American forces are finally departing Afghanistan. While Donald Trump had promised to end the inconclusive war there, he eventually gave in to the pleas of the defense and intelligence community and continued the war. Other than a few dozen more dead Americans, and a few more hundreds of billions of dollars up in smoke, it’s not clear what these additional years of effort achieved. Now Joe Biden has finally acknowledged the political and military reality: if we haven’t lost, we certainly are not winning or making any progress.
One of the most remarkable things about the last few weeks is how utterly brittle the Afghan security forces and government have turned out to be. After billions of dollars spent on training, equipment, and support, the Afghan National Army is abandoning large bases, along with state-of-the-art guns, optics, and military equipment. These are now in the hands of the Taliban. For all the talk of our Afghan partners and their heroic national commitment to democracy, none of it turned out to be worth much when the training wheels were taken away.
It is not even clear if the American-supported Afghan government will last as long as the Soviet supported regime, which held on for three years after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
While it is clearly time to leave, it is worth thinking for a moment about why the entire Afghanistan mission, particularly after 2002, was a fool’s errand.
Were We There For Us or the Afghans?
The mission became distorted over time. After 9/11, Americans wanted revenge. That mission was a simple one: punish the Taliban, destroy al-Qaeda, and capture or kill Osama bin Laden. Within a month of the attacks, our troops were in the field.
The campaign featured a novel operational approach. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld wanted to show the military that it needed to learn to do more with less. His concept of “transformation” limited troop numbers, a feature of what was called the “Revolution in Military Affairs.” This theory proposed that the combined effects of high-speed communications, sophisticated sensors, and precision air power, would succeed where the traditional military’s risk-averse, heavy footprint would fail.
At first it seemed Rumsfeld and the revolutionaries were right. Very quickly, the Taliban melted away under pressure from American special forces, the Afghan Northern Alliance, and a fusillade of precision guided bombs in the months after 9/11.
But the first hint of trouble appeared soon thereafter. In the Battle of Tora Bora and later in Operation Anaconda, the Army’s lack of artillery (on Rusmfeld’s order) and the lack of sufficient blocking troops allowed the lion’s share of al-Qaeda, including Bin Laden, to slip away and obtain refuge in Pakistan’s lawless tribal areas. He wouldn’t be killed for another decade.
Unable to use our forces in our nominal ally’s territory, the United States and NATO emphasized the secondary aspects of the mission. They got to work on “nation building.” Political and military leaders defended this approach as enlightened realism, because al-Qaeda flourished at the extremes, in either weak states or politically repressive ones. Developing governing institutions and security forces, while expanding human rights to women and minorities, would create enduring stability and reverse the conditions in which al-Qaeda previously thrived.
This was an ambitious strategy, made twice as hard by the artificially low levels of troops. It became even more challenging after the start of the Iraq venture, which put Afghanistan on the backburner until the 2009 surge. Afghanistan is a famously violent and tribal place, where disparate tribes only unite under the banner of Islam to expel foreign invaders. The American concepts of democracy and liberalism were a message that worked at cross purposes to our efforts to obtain legitimacy and security. After all, these changes slowed down the decision-making of the Afghan government, while also alienating many Afghans, Taliban or not.
A similar mission creep also took place in Iraq. There too, an ambitious strategy was combined with a paucity of troops. After weapons of mass destruction failed to materialize, the president and the military leaders emphasized liberation, defined as the adoption of American political concepts like democracy, religious freedom, and free speech. For many Iraqis, our presence and the end of the Ba’athist regime merely freed them to settle ethnic scores. In parallel with our occupation, a bloody sectarian war commenced between Sunni and Shia. After leaving Iraq, a kind of democracy remained, but it was harsh, committed to the Shia faction’s hegemony, and indifferent both to human rights, as well as America’s foreign policy wishes.
It is likely whatever persists in Afghanistan will be even less enduring. Unlike Iraq, Afghanistan did not have much of a state to begin with. It has been in some state of civil war since 1979.
Afghanistan’s Regime Is a Parasitic Kleptocracy
Afghanistan is also beset by endemic corruption. This is likely an unavoidable part of how things are done in that part of the world, but corruption there is mind-boggling in its scale. The United States has sunk perhaps $2 trillion into Afghanistan. But a good percentage of that money lined the pockets of corrupt officials at every level of government, whose energetic theft was only matched by equal lethargy in performing the tasks of governance.
By way of comparison, Mayor Daley’s Chicago was neither marked by the rule of law, nor participatory democracy, but it did efficiently provide the most basic services of government, whether it was plowing the snow or securing law and order. Providing such basic services secures legitimacy more effectively than the liberal ornaments over which the United States and numerous NGOs have obsessed in Afghanistan. Before you can have a free state, you must first have a functioning one. Because of its embrace of revolutionary foreign values and failure to provide order, the Afghan government apparently commands little loyalty from Afghans sitting on the sidelines in the fight with the Taliban.
