Lost among the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, forgotten by the very human desire to move past recent traumas, the Afghanistan War Commission nears one year in its efforts to make sense of the twenty-year US experience in Afghanistan. Established by the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act, this commission has the potential to be one of the most consequential examinations of US foreign policy since the Vietnam War and, at a minimum, will serve as a foundational record for future scholars, practitioners, and governmental leaders.

The scale of the task in front of the commission is tremendous. There is also the risk that the passage of time necessary for dispassionate analysis has not occurred. A key consideration then is what questions to ask, where, and to whom.

The tendency in any discussion involving war is to talk of violence. In this case, for example, stories of hard fighting in the Tora Bora mountains, the deaths of eight American soldiers at Combat Outpost Keating, and the shock of the Afghan governmental collapse in the face of the Taliban’s lightning military offensive will draw justified attention. But a focus on violence and calamity hides the underlying local Afghan political dynamics that drove or enabled these events. For the United States, a participant in a war characterized by family, factional, and (sometimes) tribal politics—and no discernable national-level politics—it was those members of the US government, often the US military, operating in Afghanistan’s many districts and towns that provide a crucial lens into this world.

My own story as one of these Americans takes place in an unremarkable village called Nowruzi. But the challenges faced by Able Company—my infantry company of one hundred men—there in 2010 are recognizable to anyone who was charged with implementing policy in Afghanistan: a fragmented political landscape with no cohesive ally. There was, at times, a recognizable antagonist, but the terms like Taliban or al-Qaeda were often convenient shorthand—an overgeneralization that masked the many groups fighting the Afghan government.

The term Afghan government is also misleading. While there were the trappings of state, from a presidential palace to a Ministry of Defense, what Afghanistan lacked was a coalition of groups capable of forming the political core of a state. To a certain extent, this fact is unsurprising as decades of war preceding the American intervention atomized Afghan society. The implications of this missing political core, however, are underappreciated if they are even recognized.

Why this core never developed and how the Taliban slowly built the coalitions necessary to survive and pick up the pieces of an Afghan bureaucratic state in 2021 are just some of the questions the commission must ask. And insight—maybe even answers—to these questions reside with those Americans, and some Afghans too, who were embedded in the local politics that defined the US experience in Afghanistan. Searching for those insights is the commission’s mandate.


Forty minutes west of Kandahar City, the asphalt of Highway One—the ring road that runs along an ancient circular route connecting Afghanistan’s major cities and is visible on British and French maps from the 1840s—cuts abruptly north across the flood plain of the Arghandab River before bending west again toward Maiwand, the site of a crushing British defeat at the hands of Afghan forces on July 27, 1880. Below this bend, on the southern banks of the Arghandab amid the dust and brittle clay of the Zhari district, is the village of Nowruzi. It lies just south of a small canal and a fertile band of agricultural land—often dangerous because of buried explosives—known to US forces in 2010 as the green zone.

These forces were part of a new strategy championed by the Obama administration “to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al Qaeda . . . and to prevent their return.” While it was on its face a focused effort to eradicate terrorism (the casus belli for the 2002 invasion of Afghanistan), policymakers inside the Obama administration understood that preventing the return of terrorist organizations required the establishment of an Afghan government stable enough to control the territory within its borders. This strategy, which drew on the experience of the US surge in Iraq in 2007, sent American soldiers into previously unoccupied areas of Afghanistan to clear out the enemy, hold critical terrain, build government and military institutions, and transfer them to a new Afghan government capable of denying terrorists a safe haven. The movement of Able Company into Nowruzi was part of this expansion.


I first met the local warlord at a memorial service for three American soldiers killed in a suicide bombing the day after I arrived in Kandahar in February of 2010. All three were members of Able Company, which I would assume command of a few weeks later. After the service, the warlord promised to continue with me the good relationship he had established with the commander I was replacing. I reciprocated his sentiments; our interests did after all often overlap. Able Company’s mission was to control a band of territory north of the Arghandab River that overlapped with the warlord’s turf, an area that did not include the village of Norwuzi.

