On September 11, 2001, our nation was attacked, and thousands of our countrymen were murdered. Americans awoke scared, confused, and angry. Less than a month later, our fighting men were in Afghanistan.
Special Forces on horseback and B-1 Bombers with precision munitions soon joined forces with the Afghan Northern Alliance and devastated the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies. Marines and soldiers soon arrived to destroy what was left of the enemy. Within months, a new regime was in place, and our enemies were either dead or on the run.
After 9/11, Americans wanted revenge. They also wanted to prevent future attacks. But in the days after the attacks, only two groups had a real explanation for what happened and coherent advice on what to do next.
Interventionists and Isolationists
On one side, stood the interventionists. While differing slightly on the particulars, the neoconservative and neoliberal wings of the foreign policy world both prefer a muscular foreign policy of asserting American values through American power. More idealist than realist, they argued the United States can and should export its values and political system to people the world over. They described America’s interests in broad terms, and this was the spirit behind America’s earlier interventions in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo.
For them, the older realist policy of restraint—especially concerning other nations’ internal affairs—was passé. After the Cold War, the interventionists said it was time for America to take advantage of its preeminent position on the world stage.
As for explaining the attacks, their assessment was simple: the terrorists hated us because of our freedom. If we were to give these people our version of freedom, they would become more like us and would not be hostile.
The neoconservatives thus advocated a broader war to transform the Middle East and force them to adopt Western values and political institutions. This ambitious plan would be the foundation for our extended operations in Afghanistan and later for the Iraq campaign.
The other explanation for 9/11 came from foreign policy minimalists, particularly on the Right. They argued that America’s exploitation of its status as a “hyperpower” after the Cold War led to unnecessary friction with the rest of the world. By involving ourselves in supporting Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Israel, while also promoting liberal values alien to Islam, our nation became a target for reactionary and extremist movements in the region.
In other words, the minimalists argued that our Mideast policy was not making us safer, but instead was generating enemies and blowback, which culminated in the 9/11 attacks. They advised a strategic disengagement from the region and would later come out strongly against the Iraq War. They also advised reforming our immigration policies at home, which would achieve safety far more efficiently than grandiose plans to rearrange the ancient Middle East. Pat Buchanan on the Right was the most prominent member of this caucus.
The neoconservatives won the debate.
In announcing operations in Afghanistan, President Bush said: “They hate our freedoms—our freedom of religion, our freedom of speech, our freedom to vote and assemble and disagree with each other.”
For him, no mere retaliatory raid in Afghanistan would do. He would transform the Middle East, and turn these places into compliant and friendly democracies. For interventionists, this plan had the added benefit of costing a lot of money, requiring tons of defense spending, and contained no realistic milestones allowing our forces ever to depart.
We are Still in Afghanistan Because of the Neoconservative Strategy
The Iraq War was the apogee of neoconservatism. The architects predicted a “reverse domino effect,” where Iraqi democracy would be a positive beacon to its neighbors.
Weapons of mass destruction were the ostensible basis for the invasion, but it turned out the talk of transformation and democracy was more than a mere public relations effort. The length of the campaign, our rules of engagement, and our failure to supply sufficient forces all flowed from the ideological premises behind the war. It was poorly resourced because the campaign assumed Iraqis were just begging for an American-led regime change and only wanted to be free.
Of course, the Iraq War did not go as expected. After a swift conventional victory, it devolved into an insurgency against American forces and a brutal sectarian war among Shia and Sunni factions. Instead of progress, things only seemed to get worse, and the American public eventually rejected continuing the war.
Republicans lost big in the midterm in 2006, which was a referendum on the festering Iraq War. In 2008, Republican nominee John McCain made it clear he would continue the failing effort in Iraq and continue with an aggressive neoconservative foreign policy. While many factors contributed to Obama’s win, a big one was his promise to end the Iraq War.
In 2016, in both the Republican primaries and the general election, foreign policy was one of the main points of distinction between Trump and everyone else. He stated his preference for a minimalist foreign policy and questioned sacred cows such as our continuing NATO commitments, foreign aid, and “endless wars.” In spite of dire warnings, he won and has had some success in limiting America’s foreign commitments.