The corruption goes beyond the Afghan government. Afghanistan also corrupted many of those who spent time there. American soldiers, contractors, and civilians have all been lured into various types of financial corruption, much of which likely will never be discovered. This ranged from low-level enlisted personnel helping contractors steal fuel to a sophisticated kickback scheme cooked up by an Army major. Loose oversight has also led some combat units into an even darker place of drug use, war crimes, and a total breakdown of discipline.
The biggest corruption, though, was in the stubborn refusal of our military leadership to level with civilian leaders and the American people over the lack of progress. “Can do” by nature, every general who set foot in Afghanistan expressed optimism about turning things around, emphasizing the positive news, such as the training of additional Afghan security forces or a school being built. Of course, in the background was persistent resistance by the Taliban and unaffiliated Afghans, and the ominous and common “green on blue” attacks by our ostensible allies.
The Washington Post ran an exposé in 2019 on the full extent of the lies. Like the Pentagon Papers of the early 1970s, these documents showed a huge gap between the public “rah rah” commentary and the reality on the ground. Unlike Vietnam, the fact that most of the suffering was confined to an all-volunteer military led to little public outcry. While the Democrats led purely partisan opposition to the Iraq War, the War in Afghanistan has made little mark on our cultural leaders or political debates.
The False Economy of Tackling Root Causes
The biggest mistake we made in Afghanistan was presuming we had to turn the Middle East into an American-style democracy in order to have peace. We presumed we had to rectify the root causes in order to maintain national security. The same scenario played out in Iraq, Libya, and Syria. In all of these cases, our efforts did not increase our security or enhance stability, and sometimes made things worse.
More limited and realistic options were available, including the old fashioned punitive raid. Wrecking a place sends a message too, a message of deterrence. Because we viewed it as our duty to lift up the Afghans—strange people with whom we have no historical or other connections—and because no one wanted to admit the flawed foundations of the war, we ended up there for 20 years, long after most of al-Qaeda had decamped for Pakistan.
Even accepting the strategic premise, it’s not clear that anything we did enhanced stability or reduced international terrorism. Afghanistan has been in a state of civil war since our arrival. ISIS also materialized in the meantime. Al-Qaeda is still around. And attacks within the United States by immigrants and home-grown Islamic terrorists have continued the entire time.
By trying to do too much, we accomplished too little. The U.S. military is perfectly capable of bombing, killing, and capturing people. But, even with the help of its second army of contractors and do-gooder NGOs, the United States is not particularly good at nation building. We are no longer the America of the Marshall Plan, and the people of Afghanistan are not the same as Germans, Japanese, or even Iraqis for that matter.
To turn disorder into order is a difficult thing. Democracy is probably not the best tool for doing it. Historically, liberal democracy is normally an end stage form of government, not a foundational one. Moreover, our entire approach does little to account for the strict Islam of the Afghan people and their pre-Islamic tribalism. This comprehensive religion, coupled with this cultural inheritance, is not fertile soil for a democracy, let alone a liberal one.
Leaving Afghanistan does not diminish the bravery of our soldiers, the magnitude of the 9/11 attacks, or the need to avenge those deaths and remain vigilant against terror threats.
But we are neither avenging nor remaining vigilant in Afghanistan today. Since 2002 or so, we have been going in circles against a local resistance to our presence. Any temporary gains soon evaporate, as we lack sufficient troops to hold what we have cleared, and the Afghan security forces are woefully inadequate to consolidate the gains. The overall connection of any of this activity to U.S. security is minimal.
A Liberal Counterterror Strategy Will Always Fail
The most cost-effective strategies for counterterrorism require a rejection of the neoliberal commitment to using American power to expand liberal democracy. Liberal democracy itself, at least as understood by our political class, is rooted in an ideal of equality. The elites’ understanding of equality mandates that the differences between peoples are downplayed, because each and every person and each and every nation supposedly yearns for and can flourish under liberal democratic institutions. Denying this conclusion puts the broader principle of equality in question. Thus, we persist in trying to turn Afghans into Swedes.
The best defense to international terrorism is a strict immigration system and a secure border. None of these terrorist groups can project power into our homeland otherwise. But the same liberal principle of equality is why no discrimination is permitted in our immigration system, such as preferring people from other stable, culturally and ethnically similar democracies, i.e., “extreme vetting.”
Such common sense is a dagger in the heart of the comprehensive neoliberal vision of the world, as it recognizes people as members of nations having characteristics—characteristics which might very well rank unequally. Thus, the liberal vision has a blind spot, the blind spot that led us to welcome 19 Saudi extremists into our country in the summer of 2001, who then proceeded to mass murder our countrymen.
Like a couple recognizing their fundamental incompatibility after years of fighting and discord, we should separate ourselves from Afghanistan. It has not worked out, and we have a right to secure our own happiness and security. For the same reasons, we should make sure that this tumultuous, alien part of the world remains separated from us.