On the second anniversary of the final debacle of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan, we should consider the lessons of that disaster for U.S. strategy elsewhere.
While the case of Afghanistan itself is by nature unique, Washington’s mistakes and failures reflected wider and deeper patterns — and pathologies — in U.S. policymaking and political culture. If left unaddressed, these will lead to more disasters in future.
Yet most of the mainstream media and the think tank world are treating the memory of the U.S. war in Afghanistan not as a source of reflection but as an embarrassment to be forgotten as quickly and completely as possible.
This parallels the approach to the memory of Vietnam in the U.S. mainstream — and the result was the disaster of Iraq. One of the most astonishing things about the U.S. debate — to give it that name — prior to the invasion of Iraq, was the general failure to consider, or even mention, what the experience of Vietnam might have taught. Today, this refusal to learn lessons applies above all to U.S. engagement in Ukraine.
The failure to pursue diplomacy with the Taliban prior to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan can be explained and excused by the fury naturally felt by Americans at the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and the Taliban’s refusal immediately to hand over the al-Qaida leadership that was clearly responsible. Nonetheless, given the appalling costs that resulted from the U.S. invasion, it is worth asking whether an approach that allowed the Taliban to save face and remain true to their own beliefs might have produced better results for both Americans and Afghans: for example, exploring the possibility that the Taliban could be persuaded to deliver the AQ leadership to another Muslim country.
In the case of Iraq, there was no sincere diplomatic effort at all, since the Bush administration had already made the decision to invade.
The second lesson of Afghanistan is as old as war itself and was emphasized by military theorist Carl von Clausewitz: that there can never be certainty of long-term victory in any war, if only because war, more than any other human activity, is liable to generate unintended ramifications and consequences.
In the case of Afghanistan, the mission to eliminate al Qaida and remove the Taliban from power morphed into a far greater — and probably innately doomed — effort to create a modern democratic Afghan state through foreign intervention, aid and supervision.
This in turn became related to the attempt to destroy the old and exceptionally powerful nexus between Islamic faith and Pashtun nationalism that had generated the Taliban, much of the resistance to the Communist regime and Soviet intervention in the 1980s, and numerous revolts against the British Empire before that.
Given that most Pashtuns live in Pakistan, the inevitable result was an extension of the conflict to that country, leading to a Pakistani civil war in which tens of thousands died. Pakistan’s refusal or inability to expel the Afghan Taliban led to the threat of direct U.S. intervention in Pakistan — which, if it had occurred, would have produced a catastrophe far worse than Afghanistan and Iraq put together.
The failure to anticipate consequences is worsened by conformism and careerism; not that these tendencies are any worse in the U.S. establishment than elsewhere. But America’s power and capacity to intervene across the world magnify their negative consequences. On the one hand, they mean that even experts and journalists who are in a position to know better, join officials in unthinking obedience to the establishment line of the given moment, which may have only the most tangential relationship to realities in the country concerned.
Returning to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, I encountered journalists whom I had known when covering the Mujahedin war against the Soviets and Communists in the 1980s. I was amused — kind of — to find them parroting a new version of the line that Moscow and Kabul had put out in the 1980s: that the Afghan resistance had no real local support and was not really Afghan, and that it was entirely the creation of outside powers (including Pakistan) and money.
This was despite the fact that the Taliban were recruiting exactly the same people from exactly the same areas as the Mujahedin, who were fighting for exactly the same reasons.
Matters are made worse by the flood of instant shake-and-bake “experts” who are generated every time the United States embarks on a new overseas venture. Selected for their connections in Washington rather than any real knowledge of the areas concerned, they could not correct the mistakes of U.S. policy even if they had the moral courage to do so. Moreover, their ignorance of local history and culture makes them dreadfully receptive to the self-interested fantasies of their local informants.
Thus I was also amused in the early 2000s to hear “advisers” on Afghanistan to the U.S. (and European) governments declare that “Afghanistan in the 1960s was a successful middle class democracy.” This U.S. syndrome could well be called Oedipal, since it is both incestuous and self-blinded.
Once both political parties have committed themselves to a given strategy, the bipartisan Washington establishment finds it extremely difficult to admit mistakes and change course — a tendency to which the U.S. military has also sometimes contributed in a disastrous fashion. This military refusal to admit defeat has its admirable sides — nobody should want U.S. generals to be quitters.
That, however, is why America needs political leaders (including ones with personal military experience, like Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy and Carter) with the knowledge and courage to tell the generals when it is time to call a halt.
Instead, in Afghanistan (as documented by the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction and others), generals and administration officials colluded to produce optimistic lies, which were then circulated by a credulous and subservient media. Today, this risks being the case with the Biden administration’s refusal to admit that the Ukrainian counteroffensive has failed, and that it is therefore time to start developing a political strategy to end the fighting in Ukraine and the economic and political damage this is beginning to cause to vital U.S. allies in Europe.
The last point about the U.S. record in Afghanistan should hardly need to be made, because it has been made over and over again since the 1950s by a whole succession of great American thinkers, including Reinhold Niebuhr, Hans Morgenthau, George Kennan, Richard Hofstadter and C. Vann Woodward. This is the tendency in the U.S. political establishment to colossally exaggerate both the malignance of the enemy of the moment, and the danger it poses to the United States.
Instead of a Communist-led nationalist movement to reunify Vietnam, the Vietnamese Communists were portrayed as a force that could start toppling a row of “dominoes” that would end with Communist victory in France and Mexico. Instead of a tinpot regional dictator, Saddam Hussein became a nuclear menace to the U.S. homeland. The Taliban, an entirely Afghan force, supposedly had to be fought in Afghanistan so that we would not need to fight them in the United States.
And today, U.S. officials in their rhetoric somehow manage to combine the supposed beliefs both that Russia is so weak that Ukraine can completely defeat the Russian army and catastrophically undermine the Russian state, and that Russia is so strong that if not defeated in Ukraine it will pose a mortal threat to NATO and freedom around the world.
As Loren Baritz wrote in 1985 concerning the obliteration of the memory of Vietnam in the United States:
“Our power, complacency, rigidity and ignorance have kept us from incorporating our Vietnam experience into the way we think about ourselves and the world… But there is no need to think unless there is doubt. Freed of doubt, we are freed of thought.”
It would be nice to think that on this anniversary, and faced with even greater dangers in Ukraine, the U.S. establishment and media will devote some serious thought to what happened in Afghanistan.
Anatol Lieven is Director of the Eurasia Program at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He was formerly a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar and in the War Studies Department of King’s College London.
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