The warlord’s black hair fell around him like Jim Morrison’s, a style requiring him frequently to flick henna-colored bangs out of his eyes. When he was drunk, he would show us parts of his scarred body, telling the story behind each gunshot or shrapnel wound. His proudest possession was his short-barreled AK-47, a weapon he had taken, as a young man, from a dead Russian paratrooper.

His power derived not from his time fighting the Soviets, his personal charisma, or his tribal affiliation, but from his gravel pit. From building schools to laying roads, every development project required gravel, and the warlord was rewarded handsomely for each truckload. Protecting this pit also gave the warlord justification for some of his heavier weaponry, including mortars and 12.7-millimeter machine guns. Importantly, with the money he earned from gravel, he purchased slots for his soldiers at coalition training sites where they would become Afghan Uniformed Police, complete with forest-green Toyota Hilux pickups and bed-mounted machine guns.

It was the warlord who later introduced me to Gul, a Nowruzi elder and a proponent of building an American base in the town. My first interaction with Gul was at one of the warlord’s homes on the north side of the Arghandab River, with the town Nowruzi visible across the river through the early morning mist. Under vine-covered trellises and caged songbirds, I listened as Gul tallied the ways in which he could combat the Taliban in Nowruzi. He also promised the support of residents in the village.

In early March, Able Company was tasked by our higher headquarters with incorporating Nowruzi into our area of operations by establishing a base there to block purported Taliban movement toward Kandahar. We were given no other guidance. After a few days of planning, we set out for the village. As we moved down Highway One, an explosion destroyed one vehicle in the lead platoon. The clipped staccato of a medical evacuation request came over the radio. The rest of the company, spread out in a long column, arrived soon after the attack. The noise of our vehicles masked the sound of a second explosion: a sergeant, in charge of three men, had knelt down on an explosive device while placing a newly arrived private behind a tree for cover. The explosion took off both the sergeant’s legs around mid-thigh and knocked him into a murky canal. After evacuating our casualties, the company again moved toward Nowruzi.

Our arrival in the village from the east was uncontested. Part of the company secured the site of our future base, a house reportedly once occupied—and now abandoned—by insurgents. A second group cleared the main road to the western edge of the town where a squad, crossing a footbridge into the green zone of the Arghandab River, triggered the day’s third explosion. As platoons continued to clear the dusty roads and the alleyways created by the high mud walls of family homes called qalats, I met up with Gul, who now carried an AK-47. He asked for guns to arm a police force.

A platoon in the eastern part of the village called for me on the radio: a local man was demanding to know our intentions. As I reiterated the message we were passing out to all the locals—we would have a village meeting near the base that evening to address any questions—he interrupted me. His side of the village refused to mingle with the western side. We agreed to hold two separate meetings.

It was a group of children who later explained the falling out between the two sides of the village. In the early 2000s unknown foreigners appeared and dug wells—we later determined that this was the town’s first and only encounter with coalition forces before our arrival. Eastern Nowruzi, populated by close-knit Kochi nomads, used the wells with little issue. But in the western part of the village, families near wells sought to control access to the water. All of the newly dug wells quickly ran dry. A United States Agency for International Aid (USAID) representative later told us that the wells were drilled without consideration for the depth of the local water table. East blamed west.

On the afternoon of our first day, the company prepared for our meetings—we called them shuras. Outside the walls of our new base, located between the eastern and western parts of the village, several soldiers erected a weather-beaten circus tent with chipped yellow poles for the night’s shuras. Laying out several cases of water and talking quietly with the warlord, we waited for our meeting with the eastern villagers. Soldiers manning machine guns first reported the flow of Afghan men moving toward the base from the eastern half of the village. Filtering into the tent, groups started to sort themselves, with a band of men rising from their seats and moving depending on the stature of whoever entered the tent.

