The mission that the United States—or, to be more precise, the George W. Bush Administration—set for itself in Afghanistan was doomed from the beginning. It declared unrealizable goals, which experience quickly showed were unrealizable, and then instead of learning from that experience, continued on in the same way, repeating them. And not just the Bush Administration but the entire bipartisan foreign policy establishment. If the hoary cliché is true that insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, then American policy in Afghanistan over the last 20 years is a textbook example.
While my foreign policy views have changed substantially since September of 2001, some points have remained constant. I believe, with the 9/11 Commission, that al-Qaeda committed the 9/11 attacks, with non-trivial (if hard-to-pin-down) levels of state support from America’s enemies. I believe that the attacks demanded a response. No great nation can suffer such an affront and remain great; great nations must avenge great insults.
And make no mistake, the United States in 2001 was still a great nation. True, the trends that have decimated and hollowed out heartland communities—mass immigration, financialization, deindustrialization, among others—were already powerful. But their effects were just beginning to be felt. There was time to correct course (though not that many beyond Pat Buchanan—certainly not George W. Bush!—were calling for that). The chasmic divisions which today make a coherent American foreign policy almost comically impossible, and all but a waste of time given urgent domestic priorities, had not yet opened up to their present degree.
In the context of the day, then, a response to 9/11 was required. But what response? The Bush Administration’s initial answer was sound, even brilliant: punish al-Qaeda and its Taliban sponsors with a lightning-quick campaign, led by the smallest possible American force, acting to multiply the effectiveness of several indigenous Afghan armies.
It failed, ultimately, because of a failure of nerve, or of execution, or from naïveté—it’s hard to say what, exactly. All we know is that Osama bin Laden and his senior lieutenants fled into the caves of Tora Bora and, somehow, managed to get out.
The most common explanation is that Washington refused to order, or authorize, the force necessary to finish the job. Hence the American commanders on the ground entrusted the pursuit to our local “partners,” who in turn aided al-Qaeda’s escape. It’s hardly a secret that men often seek an easy out, a half-measure or middle way, that avoids a hard choice while promising the desired outcome. If this account is correct, top American officials successfully avoided the hard choice and, predictably, didn’t achieve the desired end.
But we don’t know if that account is correct because those who know the truth have never been forced to tell it. The fault of this must, ultimately, be laid at the feet of Congress. Presidents, their staffs, and executive branch officials of all stripes and levels conceal the truth of their doings exactly to the extent that they can get away with it. Congress has the power, should it choose to use it, to extract that truth. This means, ultimately, using its ultimate power, the power of the purse. But here we confront another failure of nerve. For fear of being accused of “abandoning the troops,” Congress never uses this power to tell the executive to shove it—even when doing so would manifestly help the troops by preventing the executive from sending them off on yet another ill-advised, ill-conceived, pointless, and deadly adventure.
What happened next was that the Bush Administration talked itself into believing that the democratization of Afghanistan was both necessary—practically and morally—and possible. Let’s take these in turn.
The Unsayable Truth
The alleged practical necessity was said to arise from the alleged fact that what Donald Trump would later call, controversially, “radical Islamic terrorism” would never go away until and unless the countries from which it came were radically changed—i.e., secularized, Westernized, and democratized.
Some Bushies would balk at the first two of these characterizations and reply that, no, we had no illusions about ridding the Muslim world of Islam, much less any desire to do so. In fact, some of the loudest voices for the democratization agenda professed themselves to be sincere Christians who believed that a place had to be found for Muslim religious belief in a new democratic order. In this view, Islam was not the problem. The Americans who wrote the Afghan and Iraqi constitutions, fancying themselves the heirs of MacArthur and Lucius Clay, even wrote Sharia into those documents! In this view, a closed political system that stunted discourse in the Muslim world was terrorism’s “root cause.”
One problem with this argument is the way Muslims heard it. To a faithful Muslim, there is no separating religious belief from secular authority, the laws of God from the laws of man. Properly understood, the latter are but a dim reflection of the former, if they may be said to exist at all. It’s all well and good, therefore, for well-meaning people in Washington to insist that a Muslim nation can have Islam with democracy yet without Westernization or secularization, but a substantial proportion—dare I say, majority?—of the Muslim world didn’t believe them.
In any event, the Bush Administration insisted that this must be the agenda. The great scholar of Islam, Bernard Lewis, of whom one expects more, put it this way: “Bring Them Freedom, or They Destroy Us.” Mike Gerson himself couldn’t have put it more succinctly.
