Misreading the Afghan Conjuncture

Rich Outzen*

The term “conjuncture” frequently appears in international relations discussions; it means, more or less, the intersection at any given moment of various dynamics (global, political, military, economic, chance) that shape the options open to state leaders and influence outcomes of certain decisions in probabilistic ways. Reading the conjuncture properly is the acme of geopolitical skill, and requires familiarity with a great deal of context.

In American political culture, the term is used less than in some other places (Turkey, for instance). Instead of contextual variables, policy analysis focuses on dominant variables or “drivers.” The press will try to ascertain whether domestic politics, ideology, ego, stupidity, or perfidy “drove” a decision or outcome, as if a single point of time determined the subsequent flow of events. Often this devolves into a search for villains, victims, and heroes, though we might be better served by looking for those quick to read and adapt to the conjuncture, and those who fail to do so. In truth, many factors converge at pivotal times – during crises – and produce breakthroughs or disasters. When foreign policy failure occurs, there is seldom one critical error; we find a string of contextual misreads punctuated by adaptive failure. Even for a country as powerful as the United States, poor contextual understanding puts the implements of national power in a losing race against unfolding events.

The Afghanistan debacle of August 2021 illustrates this point with great clarity. The Biden Administration, but also the great majority of policy analysts in the West (author included) badly misread the Afghan conjuncture. As a result, events outstripped policy, and a good many things collapsed as the Taliban advanced: the Kabul government, NATO’s plans for security transition, President Biden’s domestic standing, the lives of millions of Afghans, and a sense of a competent international order led by the West. What conjunctural factors were misread?

  • The contest of confidence within Afghanistan between Ghani’s government and the Taliban, which was far more lopsided than was generally appreciated. The Taliban had been reaching out and cutting deals with local power brokers and militia leaders to keep them from vigorously defending districts and provinces. Meanwhile, Ghani and his team failed to consolidate ties with Kabul power brokers (Karzai, Hekmatyar, Abdullah, Dostum), failed to improve the efficiency of the bureaucracy, and failed to reassure military commanders that they would receive pay, food, air support, and the other necessaries to fight. Ghani was not able to forge a team in the final weeks that he had failed to forge in the prior year.s
  • The failed model of capacity building for the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces (ANDSF). Dependence on foreign contractors for logistics and maintenance, especially, meant that the abrupt withdrawal of advisors and contractors had a devastating impact on a force that had significant operational weaknesses even when supported. Too much foreign assistance money on equipment, not enough on small-unit leadership development. The forces with the most focused leadership and tactical training, the commandoes, fought creditably well. But the NATO and U.S. missions in Afghanistan built a large force with limited mobility, widely dispersed and dependent upon fragile support systems. They didn’t lose set-piece battles, they simply dissolved.
  • Lack of U.S. commitment in Afghanistan was palpable, clear to everyone, and led to a decade of hedging strategies by enemies and supporters of the Kabul government. President Biden was central to, though not the sole proponent of, this trend. Biden had opposed the McChrystal surge in 2009-2010, had championed a pullout from Iraq in 2011, and reportedly ignored warnings from key advisors that an abrupt pullout would likely lead in short order to a Taliban takeover. President Trump also wanted out of Afghanistan, but the fact that he would not direct it at the cost of defeat was made clear by his decisions in 2017 and 2018. What Trump put in place was a holding action, with just enough American firepower and assistance to keep a tenuous stalemate in place against a Taliban that was strong enough to defeat the Kabul government, but not strong enough to do so in the face of robust U.S. assistance. Once the principle was “out as soon as we can” rather than “as long as we must but no longer,” the calculus shifted for the Taliban. Only in the context of inexorable U.S. retreat was Taliban victory inevitable, but the Taliban read the likelihood of such retreat better than observers in the West.
  • Most observers in the West thought it likely that an effective residual effort to sustain the Kabul government and its forces would be part of the transition planning. Many non-Taliban Afghans – ANDSF personnel and regional power brokers for instance – also saw the writing on the wall, and were quick to jump. Regional actors such as Russia, Iran, and Pakistan never made plans based on extended U.S. efforts, either, and all were reportedly aiding the Taliban in various ways. If U.S. policy makers thought that credibility for threats and promises of continued support was solid in the country or in the region, this was a serious misread of the conjuncture. It certainly became clear during the Doha negotiations that the Taliban understood the talks were a fig leaf for leaving, while some in Washington clung to the hope that they would include hard bargaining and certain costs should the Taliban not compromise.

There was no single intelligence failure – there was a collective and massive misreading of the conjuncture. Having misread the strength of Ghani government internally, the sustainability and confidence of the ANDSF, the nature of the negotiations, and the impact of its own signaling of irresolution, Biden’s hasty decision was the coup de grace. Contextual variables became determinative conjunctural realities when accelerated by the hasty steps such as departure from Bagram air base and the withdrawal of contractor support. Trump famously changed his mind on withdrawing when presented with detailed briefings on the likely fallout: “My original instinct was to pull out. And historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.” The current President either was briefed on these contextual and conjunctural matters and rejected them, or accepted them and was willing to accept the costs to achieve the retreat. If the latter, he failed to communicate that to the American people, or more painfully, to the Afghan people who had been working for a non-Taliban future. We can only hope that in future, U.S. leaders will take decisions better informed context and conjuncture, and less by instinct or inclination.


*Richard Outzen, Geopolitical Consultant and retired U.S. military officer

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