Bitter Lessons from Afghanistan

A review of Can Intervention Work? by Rory Stewart and Gerald Knaus; W.W. Norton, 272 pages (August 2011)

The American War in Afghanistan: A History by Carter Malkasian; OUP, 576 pages (July 2021)

The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War by Craig Whitlock; Simon and Schuster, 368 pages (August 2021)

The Long War by David Loyn. St Martin’s Press, 464 pages (September 2021)

In his 2011 reflection on intervention, Rory Stewart offers a composite picture of a typical foreign adviser to Afghanistan before the Taliban swept back into Kabul’s Arg Palace: "James" is young, highly credentialed academically in the UK and the US, hard working, optimistic, with “no 19th century prejudices about race, or women, or class … a great improvement (in these senses) on his colonial equivalent.” But unlike that equivalent, who might have been trained in native languages over two years and remained in various posts abroad for 16 years or more, "James" has “little knowledge of Afghan archaeology, anthropology, geography, history, language, literature or theology.” He is, however, an expert in “fields that hardly existed in the 1950s, and which are hardly household names today: governance, gender, conflict resolution, civil society and public administration.” He might be there for a year—two at a stretch. Ever after, these years would be a notable mention in his CV, like a medal for bravery (and working in Kabul in the Taliban interregnum did indeed take courage).

This observation appears in a book Stewart co-wrote a decade before the US and other forces evacuated pell-mell in August, and it hangs over the Western—mainly American—experience in Afghanistan. At 48, Rory Stewart has been a British Army officer, a diplomat in Afghanistan, a district official in Iraq, head of Harvard’s Carr Centre on Human Rights, Conservative MP for Penrith, cabinet minister at the Department of International Development, and a candidate for the Mayoralty of London and for the leadership of the Conservative Party. Which is to say that he has amassed more political and foreign policy experience than most analysts and pundits.

Can Intervention Work? is composed of two essays, one from Stewart and the other by the researcher and founder of the European Stability Initiative, Gerald Knaus. Together, they anticipate the collapse and chaos of the past two years, which has galvanised those who yearn for the end of US hegemony and the decline of the West. The American retreat from Afghanistan has already been the cause of rejoicing in Beijing and Moscow, and a more discreet schadenfreude in much of Europe, especially—but not exclusively—on the Left.

The most depressing element is the huge mendacity on the part of generals, politicians, and presidents who reassured their electorates that the war on terror was going just fine. The Americans were way ahead on this, but not alone. Western politicians knew how bad conditions were in Afghanistan, how corrupt the government was at every level, and that there were credible allegations that Karzai’s people had stuffed ballot boxes to ensure re-election in 2009. Nevertheless, they continued to peddle the fiction that democracy, civil society, stability, and prosperity were all within reach. As Stewart knew better than most foreigners, insofar as these aspirations existed, they are held among a thin layer of professional Afghan men and women, mostly in Kabul, many of whom are Western educated.

The American defeat in Afghanistan is frequently compared to that in Southeast Asia, and Stewart refers to former US Defense Secretary Robert S McNamara's 1995 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam. McNamara, a rare penitent among the US officials who oversaw that war, does not believe American failure can be blamed on the tenacity of the Vietcong or anti-war sentiment at home. America failed because, he wrote, “We viewed the people and leaders of South Vietnam in terms of our own experience. We do not have the God-given right to shape every nation in our own image or as we choose.” These words, written in some anguish, are a call to the deepest reflection in governing, and would-be governing circles, after Kabul.

Knaus expands upon this critique of liberal imperialism, a view he and Stewart once shared. While working in Bosnia, he began to support Western military intervention—he was, he writes, “partaking in the growing liberal imperialist sentiment, arguing strongly that the international community needed to take a more proactive role in building the institutions of a functioning Bosnian state.” Those who favoured intervention—at times polls showed it was a majority, in the US or the UK—seldom thought of it as “God given.” Rather, they believed it to be a failure on the part of politicians and the military to grasp the extent of carnage being visited upon helpless communities. But Knaus now dismisses liberal imperialism as only rarely successful. The less comfortable lessons he draws from Bosnia are that “to end mass atrocities, it may be necessary to deal with evil, accept limited goals, and bide our time. Not all good things go together … the answer from the last two decades is that where we believe any price is worth paying, and that failure is not an option, we are likely to fail. Where we tread carefully, and fear the consequences of our mistakes, there is a chance.”