The ensuing conversation was not friendly. During one particularly heated exchange, the warlord, seated at the base of a center pole, broke in to explain that US forces had entered the town to rid the area of Taliban and help the villagers. “We want to be left alone,” they replied—American troops were known to attract violence. I told them we would leave them alone as long as no attacks came from their side of the village. They agreed to this stipulation and filtered out. After the contentious meeting with the eastern villagers, the one with the western contingent proved anticlimactic. Only a handful of men showed up, all to harangue us.

During our first month in Nowruzi, I pulled a page from my previous experiences in Iraq and sent platoons door-to-door, photographing and documenting houses; interviewing and identifying all men; and ascertaining familial and tribal affiliations. But more important than the demographics of the local Afghans were the stories the platoon leaders and I heard over bitter green chai and boiled candy.

The western half of Nowruzi fractured along familial and tribal lines, with two additional groups, those affiliated with the Taliban and landowners living in Kandahar City, influencing every local decision. We identified approximately seven tribal groups and multiple families inside the western village, but found that local tensions centered on three families in the Sayed tribe and their issues with members of a rival family from the Popalzai tribe, a tribe whose membership included Afghan President Hamid Karzai but conferred no additional benefits—tribes in this area of Kandahar were often little more than designations, with much smaller familial groupings serving as the tightest form of social connection.

While the Popalzai family members traced the feud to competing factions during the Soviet occupation, one platoon leader’s best determination was that it was personal in nature: one Popalzai elder, Khan, simply disliked the head of one of the local Sayed families, Ishaqzai. A month of talking to villagers throughout Nowruzi clarified the story. Ishaqzai, a mujahideen commander during the 1980s, was well respected in the village. Khan, a cautious patriarch of the richest faction in Nowruzi, had sat on the sidelines during the Soviet occupation. He felt threatened by Ishaqzai’s popularity and his family had turned the village against Ishaqzai, who moved to Kandahar City as a result.

This situation replicated itself across multiple stories within the village: locals dressed up personal grudges and vendettas as historical conflicts. More troublesome was that some, like Gul, tried manipulating US forces to advance personal agendas. Our arrival in Nowruzi disrupted a tenuous balance between tribal and familial factions, especially in the western half of the village.

Three weeks into our operation, a platoon radioed, asking me to come and talk to a village elder. I walked to a house with adobe walls and sat down. “Why are you talking with Gul?” the elder asked. As the story unfolded, and was later corroborated by other members of the village, Gul’s Tariki tribe was identified as both the most populous and the weakest group within the village. Locals viewed him with disdain, as a man grubbing for power.

Unknown to Able Company at the outset of our mission, Gul had deliberately positioned himself as the voice of US forces within the village. He threatened local leaders who did not support him with American reprisals. His requests for guns and money at every meeting were an effort to solidify a position of power in the village, though his earlier promises of local support and his own desire to fight the Taliban proved hollow, a ploy to entice us into the village. At the time, I was unsure how to proceed and was still trying to understand the dynamics in Nowruzi. I simply ignored him.

As time went on, Gul sensed his growing distance from Able Company. He started to lash out, directly challenging me during shuras. His relationship with the warlord also deteriorated, ending in a standoff in which the warlord’s men disarmed him.

There was also growing tension between the warlord and me, which came to a head when I confronted him with allegations that he was trying to extort money from our local school-building project. In retrospect, I believe that part of the warlord’s frustration stemmed from his desire to expand his control into Nowruzi. Secure in his position of power, he made amends and aligned himself more closely with Able Company. Gul, however, lacking prospects and worried about local retribution, fled the village.

As platoons became more familiar with the families and personalities in Nowruzi, they convinced elders to either attend or send representatives to our almost daily shuras. Gul’s departure helped the tenor of the shuras overall, but western village elders continued to bicker. Most villagers tilled the fields around Nowruzi as sharecroppers, and they were also unwilling to make decisions without the approval of landlords who lived in Kandahar.

