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Will America Learn from Its “Good War” In Afghanistan?

Afghanistan Policy
U.S. Marines assigned to the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit fire M4A1 carbines during an exercise on the flight deck aboard the Wasp-class amphibious assault ship USS Kearsarge (LHD 3) in the U.S. 5th Fleet Area of Operations, Feb. 8, 2019. Kearsarge is the flagship for the Kearsarge Amphibious Ready Group and, with the embarked 22nd MEU, is deployed to the U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations in support of naval operations to ensure maritime stability and security in the Central Region, connecting the Mediterranean and the Pacific through the western Indian Ocean and three strategic choke points. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Casey Moore)

Two decades after initiating an imperial policy designed by the Neoconservatives who had captured his administration, George W. Bush’s campaign to transform and democratize the Middle East lies in ruins. A chastened America may finally enter a new era in which it recognizes foreign policy limits.

Afghanistan’s Taliban, driven from power after hosting Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, is back in control of a nation much modernized. The government Americans died to build was exposed as Potemkin, a fragile façade which its own people refused to defend.

Over two decades thousands of American and allied troops were killed and tens of thousands were injured, many seriously. Hundreds of thousands of civilians across the Middle East and Central Asia were dead, in combat, sectarian strife, and the chaos of war. Millions of people had been displaced, often driven not only from their homes but their countries. Religious minorities had been dispersed, kidnapped, raped, and murdered on a prodigious scale.

To avenge some 3000 Americans killed on 9/11, Washington caused a hundred or two hundred times as many deaths. To respond to an assault on two American cities, the U.S. plunged two nations into years, even decades of war. In the end, there were more jihadists fighting allied regimes and terrorists at work targeting civilians than at the start. What kept America safe was not endless war, which struck one hornet’s nest after another, but targeted counter-terrorism efforts at home and abroad.

Iraq was the greater crime—a war based on a lie that ironically empowered Iran, upon which other administrations fixated. The subsequent counterproductive emphasis on Tehran led the Obama administration to turn policy over to the corrupt yet murderous Saudi regime, which initiated a campaign amounting to one continuous war crime against Yemen, the poorest nation in the region. The State Department warned that U.S. officials could be charged for their complicity with Riyadh.

Through it all, Washington pointed to Afghanistan as the “good war.” The U.S. had wrecked al-Qaeda and punished the Taliban. Yet that was accomplished barely two months into the war. After that the Bush administration, filled with hubris, rejected an offer from the defeated Taliban to effectively surrender.

So a new objective emerged: nation-building. Hubris multiplied. There would be Western-style liberal democracy in Central Asia. Centralized government would control areas traditionally ruled at the village and valley level. Western money would flood new bureaucracies with little capacity and even less honesty. The U.S. would develop a military filled mostly with non-Pashtuns to fight against the largely Pashtun Taliban. A substantial, ill-trained “ghost” force suffering huge attrition rates would be designed to rely on sophisticated U.S. airpower. All the while, virtually no supporting the Kabul government would fight for it.

A couple weeks ago this very expensive sham state collapsed. Some observers were shocked, but despite decades of official assurances it should have been evident that America’s Afghanistan project was built on multiple lies. “Everyone is selling you something,” a Marine Corps captain told me after I visited an Afghan police training program. In late 2019 the Washington Post reported that a “senior U.S. officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable.”

However, this tragic truth didn’t stop the architects of failure, a succession of bemedaled generals as well as perennial administration appointees, from rushing onto television and putting pen to op-ed pages to blame the Biden administration. They accused the president, backed by “isolationists,” of “precipitously” withdrawing—after 20 years of conflict and occupation and more than a year after the Trump administration negotiated and signed an agreement with the Taliban. For the Washington War Party, any withdrawal over any time frame was considered “precipitous.”

