In light of the U.S withdrawal from Afghanistan and the aftermath of a war that lasted two decades, Dr. Carter Malkasian presented on March 3, 2022, a talk about the US’s recent experience in Afghanistan and the lessons drawn from that experience. Dr. Malkasian also discussed his recent book The American War in Afghanistan: A History, published by Oxford UP, 2021. The lecture took place at Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies. Among the attendees were Indiana University Ex-President Michael McRobbie, former Indian ambassador Rakesh Sood, a group of Indiana University distinguished professors, and many graduate students.
Dr. Malkasian began his talk with a brief introduction about his personal and professional background serving as the Special Assistant for Strategy to Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford from 2015 to 2019. He spent nearly two years in Garmser district, Helmand province, Afghanistan, as a State Department political officer. His 2013 book War Comes to Garmser: Thirty Years of Conflict on the Afghan Frontier (Oxford UP) won the 2014 silver medal for the Council on Foreign Relations’ Arthur Ross Book Award.
The author and historian explained that his study and research were mainly motivated by his curiosity to answer two questions: first, why did the 20 years of the American war in Afghanistan fail to attain its objectives? Second, since the conflict began in 2001-2002, why has the situation worsened? Dr. Malkasian argued that there is no one answer to an issue as complex as the war in Afghanistan. However, he pointed out several reasons that led to the current situation in Afghanistan. First, the structure of the Afghani governmental system after the American arrival was centralized and failed to control and extend to areas outside of the main cities, a fact that facilitated the control of the Taliban in those far and wide regions. In addition to its centrality, the Afghani government’s accountability was for the American army and not the Afghans themselves.
Second, the Afghani government was corrupt on many levels, including the Afghani army and the Afghan police, who accepted bribes, sold their weapons, and even lacked the morale to fight. They believed that their commanders did not care about them. As a result, the Afghani army was incompetent and had so much trouble fighting the Taliban independently. Third, in comparison to the Afghani soldiers and police officers, the Taliban were more cohesive and viewed themselves as legitimate resistance anchored into two foundational beliefs that established their roadmap for the takeover of Afghanistan. On the one hand, the Taliban constructed a state ideology that channeled Afghani nationalism with an Islamic identity to solidify their rule and burnish their “originalist” religious credentials. On the other hand, the Taliban amplified their ethnicity as heirs to their ancestors’ land, thus viewing themselves as legitimate liberators fighting against foreign occupiers and local collaborators.
Dr. Malkasian concluded his talk by stressing that Americans should not have stayed in Afghanistan beyond 2001-2002. Nonetheless, he also indicated that several reasons delayed the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. For example, even when President Obama put together an entire withdrawal plan of all US troops to be completed by 2016, the author believed that the combination of the rise of ISIS in the Middle East and the US presidential elections that year forced President Obama to cancel his withdrawal plans. Finally, Dr. Carter Malkasian asserted the need for historical scholarship to have a moral compass when looking back at the Afghani experience and conflict. He added that: “Moral compass enables us to see the line between liberation and abuse and the need for American security side by side with the humanity of the Afghani people.”