We gained the support of the landlords, or at least their acquiescence to local decision-making, by threatening to split up farmland among the different groups within the village, thus invoking ghosts of Soviet land reform and threatening their source of income. One landlord did visit from Kandahar: Ishaqzai, who had been driven away because of the feud with the Popalzai family. Although he was initially reluctant to associate with the company, we came to rely on his insight as we were drawn deeper into the complexities of Nowruzi. Critically, Ishaqzai’s exile removed him from years of local squabbles. His absence and time as a mujahideen commander created a tentative trust between him and a majority of western village families. It was a trust that strengthened in the poppy fields outside the village.

During the circus tent meeting on our first night in Nowruzi, I forbade the cultivation of poppy, a known source of revenue for the Taliban and of corruption within the Afghan government. But the continuing presence of the poppy’s distinctive white petals, edged in ragged pink, showed that my proclamation was ignored. I talked of burning the poppy and asked Ishaqzai to meet me in the fields to discuss our options. At around seven one morning, we crossed a narrow wood and wattle footbridge into one of the larger poppy fields. Grabbing the wooden blade from one field hand, Ishaqzai talked while demonstrating how laborers quickly scored each poppy head with three or four vertical cuts, allowing the purple sap to ooze.

The price for working the fields was steep. Villagers owed the majority of their harvest to their landlords after each season. A bad harvest did not change the rent they had to pay. This determined the selection of crops. Poppy, a hardy plant with easily storable resin and a ready market, was both reliable and lucrative. We told the farmers we wouldn’t burn the crop, but that this would the last harvest we would leave untouched. That evening, workers returned to the fields. Using the flat of their blade, they scraped the dried sap into plastic wrap, forming bricks of it for storage and sale.

Ishaqzai managed to persuade the fractious villagers to abandon poppy cultivation, which made Able Company confident of his ability to represent them. Several weeks later we brought a USAID-sponsored agricultural program to Nowruzi; later still we watched farmers plant wheat and other staples.

A little over six weeks had passed since our entrance into Nowruzi, and much of normal life in the village resumed. Conical gray loudspeakers at the top of desiccated pieces of rough-hewn lumber again called men to prayer. Children in the western village started interacting with patrols while women in flowing burkas returned to the dusty streets. The company received news that Sergeant Sean M. Durkin, the team leader who knelt beside his private on the first day, had died of his injuries at Walter Reed on April 9, 2010. The company named our new home Combat Outpost Durkin.

It was around this time that the enemy decided to attack. Not a single shot was fired by American forces during the ensuing violence. Instead, at the western edge of the village, vehicles started hitting buried explosives. We layered razor wire and rerouted the dusty road leading out of the town’s western edge so we could observe its full stretch from our guard positions. The enemy snuck a hook into the wire and tried to pull it apart with a tractor. We put small teams in place in the hope of killing our unseen adversaries. One team, reacting to a small explosive hurled at them, caught only a glimpse of young men running away.

Ultimately, it was the villagers who enabled us to stanch the violence by reporting the location of newly buried bombs. An army bomb disposal unit, visiting daily, removed them. The warlord convinced the district police chief to bring around eighty policemen to clear the agricultural band along the Arghandab River of enemy fighters. We wrapped every tenth Afghan in fluorescent orange and purple “capes” called VS-17 panels to make sure our helicopters could see friendly forces among the trees of the green zone. It was our last major effort in the town before our redeployment in late June 2010.

What Happened?

In 2015 US forces ended combat operations in Afghanistan. A new NATO headquarters, Resolute Support, concentrated on advising and assisting the Afghan military. But the unstable nature of Afghan politics remained unchanged. My experience in Nowruzi was with one unit, in one brief period of a twenty-year war. But the personality clashes and shifting alliances in that village are replicated across the country’s villages and cities. It was this perspective that was missing from policy debates on the war in Afghanistan. The problem was not violence, but the fragmented political landscape that caused the violence. And it is this landscape that allowed the final collapse of Kabul.