In fact, the speed and totality of the collapse put the lie to the claim that keeping a couple of thousand soldiers on station for a few more months or years would costlessly sustain the status quo. The government had been steadily losing, while statistics on the Afghan military were so bad the Trump administration classified them. Had the U.S. repudiated its agreement with the Taliban to withdraw, American forces would again have become targets. To sustain the Kabul authorities and protect U.S. personnel would have required a larger garrison, that could never leave. That is, the real choice was not between leaving and staying for a little while with a few people, but leaving and staying forever with a much larger number of troops.

As for the terrorist attack at the airport, it occurred on Americans in Afghanistan, not elsewhere. Washington Post columnist Josh Rogin nevertheless insisted that “Islamist militants have shown before that they will strike us wherever they can.” However, it is far easier for terrorists to organize an attack where they are than where they aren’t. Moreover, ISIS is an outgrowth of al-Qaeda in Iraq, which resulted from the Bush administration’s invasion. Terrorism metastasized in response to the war on terrorism.

For instance, Washington’s war motivated Faisal Shahzad, a naturalized citizen from Pakistan, to attempt to explode a car bomb in Times Square. When he pled guilty he stated: “I want to plead guilty 100 times because unless the United States pulls out of Afghanistan and Iraq until they stop drone strikes in Somalia, Pakistan and Yemen and stop attacking Muslim lands, we will attack the United States and be out to get them.”

Taliban Afghanistan

Under the watchful eye of Kalashnikov armed Afghan Army guards, perched on top of four-wheel-drive Ranger vehicles as security lookouts, a British Army Veterinary Officer and his mustachioed Sergeant Major survey the distant desert horizon for signs of movement. Both carry pistols at their waists. This is Helmand Province and Taliban country: unpredictable and dangerous.

Shahzad defended killing civilians, because they elected the U.S. government that was killing Muslims. He even was unconcerned about killing kids: “When the drones [in Pakistan] hit, they don’t see children.” He then claimed to be “part of the answer to the U.S. killing the Muslim people.” The more drones guided, bombs dropped, countries invaded, and nations occupied, and dictatorships supported, the more people like Shahzad will attempt to strike at the U.S.

Two decades ago policymakers claimed that promiscuous intervention would make American safer. Regional swamps would be drained. Bad guys would be killed. New democracies would be created. Values would be shared. Security would be strengthened. All untrue.

After Afghanistan this broad yet fraudulent agenda is kaput. Intervention makes enemies and breeds terrorists. The costs of maladroit U.S. policy have been enormous. It finally is time to implement the humble foreign policy that George W. Bush once spoke of.

Now a 1945 Contributing Editor, Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.

Written By

Doug Bandow is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, specializing in foreign policy and civil liberties. He worked as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan and editor of the political magazine Inquiry. He writes regularly for leading publications such as Fortune magazine, National Interest, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Times.

6 Comments

6 Comments

  1. Leonard Mullen

    August 29, 2021 at 10:54 am

    I was never in favor of Afghanistan, Iraq I, or Iraq II, but the intent was not revenge. The plan was to eradicate the Taliban. It failed, but I do not believe the motive was ‘revenge’ — revenge would have required an attack on Saudi Arabia. Too much blood and treasure spilled in the Middle East. The Orange man was correct to defeat them by becoming energy independent and uniting moderate governments against the extremists that threatened them.