The alleged moral necessity was thought to arise from two sources. First is the alleged always-and-everywhere superiority of democracy to all other forms of government—the conception of democracy as really the only just regime, a necessary but not sufficient foundation of a good society.
Second was an alleged obligation arising from the use of force in self-defense or as just retaliation. One of the things the Bush Administration got right was its steadfast refusal to allow the multitude of international Lilliputians to tie down the American Gulliver in its moment of crisis. Sympathetic headlines such as Le Monde’s “Nous Sommes Tous Américains” aside, it quickly became clear that most of the rest of the world wanted some say, in many cases a veto, over any American response. The Bush Administration would have none of that.
But it didn’t dismiss such sentiment entirely. In part to soothe its own conscience, in part to mollify international opinion, the administration came to accept the notion that, for a military action in Afghanistan to be just, it must be followed by an intensive reconstruction effort. This was also thought, not incorrectly, to be necessary to satisfy certain elements of American public opinion. For every Jacksonian who thinks a few well-aimed strikes followed by a hasty bugout is the height of strategic prudence, there is a Wilsonian who thinks it’s America’s duty to “make the world safe for democracy.” In this light, bombing followed by reconstruction seems designed to appeal to both sides.
The Administration compounded, or justified, this error by talking itself into drawing the wrong lessons from World War II. Instead of seeing the outcome of that conflict for what it was—a unique, anomalous event in world history—they concluded that the rebuilding of Germany and Japan retroactively justified the prior destruction; that the only way to prevent future war was similarly to remake in our own image any country with which we came into conflict; and that such remaking would be possible anywhere, with anyone. In other words, they talked themselves into believing that the one-off events of 1945-1950 could and must be infinitely repeatable, everywhere.
The problem with this, as a few intellectuals such as Stanley Kurtz tried to tell them (us; I served on the National Security Council staff from 2001-2005) was that, while pre- and intra-war Germany and Japan were not democratic, they possessed many features that support advanced democracy, including civic institutions, strong and pervasive education systems, first-world infrastructure, and functioning industrial economies, among others. Democratizing these countries was thus much more within the realm of possibility—especially after they had been utterly defeated and occupied.
Which, needless to say, never happened in Afghanistan. And even if it had, that country, then as now, lacked all the features listed above. Moreover, its culture and traditions are utterly antithetical to many of them.
This was the hardest pill for the Bush Administration to swallow and remains the greatest stumbling block to understanding what went wrong. In an article written in 1923, T. E. “Lawrence of Arabia” attributed his success as a leader of the 1916-1918 Arab Revolt against Ottoman rule in part to his understanding of Arab culture and character. English officers who tried to lead Bedouin insurgents as if they were British Army soldiers always failed. But Lawrence—who spoke Arabic, knew the Koran, had traveled widely in the region, read local newspapers, and even famously dressed in Bedouin costume—found much less difficulty.
Modern Americans are endlessly told to “celebrate diversity” but are also hectored to treat other peoples as if they are interchangeable, all behave in the same ways and want the same things. This bedrock assumption of Wokemerica is the ultimate shoal on which the Afghan war foundered.
To express any doubt that a fundamentally pre-modern people with entirely different experiences and expectations from a State Department bureaucrat or NGO do-gooder—especially to suggest that democracy might not be an easy sell in the Hindu Kush—was instantly to expose oneself to the charge of “racism” or “Islamophobia.” The few who dared quickly learned not to. The rest did not dare—or else were true believers from the get-go.
What first was deemed unsayable soon became unthinkable. Since it was “racist” to see Afghanistan as it actually is, it soon became obligatory to see it as the exact opposite. Once making policy based on reality becomes “racist,” the only option is to make policy based on unreality. The result? In this case, 20 years, two trillion dollars, 2,500 American deaths, and 20,000 more casualties. All for nothing.
So the Bush Administration did what it did, which didn’t work, and no one was able to admit that it didn’t work because saying the reason aloud was forbidden.
Repeating Mistakes, Pulling Out
The Obama Administration cynically promoted the Afghan war as a way to attack its predecessor. Iraq was the “wrong” war (fair enough) while Afghanistan, clearly responsible for 9/11, was the “right” one. But that administration did not change, or even challenge, a single fundamental assumption and even greatly increased America’s commitment.