A focus on military activities misses the underlying truth: though highly fragmented in their own right, the Taliban built the local agreements necessary to incorporate an increasing number of local polities within their span of control. The Afghan government did not do this. This fact was readily acknowledged by America commanders who served during the last two decades of war.

In 2012, I interviewed over twenty American company and battalion commanders—those commanders deeply embedded in the local politics of Afghanistan—and all told variations of the story above. A few commanders focused on the fighting, not because they were at odds with counterinsurgency practices, but because simply existing in their corners of Afghanistan required it. Some commanders talked of local leaders struggling to build their communities. Many commanders talked of getting drawn into messy local disputes, often unwittingly—US fighting in the infamous Korengal Valley grew out of the local leaders drawing US forces into disputes over the timber trade. To varying degrees, these commanders tried to build alliances with local factions. All commanders noted the absence of a viable Afghan government partner.

And it is these observations that must drive the Afghanistan War Commission’s inquiry. More specifically, the commission must understand that local politics, not the preferences of a great power, determined the future of Afghanistan.

Moving forward, the commission should consider four things. First, it must avoid getting caught up in descriptions of the violence that permeated all aspects of the conflict. That war is the continuation of politics by other means is a cliché, but examining the political aspects of war, rather than its battles and campaigns, is a rare occurrence. Chris Kolenda’s work is an important corrective in this regard but does not grapple with the domestic politics of Afghanistan.

Second, the commission must embrace uncertainty. The efficacy of modern counterinsurgency approaches is still an open question. The “hearts and minds” logic found in the 2006 US counterinsurgency manual, studies of counterinsurgency success, and John Nagl’s paradigm-setting work are seeing increasing pushback. Authors like Jacqueline L. Hazelton, Douglas Porch, Karl Hack, and Gregor Mathias argue that modern counterinsurgency practices rest on an incomplete reading of the empirical record. While it is very likely that there are grains of truth in what is typically presented as a binary distinction between good and bad counterinsurgency practices, the commission cannot assume the United States cracked the code on counterinsurgency.

Third, the commission must avoid conflating inputs with outputs. The military often talks about measures of performance and measures of effectiveness. A measure of performance assesses how well a particular activity is implemented (did we accomplish the task we set out to accomplish?). A measure of effectiveness is an identifiable piece of information that, if observed over time, indicates that our actions are having a desired effect (did the task we set for ourselves lead to an outcome we wanted?). There is a propensity, when dealing with complicated policy endeavors, to measure inputs and treat the measurement as progress. The challenge facing the commission’s members is recognizing this proclivity and focusing their efforts on trying to determine how US actions in Afghanistan did or did not achieve outcomes of concern. If, as I argue above, the core issue at play is Afghan domestic politics, then the commission will break new analytical ground by trying to understand how American actions did or did not influence the local politics around them.

Finally, while the three considerations above can help shape the commission’s line of questioning, it must ask the right questions of the right people. Here the commission should look to those members of the US government who were enmeshed in domestic politics of Afghanistan.


Three years after serving in Nowruzi, I sat down to lunch with the two commanders who operated in the town after Able Company. The next company, after several months in the town, left a small garrison while the rest of the company joined a large operation to clear parts of Kandahar. Meetings within the town collapsed as internal squabbles took hold. Ishaqzai, again threatened by rivals in the village, fled. The second commander closed the base Returning to Afghanistan in 2016, I looked at overhead imagery: a tan-tinged gravel outline was all that remained of Combat Outpost Durkin. Five years later, villages all over Afghanistan—villages like Nowruzi—fell back under the control of the Taliban. Understanding the path to this outcome depends on the Afghanistan War Commission.

Lieutenant Colonel Aaron W. Miller is a strategist within the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy (Strategy) Office, served as an infantry officer in Iraq and (both) Afghan surges, and recently completed his PhD examining US military behavior at Princeton.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Staff Sgt. Dayton Mitchell, US Air Force