That Can Intervention Work? should, after a decade, find its predictions and warnings so amply fulfilled must bring a grim satisfaction to its authors, and a sense of despair to those still sympathetic to the case for humanitarian intervention. Nevertheless, there appears to be a gathering consensus. Two of the most recent books about Afghanistan are by careful writers who are knowledgeable about the country, its people, and its present rulers—and on the basis of experience, both arrive at the same conclusions in 2021 as Stewart and Knaus did in 2011.

Carter Malkasian has a doctorate of military history from Oxford, and conducted research in Iraq, followed by longer stints of hands-on work in various Afghan provinces advising successive commanders. Unusually, he spoke Pashto—the second most widely spoken language after Dari—and preferred to operate without elaborate safety precautions. His book is a history, beginning with President Jimmy Carter’s decision—pushed by his National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, but opposed by his Secretary of State, Cyrus Vance—to back the fundamentalist mujahideen against a communist-inclined government. This was just before the Soviets authorised an invasion in 1979. Back then, anti-communism was everything. After 9/11, anti-jihadism was everything.

Malkasian’s scholarly approach can be slow, but he knows the warp and woof of Afghan society better than any of these writers. He appreciates, too, the pressures on commanders at every level when faced with a ruthless, apparently unconquerable enemy. He makes clear that successive peace opportunities were passed up by the US. The Taliban wouldn't come to the table unless it was from a position of strength, and nor would the Americans, until the pretence that winning was possible had been hollowed out (though rarely openly acknowledged) and nothing was left except to save what face they could.

The huge bombing campaigns used by successive generals killed plenty of terrorists, but they also killed civilians in considerable numbers. As Malkasian and the other authors stress, for most troops on the ground it was hard to know who was an enemy and who was an ally. Nevertheless, non-combatant casualties cost the Western coalition a great deal of support from Afghanis who had not been pro-Taliban. The Taliban had been brutal and had forced women into a state of virtual imprisonment. Yet the group came to be seen as a source of security and peace—they were Afghans, not foreigners; and their morals and behaviour chimed, at least in part, with those of the majority of Afghans who lived in villages and small towns.

The commitment of troops, advisers, and materiel, and the successive “surges” of troops called for by the generals, were undercut by politics. This was true in Washington, where exasperation grew as a decisive victory was thwarted by an enemy operating from a safe haven in Pakistan on the country’s southern border. It was even more true in Kabul. At his accession in 2002, President Hamid Karzai enjoyed worldwide plaudits. He'd opposed communism and the Taliban, spoke good English with a courtly demeanour, and had roots in the Pashtun tribal culture. But as the war turned against the foreign armies, and the mainly US efforts—with huge expenditure—to train an effective army and police force failed to produce effective organisations (the police routinely extorted bribes, often with violence), Karzai became less complaisant with the occupying forces. Sensing his increasing isolation and loss of popular support, he resigned from the presidency in 2014.

David Loyn was a BBC correspondent who dedicated much of his life to understanding Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India, with conducted several interviews with Taliban leaders. He and his camera team were the only journalists to record the Taliban’s victorious entry to Kabul the first time they took over. He covered much of Karzai’s period in office, making a confused political scene as clear as he could. In the last two years in Afghanistan, he was an adviser on communications to Ashraf Ghani, who became president after Karzai’s resignation. Ghani fled with his family a day before the Taliban took the Arg palace, and has since been accused of taking large sums of money with him. He has vehemently denied this accusation, saying he left to avoid a bloodbath, and has been variously described as landing in Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, and more recently in the United Arab Emirates.

Loyn, an admirer, believes that Ghani was not personally corrupt and knows how constrained his choices were, but does not duck recording a catalogue of failures. These included the deliberate weakening of the regional governors, an inability to build political support and a flaccid and self defeating response to the chance of developing a peace process with the Taliban. One of the most intellectually able of leaders anywhere in the area, his lack of a feel for politics in a continually violent surrounding and his absence from Afghanistan for much of his professional life hobbled him and his administration.

