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The Ledger

Accounting for Failure in Afghanistan


David Kilcullen and Greg Mills

Sydney, NSW: New South Books, 2021

Paperback   368pp   RRP $29.99


Reviewer: Roger Buxton, September 2022


In 1996 the Taliban captured Kabul and most of Afghanistan, ending four years of civil warfare between rival mujahadeen groups. Unfortunately they allowed al-Qaeda to operate in the country and, after the 9 September 2001 attacks on the USA, they refused American demands to expel al-Qaeda and to hand over Osama Bin Laden. The USA and its close allies then combined with the Northern Alliance to drive the Taliban into hiding or into sanctuary in Pakistan by the end of the year.

A conference of Afghanistan leaders was held in Bonn in late 2001, Hamid Karzai was selected to head the Afghan Interim Administration and the United Nations Security Council established the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to oversee and train the Afghan security forces. ISAF was also involved in prolonged fighting with the Taliban, particularly in the South. In December 2014 Afghanistan assumed full responsibility for its security, and from this point international forces were limited to training, advising, and assisting.

The Taliban resisted international forces with considerable success, and in February 2020 the United States and the Taliban signed an agreement to withdraw these forces by May 2021.In August 2021 we witnessed the collapse of the Afghan Army and the catastrophic withdrawal from Kabul. How had things gone so wrong?

The highly respected authors David Kilcullen and Greg Mills - and the foreword by Rory Stewart – give their very persuasive reasons. The 2001 invasion had no clear aim and was apparently to prevent a descent into chaos and to defeat the Taliban. Once the Taliban had been defeated, the cardinal error was to ignore them instead of negotiating a political agreement from a position of strength. As they were ignored the Taliban began an insurgency. The Taliban was assumed to be a terrorist organization when it had a nationalist agenda and “a vigilante law and order approach to the rule of law and order” and, as such, enjoyed wide popular support.

Despite the dedicated and effective military leadership at all levels, many mistakes were made: failure to address poverty and corruption nurtured hatred of the government and the foreign forces; failure to understand that politics were personal and tribal rather than national; a mismanaged poppy control campaign; attempting nation building while the enemy was undefeated and failure to deploy resources adequate to the task.

A disastrous error was to create a western-style Afghan Army that relied on Western support and then withdrawing that support leading to its inevitable and rapid collapse after May 2021. The USA, which provided most of the forces and led the intervention, advertised that it intended to leave, so all the Taliban had to do was to keep fighting and wait.

The failings of the Western intervention are dealt with clearly and in some depth, and this book is highly recommended for those wondering why it went so terribly wrong.



The RUSI – Vic Library thanks the publisher for making this work available for review.

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