It has been over a decade since the war in Afghanistan first began and the United States is still feeling consequences from the failures of the counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) it deployed. The eventual failure of these efforts in Afghanistan should serve as a harsh warning to the United States forces that these sorts of military strategies are fundamentally flawed. The implications of maintaining these strategies in the future could be an increased decline in United States’ hegemony for two reasons — the inability to win a war via COIN-like strategies, and the over commitment and drain these strategies place on the US military.


First, the war in Afghanistan destroyed United State’s hegemonic power because US simply could not win — there were too many structural flaws with the US counterinsurgency strategy deployed overseas. Largely, COIN seeks to win over the hearts and minds of the local populace. Unfortunately, in Afghanistan, this was nearly impossible; the Pashtun population hated US military presence and maintained a very xenophobic attitude towards the soldiers’ presence. The assumption that the US military would be able to win over the local populace was fundamentally flawed. However, counterinsurgency is a nation-building strategy and in order to win the war, it is also necessary to win over the hearts and minds. Though counterinsurgency efforts may have seen some limited success in Iraq, Afghanistan was a completely different country with a different social and ethnic situation. There are hidden complexities that exist within the structure of Afghanistan like tribal rivalry, ethnic conflict, and opposition to modernization that confound our ability to manipulate the hearts and minds of the Pashtun people.


Second, tactical gains were inevitably outweighed by greater strategic losses. Statements from military officials and media coverage of the war in Afghanistan are largely dominated by reports of strategic gains and losses from regions like Zaire, Helmand, Marja, and other Afghan provinces. However, Michael Cohen, a senior fellow at the American Security project, indicates in a damning statement that “statements by Obama and Petraeus are now typical fare from the U.S. government: They offer glowing optimism about recent military gains, but make no mention of larger strategic obstacles that imperil success in Afghanistan.” Cohen continues by saying that “without tangible improvements in creating a capable and effective Afghan security force; without a competent and legitimate central government able to provide good governance to its people; without a choking off of the supply of arms and fighters from across the border in Pakistan, tactical gains cannot be sustained.” Cohen mentions many structural problems that indicate that even if the United States did see spikes of stability or success, the overall war effort was still doomed from the beginning: the incompetent training of the Afghan Security Force, which means that the only way to achieve mission goals in Afghanistan or create long term stability in the region would be to create a impractical permanent military presence. Corruption of Karzai’s central government in Afghanistan and the porous border that divides a unified ethnic body between Pakistan and Afghanistan also meant that US attempts to fight terrorists were at a structural disadvantage. The fact of the matter is that the United States focused on a bloodthirsty strategy of killing as many Afghanis as possible without addressing greater structural problems that inhibited the success of the war. This kind of thinking, often inherent to counterinsurgency strategies, is flawed and actually only made the situation worse, since with each killing of an innocent civilian, more anti-Americanism was incited among the locals. The process of fighting a losing war in Afghanistan destroyed hegemony for the key reason that it destroyed our international credibility.


Third, the war in Afghanistan is that it overstretched United States military reserves. During the war, the United States was overcommitted in Afghanistan, with no ground combat strategic reserves. Afghanistan drained the US defense budget, reserves, and aid and development forces. Many troops went through up to three deployment cycles in Afghanistan. Overstretch of US military forces hurt the United State’s ability to respond tactically to conflicts that may arise throughout the world. Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, says that the perception of an Afghanistan quagmire destroyed our deterrence and ties down our military from being able to credibly negotiate in international politics. When other countries know how strategically ham-stringed the US was by the war efforts in Afghanistan, and the lack of strategic reserves, it made it difficult for the US to credibly threaten countries like North Korea and Iran.

It is important to look back on wars like those in Afghanistan. The mistakes and misuse of COIN should serve as a warning to the United States when dealing with future military conflicts. The initial choice of strategy doomed the war to be a loss that destroyed US credibility, and the nature of the strategy itself ignored structural flaws and required a large volume of troops that drained the US of ability to respond to other conflicts. These two consequences of the war in Afghanistan served as significant drains of hegemony in the US and with careful planning in future, conflicts can avoid the trap of this Afghan catastrophe.