  2. RETNAVYSWO

    August 29, 2021 at 1:04 pm

    3 very good books to read:
    HAMMERHEAD SIX. Written by an SF Captain about his experience taking an A Team into a valley area SE of Kabul not much after the invasion. Using PROVEN SF counter-guerilla tactics they established a base of operations, gained the trust of the locals, and built a safe area where the Taliban could not operate. Of course Big Army, which does not trust SF and never has because they are too stupid to comprehend what it does discarded this plan and went with the hammer and nail which of course does not work in a guerrilla environment.
    HORSE SOLDIERS. The story of one of several A Teams that went in at the start and helped the local warlords crush the Taliban an Al Qaeda driving them out. HOW? Because the Taliban are a MOB and trained and dedicated fighters can easily crush them. Of course after this Big Army and the Air Force had to get in on the deal and turn an anti-guerilla war into a conventional war which of course was going to lead to failure.
    NOT A GOOD DAY TO DIE. March 2002 battle that was supposed to be an SF with local forces sweep of the Shah-i-Kot Valley a known Taliban/Al Qaeda hang out. It was of course ruined by Big Army getting involved along with Navy SF and being micro-managed by idiots in another country including an Air Force General who knew nothing of ground combat making stupid decisions based on politics and getting people killed. This is where SEAL Neil Roberts and Air Force Combat Controller John Chapman were killed, both being awarded the MOH for their heroism.
    All these books have in common 1 thread, Afghanistan was a classic guerrilla war where when left to their own devices, Army SF had the plan to fight it like any other guerrilla war, but since it was the only war we had, Big, Army, Navy, AF, and Marines had to get involved and they only know how to use the hammer technique where all problems are a nail.

  3. Slack

    August 29, 2021 at 3:28 pm

    Heh, Afghanistan and Vietnam showed the world that shock and awe genocidal and destructive and murderous warfare means nothing (or failure) if you have someone backing you.

    Aghanistan shared a vital lifeline with Pakistan while Vietnam had one with China.

    In both cases, the world’s mightiest and ruthless killer WAR MACHINE came a cropper despite backup assistance from a bevy of well-fed & well-armed minions.

  4. Commentar

    August 29, 2021 at 5:31 pm

    The horribly genocidal and bloodiest wars waged after 1945 were all based on lies and false premises and the belief that superior technology would trump the power of the human spirit.

    Those wars were exacerbated by eagerness to view war as a glory-filled adventure pit to climb the political ladder at home and to wave a giant poltical foreign policy club abroad for unfettered rewards this side of heaven.

    War planners and war gamers and the war think tankers totally forgot the causes of 1945 and their lessons and thus after 1945 wholeheartedly pursued great power hubris.

    Will these people have learned anything useful from August 2021? Anything useful at all?

    Civilised men go for negotiations. There must be no last word along this route as long as you’re civilsed. But when hubris overcomes you, the caveman or the genghis in you rises to the fore and war becomes the only option. Thus no lessons learned.

    Already, there is loud yodeling about warship gap, hypersonic gap, nukes gap and cyber gap and many other gaps. The preparation for the NEXT horribly genocidal war is already well under way (next on a long list of coming wars). CLEARLY, no lessons learned from 1945.

  5. Jimmy John Doe

    August 29, 2021 at 9:47 pm

    America may have thought it fought good wars after 1945, but its intentions aren’t aligned with that fact.

    Blinken, the top hawk at the State Dept, is now ordering and coercing other nations to aid ordinary Afghans to flee their homeland as US revenge for its defeat by Taliban.

    Blinken has not thought about the evilness of his order. Tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of Afghans will need building extra hundreds or extra thousands of mosques in foreign places to cater to them, and in time, some of these extra mosques will end serving as jihadist nurseries or jihad schools.

    Thanks a million for you, Blinken?

  6. Steven Andros

    September 6, 2021 at 9:03 am

    In every military action that ends with failure, the absolute constant is the failure of politicians to refrain from micromanaging the conflict.

    It was absolutely possible to “win” this war by ordering the destruction of the Taliban, then simply getting the hell out of the way and letting the war fighters do their jobs using every resource available – short of NBC weapons.

    As usual, the JAGs, democrat media and other lefties insured our hands were tied with ridiculous restrictive ROE. We are not a patient people, and with crippling self imposed restrictions rendering progress impossible, defeat as soon a sniveling democrat took office.

    We could have ended this, but like Vietnam, chose not to.

    Leftist fools, forgetting why we went there in the first place, breathe a heavy sigh of relief, and fool themselves into thinking it’s over. The cancer of terrorism remains, and is about to metastasize big time.

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