The Americans simply assumed that, given freedom from the Taliban, order would re-emerge of its own accord, since it was in their interests to cooperate and build a functioning society and economy. But what—or who—emerged of their own accord were the warlords, who had opposed the Taliban. These were cruel and despotic men, who quickly became skilled in enriching themselves from the billions of dollars pouring into the country so fast it could not be spent. “Twenty of the first thirty-four of the provincial governors appointed after the Taliban were former warlords,” Loyn writes. “Forty warlords took their seats in the first Afghan parliament in 2005 (along with twenty-four leaders of criminal gangs, and traffickers). One of the first acts of the new parliament was to pass a general amnesty for past war crimes … the level of democratic failure this revealed was illustrated by a poll recording 94 percent support for war crime trials. The political system that emerged did not represent the nation.”

Loyn argues that, during both Karzai’s and Ghani’s periods in office, prosecution of the war was hampered by conflicting realist and idealist impulses in the American capital: “Hard-headed opposition to nation-building ran counter to a mood of wanting to spread democracy and leave the world a better place.” These arguments were taking place as similar tussles went on over Iraq—in neither case were new nations built in the manner the phrase intended.

Despite many thousands of deaths and the depletion of the resources of a very poor country, a regime has returned to Afghanistan that will set back women’s education and participation in wider society, that will retard or reverse advances in health, modernisation of infrastructure, and communication, and that will likely ally itself with the authoritarian powers and harbour terrorist groups. This is all quite bad enough. But the consistent lying of the US administrations under the presidencies of George W Bush and Barack Obama—differing in much, united in this—was shameful, and has helped destroy public support for such actions in the West. Craig Whitlock’s Afghan Papers may be jerky as a narrative, but it is still the place to go to see the sheer scope of political mendacity.

Whitlock, a reporter for the Washington Post covering security issues and the Pentagon, has assembled troves of material from the files of the Special Investigator for Afghan Reconstruction, the copious memos of the former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (known as “snowflakes”), and from oral testimony to the US Army Operational Leadership Program and the University of Virginia Oral History Program. In these programs, military and civilian personnel with experience in the country spoke freely about their views on the war following their service, and their candid statements often contrast violently with their public positions.

These men were often at the top of the political tree. Robert Gates, who took over as Defense Secretary from Rumsfeld in 2006, thought building democracy in Afghanistan was a “pipe dream” but from the moment he took the job (until 2011), he followed his president’s lead in assuring the public that this was an achievable goal. Generals David Petraeus and Stanley McChrystal, two of the most outstanding officers of their generation, had grave doubts about the ability to prevail militarily and still graver doubts about building anything like a democratic state. But when in command, they dutifully bought into the line. “We will win,” Petraeus boldly declared in June 2010, upon taking over as supreme commander in Afghanistan. When a wedding party, and later a gathering of some 90 children, were mistakenly bombed, both were denied. When, under Obama, Leon Panetta took over at the Pentagon, he too hid doubts under the confident announcement that “Al Qaeda is finished”—repeating what George W Bush had said years before.

Trump inherited a war the goals of which he thought were crazy, attainable or not. Yet in his first speech on it, he fell back on the categorical “We will win.” When the generals arranged a briefing for him to tell him something of the reality, he grew angry, calling them “dopes and babies”; a second briefing left him blaming Obama for setbacks. Campaigns to turn Afghan farmers away from growing opium—the output grew so high, that it accounted for 80–90 percent of world consumption—were such complete failures that output went up more sharply when the programs were running. Denied a success which might have added lustre to his presidency, Trump abruptly announced a complete pull-out—a decision which President Joe Biden, long the most sceptical among senior US politicians of the war’s utility, gladly inherited and duly executed by September 11th, 2021.