President Trump came into office promising a withdrawal but repeatedly hesitated—for reasons which ought now to be abundantly clear. To all those who felt betrayed by his hesitation, he wasn’t lying when he said things look different from behind the Resolute Desk. He knew in his bones that a hasty, ill-considered withdrawal might lead to the fiasco we’re witnessing now, and he didn’t want that on his record or conscience. His four years of Afghanistan policymaking may be characterized as groping for a way to get us out without triggering the country’s collapse or its reemergence as a terrorist sanctuary.
That he never found a way is because there wasn’t one. Ill-advised negotiations with the Taliban produced little beyond delay. Afghanistan’s former rulers didn’t want a deal; they wanted power. American humiliation was welcome gravy.
Once America invested heavily in a “free Afghanistan,” a thing which American power could never achieve, the choices were: leave, admit failure, betray allies, abandon billions in facilities and equipment, put thousands in danger, and face humiliation; or stay forever and . . . what? Take potentially unlimited casualties while spending potentially trillions more for . . . what? Comparisons to Germany and Korea are facile. Northwest Europe and Northeast Asia are two of the richest and most strategically consequential regions in the world. Our host governments there, however fickle, are at least cooperative. More to the point, our troops there are not taking daily casualties, and their lives are not under constant threat.
It’s impossible to know what would have happened in a Trump second term, but had he done what Biden just did, the result would have been the same. In truth, the only way out of Afghanistan was just to get out: order home all civilians, close the embassy, destroy anything that couldn’t be shipped, keep the military there just long and strong enough to protect the evacuation. And then go.
The Biden Administration didn’t do any of that because it, and the whole “national security” establishment, knew that doing so would be to admit failure, to advertise its own bankruptcy. So, just like the foolish wishful thinking that began the disaster two decades ago, they talked themselves into believing that an orderly exit was possible without a plan, that the Taliban meant what they said at the “peace talks,” that those Afghan “security forces” and “civil society” institutions were anything stronger than tissue.
“The Romans,” Machiavelli says, “made their wars short and big.” We Americans have taken to making our wars small and long. We inflict pinprick strikes over decades rather than getting the whole thing over within a matter of days or weeks.
A better strategy, right after 9/11, would have been to do what we did, but finish the job at Tora Bora—and then leave immediately, with a note on the fridge saying “If you do anything like that again, we’ll be back quickly with overwhelming force, and we’ll leave just as quickly. We will do that as many times as you make us.”
Bush National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice was fond of saying, in the early days of the 9/11 wars, “We don’t want to play whack-a-mole with terrorists,” by which she meant, we don’t want to have to go and fight terrorists repeatedly. We want to change the conditions on the ground so that no one ever tries or wants to be a terrorist again. She, and others, genuinely thought this was possible. But they kept thinking it was possible years into the effort when all experience showed it was not.
Hence, instead of “whack-a-mole,” which might have resulted in two, three or even five one-month campaigns, we got 20 years of continuous bleeding. On Rice’s own professed terms—minimization of American force—the strategy they followed was orders of magnitude worse than what she rejected. We now have not only nothing to show for our 20 years; we lost ground in money, lives, readiness, prestige, standing in the region, and much else.
Nor is it necessarily clear that we would ever have had to go back. A big enough defeat in late 2001 might have so deterred and degraded al-Qaeda (the Taliban itself cannot project power) that we would never have faced another 9/11 again. “Whack-a-mole” also could have made it very hard for al-Qaeda to find a new home—and, to project power, they absolutely need a sanctuary.
But this would have required leveling with the American people, and standing up to foreign governments and busybody NGOs. “We cannot democratize Afghanistan, nor is there any moral or strategic reason why we must. We have the right of self-defense, and we are going to exercise it. We will not pay guilt-geld, because we feel no guilt.” That was the necessary message. No one had the courage to say it. I am not sure how many American officials even believed it.
The end result is a humiliation far greater than Vietnam, where America actually had some (mostly unheralded) success and which, at least in the context of the Cold War, could plausibly be defined as a vital interest. Studying that earlier conflict, one finds, in addition to the well-known manifest blunders, reasons for the decisions made, not all of them stupid. Surveying the Afghan war, one sees only debilitating and continuous folly at every stage, at every level. This should be the end of our rotten ruling class. That it will not be shows beyond a shadow of a doubt how corrupt our country is.
Editor’s Note: A version of this essay appeared first at The American Mind.