power. Twenty years later saw the stunning reversal of the events of 2001: after a summer offensive that netted the Taliban territorial gains across the country, they captured Kabul on August 15, 2021. One minute before midnight on August 30, the last American troops departed Kabul’s Hamid Karzai International Airport on a C-17 cargo plane. After two decades of fighting that killed 2,461 US troops and more than one hundred thousand Afghans, and that cost American taxpayers some $824 billion, the longest war in American history had formally ended.

How did it go so wrong? Contrary to some accounts, the US intervention in Afghanistan was not doomed to failure. Rather, the fundamental mistake was to allow the intervention to transform from a narrowly defined counterterrorism mission to an expansive, ill-defined liberal state-building mission.

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