In taking the decisions they did, Trump and Biden have been held by much international opinion to confirm the decline of America. The “world’s policeman,” was granted by Madeleine Albright, Secretary of State 1997–2001, the right to intervene in wars, coups, and potential threats the world over. In an interview with Matt Lauer in 1998, she named America “the indispensable nation,” endowed with the inalienable right to decide where and how it would intervene. The books reviewed here differ in style, detail, and depth of experience, but their themes and lessons are common. That period of idealism is now over.

But the commentary of Western decline is overheated. Militarily, the US is still the most powerful state on Earth by some distance. The two authoritarian states seen as potential rivals, Russia and China, may have formidable weaponry, but they are short of allies. The Soviet Union had a protective wall of communist-run states to the west and north—now, these states (with the partial exception of Hungary) are warily distrustful. China inspires fear not affection in its region, and while its neo-colonial expansion through the Belt and Road creates joint projects with cash-strapped states like Italy and Greece, neither country would prefer life in a China-dominated community of nations to their present membership of the EU. It’s heartening, but unsurprising, that nations which have a democratic order, no matter how imperfect and criticised, will prefer it to systems which lock up opposition figures, or which suppress whole peoples because they continue to follow a religion different from that of the state.

What is likely to have died—or at least been put into cold storage—is the approach which went by the name of “the responsibility to protect.” Developed after the genocidal atrocities committed in Rwanda and the Balkans in the 1990s, the UN General Assembly unanimously committed to use diplomatic, humanitarian, and other means to prevent or halt mass murder or ethnic cleansing. Force was not explicitly agreed—though Security Council authorisation under Chapter VII of the Charter could be used as a last resort, in the event of genocide and other serious international crimes. This was always a long shot, since any debate on intervention in the Security Council would generally meet the veto of Russia or China or both. But, for a while, it existed as a UN principle. Today, it is a dead letter. Those who saw the Iraqi and the Afghan interventions as a horror in their own right—in some cases, an even greater horror than the original reasons for intervention—have won the argument, at least until the next mountain of corpses.

For world leaders—and citizens—the experiences of Iraq and Afghanistan offer powerful reasons for staying at home and watching television reports of massacres and their results with comfortably inactive outrage. The failures of the US and its allies to “build nations” after the removal of despotism and mass murder has shorn the “responsibility to protect” doctrine of its moral force, as well as the popular backing its deployment requires.

In his book, The Lesser Evil, the Canadian writer and scholar Michael Ignatieff asked: “Why should democracies have anything to do with evil? ... the answer is that we are faced with evil people, and stopping them may require us to reply in kind … either we fight evil with evil or we succumb.” The decision to withdraw from Afghanistan returns those nations willing to fight evil to their couches, where they can sigh in safety.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://quillette.com/2021/09/22/the-lesser-action/
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Nobody wants to learn any lessons from Afghanistan. The Biden administration has moved on. I don’t see the Republicans pressing too hard either. The reason is that they are all complicit. The debacle in August was the final chapter of two decades of wall-to-wall incompetence, deception, lying and obfuscating done by men and women on all sides of the political spectrum. They will bury this fast and deep. A few trillion dollars wasted. Thousands of lives perished. Nothing to see here. Moving on.
After all, the American government is not that different from the communist governments I remember from Eastern Europe when it comes to accountability or evidence-based governing. The whole narrative the American politicians peddled for two decades about Afghanistan is as hollow as the narratives we were fed by the commies about the inherent superiority of socialism over capitalism. Same wishful, shallow thinking (if you can call this “thinking”), same inability to deal with the facts on the ground, with reality. It is not a surprise that it ended similarly in a final bout of utter incompetence and confusion just like the communist era unexpectedly ended and everybody just wanted to quickly forget and move on.
However, there is a silver lining here. Peddling false narratives in order to avoid real problems has become a hallmark of Western politics. Transphobia or racism or sexism are hardly the biggest problems that the western countries face but they have become the dominant self-descriptors of the western societies nowadays. Climate change (real or not) is hardly the most pressing problem the world faces. Police violence against certain groups is hardly the biggest problems these groups have. Just look at the daily violence and loss of life in cities like Chicago that nobody wants to talk about. There are plenty of serious, real, and highly inconvenient problems that nobody wants to talk about just like for two decades nobody wanted to talk about the reality in Afghanistan. And this is the real troubling thing in the West: the refusal of the political system to deal with the actual problems. It is not going to make them disappear though. That is why we are guaranteed to have more debacles a-la-Afghanistan both internationally and internally.