Our continued presence in Afghanistan is an artifact of the neoconservatives’ response to 9/11. In the two decades of war, troop levels have risen and fallen. For their part, our soldiers mainly have behaved dutifully, heroically, but unfortunately, at times, shamefully. Enemies have been killed and schools were built and a lot of money has been dumped into the country, but the results are not terribly impressive.
Afghanistan remains what it has always been: tribal, primitive, violent, and mostly irrelevant to our nation and its future. It only mattered after the September 11 attacks because it became a significant sanctuary for al-Qaeda, which had used Afghanistan to plan those attacks. Within months of 9/11, we had scattered Bin Laden’s men and destroyed their camps. In the years after 2001, Afghanistan reverted to its apparent natural state: a low-level civil war. Osama bin Laden eventually was found and killed, but in neighboring Pakistan.
During this time, Islamic extremism continued in the Middle East. The binary centers of gravity for the Islamic world remain Iran and Saudi Arabia—not far-flung Afghanistan. There are also places with varying degrees of chaos in the region, including Iraq and Syria, as well as Libya and Yemen. Extremists are present in all four of those nations. But most of these cannot project power, unless we let them in the front door through our immigration system, as we did with the 9/11 hijackers.
Interventionists ignore how our military’s actions can produce more extremists than we interdict. They also downplay how endless wars deprive our nation of money, troops, and surge capacity for other threats. Far from making us safer, while our troops were fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, numerous terror attacks continued at home, including by Islamic immigrants in Boston and San Bernardino.
Contrary to the sales pitch, fighting them “over there” did not render us safe over here.
More Harm Than Good
Islamic extremism is likely to continue no matter what we do. It is a resentment-driven response to a fast-changing world and finds ample support within the core tenets of Islam itself. The extremism is often amplified by our forays into the region, where our presence unites diverse factions against what they see as American imperialism.
Under Bush, we decapitated the secular Saddam Hussein regime and unleashed a sectarian war. The Iraq War also created a space for Sunni radicals to coalesce and train; they eventually morphed into the deadly ISIS movement. A similar regime change operation in Libya has resulted in a failed state and a terrorist node for ISIS. Under Obama—and to our shame—we armed Islamic radicals to destabilize the secular Assad regime. This is not a record of great success.
The disasters in Iraq, Libya, and Syria should have discredited the neoconservatives’ regime change plans and the companion impulse among neoliberals to pursue “humanitarian wars.” But the failures of our foreign policy mandarin class remain mostly unexamined, other than to score partisan political points.
The Democrats and media who harped on every firefight and setback in Iraq for the entirety of the Bush years have been mostly uninterested in the 19-year military operation in Afghanistan. The Washington Post revealed the full depth of our Afghanistan disaster in an investigative report from December. While it occasioned some discussion, everyone soon went back to business-as-usual.
Trump repeatedly has signaled that he wants to bring our troops home from this “endless war.” But every time he has tried to scale back our foreign policy commitments, the deep state and the establishment have locked ranks and have gone into overdrive to smear him.
This is the meaning of the strange coup talk that is afoot—the recent Atlantic hit piece, the shaky story about Russian bounties, and the severe criticism levied by retired generals and diplomats when Trump tried to bring Syrian operations to an end.
Powerful interests want the status quo to continue, whether out of habit, sincere belief, or self-interest. The desires or interests of the American people count for little.
Nobody Is Safer for the Effort
The costs of the 9/11 attacks were staggering: lost lives, lost freedoms at home, costly wars overseas, and a shaken sense of security. We killed and captured many of those responsible and disrupted their terror networks in Afghanistan. If a similar threat presents itself, we should act again with decisive violence. But we should also be willing to take a step back and ask how our alliances and activities may be creating the conditions to encourage another 9/11.
By continuing military operations in Afghanistan, every month there is a chance to kill an innocent Afghani, compelling their relatives to become sworn enemies of America through their honor-driven culture of revenge. Similarly, every month some American family must endure their own personal hell, as our soldiers are killed quixotically fighting people who will never accept our presence in their country.
We honor the lives lost on 9/11 by remembering the victims and saluting the bravery of the policemen and firemen who rushed into the burning towers to save their neighbors. But the worst memorial of all is continuing the fruitless war in Afghanistan, which won’t bring anyone back and won’t make any of us safer.