Courtesy of Cornell University

Prof. David Silbey, history, spoke at Tuesday's event on how U.S. military strategies influenced certain failings of the War in Afghanistan.

October 27, 2021

Prof. David Silbey Analyzes How and Why the U.S. Lost its Longest War in Webinar

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On Tuesday, Prof. David Silbey, history, discussed how America lost the longest war it has ever fought in a virtual event. 

Silbey unpacked the American approach to combat as informed by previous military conflicts,  positing several cultural reasons why the War in Afghanistan dragged on as long as it did. 

At the beginning of the talk, Silbey posed a question: “How did the world’s largest superpower, whose military dwarfs the rest of the world, get so humbled by a small, fairly nondescript country?”

The historian outlined two main weaknesses that American military ventures in Afghanistan suffered, which mirrored those in Vietnam. 

The first was an inability to handle small-scale, unconventional warfare. The last “irregular war” that the U.S. won was the Philippine-American War in 1902, which relied on local and tribal alliances and the recruitment of Filipinos.

In the 20th century, new high technology weapons including poisonous gases, drones and submarines fundamentally changed the American understanding of war, Sibley said. 

“In some ways, we deliberately gave up the knowledge of how to fight Afghanistan at the end of the 19th century to fight a new and different kind of war,” he said, “and we never got it back.”

The second weakness Silbey outlined was the American failure to view war as a series of actions followed by reactions rather than a static cultural archetype. 

Silbey then discussed why it took so long for the U.S. to withdraw from Afghanistan and why that withdrawal went poorly. 

In 2003, when the Taliban retreated from Afghanistan, Silbey said that U.S. forces could have left the country, but when the Bush administration invaded Iraq, Afghanistan was put on the backburner.

“We might have said, ‘We’ve done what we set out to do,’” said Silbey, “but this was really a period of what I would call aimlessness.”

Without achieving both aims of invasion — capturing Osama bin Laden and rebuilding the Afghan nation — any president who pulled troops out would have faced strong political opposition, Silbey said. American foreign policy establishment within the military and academia were strongly in favor of staying in the war at the time.

The Taliban built its strength back after retreating from Afghanistan in 2003. When former President Obama came to office, though he explicitly campaigned for president on a platform of leaving Afghanistan and Iraq, their attacks on U.S. establishments made it clear that the war couldn’t end.

Former President Trump signed the Doha agreement on February 29, 2020 — detailing American troops’ withdrawal — and agreed complete evacuation would take place by August 2021. By placing withdrawal after the 2020 elections, Silbey said, he avoided the political consequences of exiting Afghanistan.

President Biden honored the agreement last August and took the political hit; the public roundly criticized his choice to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.

“[The] sheer chaos of evacuation and the constant vision of that on our screens really made it seem like the administration was doing it the worst possible way,” Silbey said.