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In your opinion should the US have invaded Afghanistan in the first place?
Given the invasion, what actions should the US have subsequently taken in that country?
To you, what would have been the ideal situation in Afghanistan today if what you consider to have been the best course of action to be taken by the US had actually been taken?

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@Andrew_W I don’t know. Just like the myriad of highly paid politicians, generals, diplomats, journalists, analysts, intelligence officers, etc. And even worse, while in private they would admit that the dominant narrative on Afghanistan is all wrong, in public they all toed the line and lied to the American people. This is not about incompetence (even though there was plenty of this too). It is about the lack of honesty. It is about the refusal to confront reality and deal with it.
The Chinese term “baizuo” comes to mind when thinking about the current crop of American politicians, especially on the left. People who who have no sense of real problems in the real world, who only advocate for peace and equality to satisfy their own feelings of moral superiority and are obsessed with political correctness.

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People should be more willing to acknowledge it when they don’t have the answer, so thumbs up.

The way I see it is that democracy just isn’t designed for long term campaigns, elected politicians focus on the next election and, if elected, on their time in power, so we get shorter term planning and strategy. It’s not really them that’s at fault, they work the system to their advantage, no system is perfect, everyone looks out for themselves.

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If only taking the long-term view was perceivable and employable by people in large. Let backwards nation states exist autonomously as we exact a plan to ‘kid-glove’ them. Maybe over a half to a full century we could economically and culturally ‘invade’ until they no longer remember their backwards way of existing.

The answer is the same as it should have been in Iraq–pure US dictatorship. You do =not= replace dictatorship with democracy. You replace it with benevolent, but iron-fisted, dictatorship, until the society has developed enough to be gradually given its own agency. This is what we did in NAZI Germany and Japan, and it worked. In Iraq I would have made it clear that after Saddam’s fall they had 2 days to celebrate, and after that anyone caught looting would be summarily shot. Curfews would have been imposed, strict limits on movement, identification and tracking of the population. Military governance for as long as it took to properly develop the right societal structure. If the US wasn’t willing to do this, then they should have just destroyed Saddam’s power structure then left and let the chips fall where they may. Same with Afghanistan, which is a more difficult situation. Either go in, blow up all the bad guys and leave, or rule with an iron hand, outlawing all religious extremism and introducing liberal values over time while maintaining absolute illiberal power. The minute I saw the looters in Iraq (and I supported the war—read ‘Saddam’s Bombmaker’ if you disagree) allowed to function freely after Saddam was brought down, I knew we were F’d.

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A great essay, providing much needed depth into the background of American policy making. But I don’t think that the author draws the right conclusions in the last three paragraphs. For a start, we have the example of the French intervention in Mali- the defence of a sovereign power and its people- in case although war is always wrong, the alternative of standing by and doing nothing in this instance would have been worse. Deciding to stay, however, is undoubtedly a bad habit they picked up from America. In addition, we need to recognise that no matter how odious we in the West may find the behaviour of some Sovereign States, their continued stability is often infinitely preferable to the instability, mayhem and humanitarian disaster which often ensues from intervention and misguided nation building.

Although many cite the lucrative system of procurement and expenditure which follows any American deployment as an incentive for war, I think this is an unduly cynical take on the motivations of Washington Power Elites. Rather, I think that they are simply incapable of acknowledging the axiomatic truth of the just war fallacy, and instead seem congenitally prone to attempting to seize some post hoc justification for war and conflict, in the form of jus post bellum nation building and democratisation at the point of a gun.

War is wrong, it’s that simple- the only exception is when the alternative is worse. Attempts to snatch post hoc justifications for war are tantamount to polishing a turd- it’s not likely to accomplish much, but it will get your sleeve dirty. All the moral justifications for war are to be found prior to its declaration in “the responsibility to protect”, not least one’s own citizens and Allies. This can include swift moves to intervene against genocides, but not at the expense of global stability and potentially catastrophic wars.

In attempting to create post hoc justifications for war, the American establishment can be likened to the image of Narcissus staring at his own image in a pool. In this case it is American self-image of itself as a nation which is at fault, and the desperate desire to believe oneself a ‘force for good’ in the world. America is good, at least in its intentions- one only has to examine the ungodly amounts of money America spends on its weapons in order to minimise civilian casualties to see the truth of it, when one considers that other nations arm themselves with less discriminating weapons which are far less costly.

In trying to create post hoc justifications for war, lies the true synthesis of American decline. American wars are always swift and invariably successful, accomplished with a minimum of civilian casualties. If they wax brutal it is by the necessity of war. But occupations in the name of democracy and nation building on America’s part, have always snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Local populations are quickly going to turn unfriendly towards well-meaning foreigners telling them how to arrange their affairs.

This is where the real damage to America’s reputation stems from. It’s not the wars, it’s the open-ended commitments to occupations. To Allies their example represents a potential future liability- if unengaged, they may have dodged a bullet this time, but who knows the next time, if the opposition in is power? To the neutral they can seem like folly and a disruption to the more important business of peaceful trade and mutual enrichment. To adversaries, they encourage fourth and fifth generational warfare as a means of weakening a perennial threat.

It’s basic Machiavelli, after all “People should either be caressed or crushed. If you do them minor damage they will get their revenge; but if you cripple them there is nothing they can do. If you need to injure someone, do it in such a way that you do not have to fear their vengeance.”, with the proviso that in the modern age, it is far easier to caress almost every national player in one way or another- whether the rewards come in the form of trade, personal prestige or acknowledging the essential dignity of their people.

War should be brutal. It should also be swift and accomplished with as few casualties as the reality on the ground permits. Our leaders should acknowledge this truth, at least to themselves. If we acknowledge that war is inherently wrong, but caveat that it can be less wrong than the alternative, the extent of that wrong can also be judged by the degree to which the war is unnecessarily protected in the name of supposed good which unfailingly fails to materialise. In this light, we can see occupations in the name of nation building as a bellicose variety of communism, always failing in their promise and never done right.

As usual, my essays are free to view and comment on my Substack:

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The results of a dictatorship imposed from outside are almost always the same, anger and bitterness at the impositions of the foreign rulers and an animosity of everything that foreign power represents and the systems (eg capitalism, monarchy) it practices. Think about how Americans would (did) respond to suffering under foreign rule, and Americans are human just like everyone else.

Japan and West Germany didn’t go that way because the US was supportive of a quick return to self rule, and the Germans at least knew they were responsible for their own bad decisions.

My advice is that countries shouldn’t invade others without a damn good reason, a reason so strong that just about everyone in both countries understands and agrees. Otherwise it just turns into a fk-up.

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Brutal but honest. Hard to even pick whether the Reps or the Rats were the worstest liars.

BTW the whole show reinforces my views on the dangers of multicult – the notion that you can import an Afghani into a liberal democracy and almost overnight he becomes as woke as AOC with only his recipe for goat curry and his folk dances remaining of his culture, otherwise he’s as liberal as you or me. 20 (some say 40) years of trying to give those folks the chance to join the modern world, pull out the army and in 10 days they collapse back into the dark ages. Because that’s their mentality. The West offered them something they don’t want. We should be very pessimistic about the prospect of integrating such people into the West.

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In case you havent seen this. Conceptual art class discussing a toilet as art. Watch to at least the 32 second mark…

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Ha! That look on the Muslim girl’s face for a moment there. Honestly Pat, there are times when I wonder who’s side I’m on. I forget that we’re so decayed that the Muslim’s desire to put us out of our misery might be seen as mercy. God Is Great.

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Much of the criticism of an extended intervention in 2001-2 boiled down to Trumpian instincts: invade to the point of kicking their asses, destroying al Qaeda, and killing bin Laden. Avoid extended commitment. Rumsfeld held that view, but also held it to himself – it was politically unacceptable to talk that way in public at that point. When Trump talks that way, people cringe.

You must also always keep in mind the absurdity of “allies” like Pakistan, who are the very ones who transformed the Taliban from a small fringe group into the rulers of Afghanistan.

The US didn’t support “fundamentalist mujahideen” in 1979 before the Soviet invasion. The decision was made after the Soviet invasion at the end of 1979 and became a serious policy only a year later, just before Carter left office. From 1979 through 1982, the US supported native Afghan resistance directly, not Islamic radicals. (There are no Afghans on the 9/11 terrorist list.) In 1982, Pakistan decided to block all further US support of the Afghan fighters and interpose itself in the money flow. The US was forced to give the money to Pakistan, which then decided whom to support. They supported native Afghan fighters less and less and more and more Islamic radicals (who didn’t do a lot of fighting in the 1980s – just raising money – but later took a lot of credit). By the time the Soviets left in 1989, Afghanistan was fragmented politically and descended into a civil war that didn’t end until the Taliban victory in 1996. For that, you can largely thank Pakistan’s military intelligence (ISI), which, like the Saudis of that era, played a large role in incubating the growth of radical armed groups, schools, charities, etc.

Another, related debacle came from Ms. “Duty to Protect” herself, Samantha Power, with her helping to lead a craven withdrawal from doing anything about Assad and Syria. We found out later that Obama’s Syria policy was undercut by his infatuation with Iran. She’s now a completely discredited figure, along with the doctrine of liberal interventionism.

You might wonder why it worked fairly well in Bosnia and Kosovo and so much less well elsewhere. Bosnia and Kosovo are in Europe, next door to a continental culture and political institutions that could contain the conflict, and populations that by and large wanted to become more integrated into Europe. No such structures exist anywhere else in the world, except perhaps in parts of Asia. We built something like that in Latin America in 1980s and 1990s, but then threw it away to pursue the war on drugs.

The US puts the number of Taliban fighters at around 80,000, a low tech army can number up to about 10% of a countries population (New Zealand for example deployed about 10% of it’s population in uniform and overseas in each of the two world wars, Israel has had similar or higher levels of mobilization, there are obviously many other examples).
Afghanistan had a population of 38,000,000, so should have been capable of raising an army of 3.8 million or more, 50 times as many as the Taliban had.

The US founding fathers decided that and armed population was the best defense against tyranny.

Just how popular were the Taliban with most Afghans? Did the US military disarm many potential allies, villagers who might have defended their communities against the Taliban, in an effort to reduce the threat to US personel?

When they concentrated on building a formal afghan army, did the US effectively separate those soldiers from their roots, taking away their prime reason for fighting, asking them to fight for the US supported government, rather than their families?

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In the 80s, I coined the terms “moral tourist” and “moral tourism” to describe these. Nowadays, they’re called “virtue signaling.” Not that I’m resenting the world’s lack of recognition of my genius :wink:

Fifty years on, the transformation that started in 1968 changed the parties of the Left from mainly parties of lower middle and working class voters into vehicles for the sanctimonious, college-credentialed elite. (NB “credentialed,” not “educated.”)

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Firstly apologies for the lateness of this reply (new around here). The short answer is yes, the US and it’s allies should have invaded Afghanistan in 2001. Given said invasion was in direct retaliation to the 9/11 attacks then it’s hard to argue that the US response was disproportionate under the circumstance. Initially the stated aim was to destroy Al-Qaeda’s ability to operate with impunity from camps within Afghanistan and to also destroy local support for AQ within Afghanistan. From this point of view we should have been done with Afghanistan by late 2002 early 2003 at the latest.

A side effect of this initial military success was it shone a light on a country who’s internal strife pulled at the heartstrings of the West and exposed it’s naivety to conditions outside of the “Western Bubble”. It’s at this point the US made it’s usual mistake and moved into nation building mode. This was always going to be supported by the military industrial complex because any sort of feel good humanitarian projects can’t exist without ongoing military operations to suppress dissent from a nation that wasn’t asking to be saved in the first place.

The question we should be asking is how do we de-couple humanitarian missions, nation building (call it what you will) from military actions that are often in retaliation to something out of our control?

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