The United States initiated a “war on terror” in retaliation for the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. Defeating the Taliban and weakening Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan was a central plank of this project. Now, 20 years later, the US has withdrawn, enabling the Taliban to assume control of the country once again.
As the so-called benefactor to Francis Fukuyama’s speculation about the “end of history” at the dawn of the 21st century, the US assumed the position of global superpower with the end of the Cold War. In this position, the US adopted a hubristic stance that believed it could and should bend the world to its liking.
According to officials in Washington, such a position required an upgraded military. Writing in Foreign Affairs in 2002, just months after the Taliban was toppled, then-Secretary of Defence Donald Rumsfeld spelt out the challenges associated with being a global superpower and the implementation of the United States’ “war on terror”.
“Our challenge in this new century,” he wrote, “is a difficult one: to defend our nation against the unknown, the uncertain, the unseen, and the unexpected.” He explained the mission of the American military “is not simply to fight and win wars; it is to prevent them”.
This goal, however, was too expansive and too self-assured to be effective, let alone practical. It’s one thing to fight wars; it’s another thing entirely to believe the might of the US military can prevent them. Still, such a belief has underpinned two decades of mission creep in Afghanistan, contributing to a lack of clarity and purpose, and disillusionment.
Despite all of the geographical, cultural, social and military blind spots the American military and foreign policy establishment had about Afghanistan, the hubris of the mission underestimated these challenges, rather than trying to understand them. Instead, Afghanistan was viewed as a backdrop for American imperial ambition to be deployed.
Since the withdrawal process began in August, much attention has been paid to President Joe Biden’s chaotic withdrawal and former president Donald Trump’s agreement with the Taliban in 2020. But the roots of Afghanistan’s instability extend to the beginning of the “war on terror”, when the US military-led a broader foreign policy strategy that believed it could and should rebuild Afghanistan — that it knew what was best for Afghanistan.
After the US was attacked in 2001 Americans were eager for a response. In November 2001 eight out of 10 Americans supported a ground war in Afghanistan. There was bipartisan enthusiasm in government too. When the first Authorization for Use of Military Force (2001) was passed, that legislative blank cheque for embarking on the “war on terror”, only one individual — Rep. Barbara Lee — voted against its expansive powers. One week after September 11, 2001, the bill was signed by George W Bush into law.
Even though President Joe Biden explained in July the United States “did not go to Afghanistan to nation-build” and Bush campaigned against nation-building in 2000, the war in Afghanistan was, from the beginning, about more than crippling the Taliban.
In his memoir Decision Points, Bush described Afghanistan as “the ultimate nation-building mission. We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better.” Former presidents aren’t usually this frank, but the implication is clear: the United States believed it could and should leave behind something better in Afghanistan.
At the end of 2001, after Afghanistan had been invaded and the Taliban were severely weakened by United States and coalition forces, the United Nations facilitated the Bonn Agreement, in Germany. With input from various local authorities jockeying for power, it attempted to impose a central governmental infrastructure on a country with a history of regional power structures, and usher in broad social changes.
As the political scientist Shadi Hamid notes, early efforts at nation-building like the Bonn Agreement, “invited resentment” from those it was intended to benefit “by pushing programmes that were meant to reengineer Afghan culture and gender norms.” A flaw in the Bonn Agreement was the mining of Afghanistan’s old constitution for a new blueprint.
This “created a top-heavy system” that inevitably led to the alienation of “other stakeholders, particularly on the local and regional levels”. Such moves, Hamid asserts, “reflected the hubris of Western powers that saw Afghan traditions as an obstacle to be overcome when, it turns out, they were the lifeblood of the country’s political culture”.
In his January 2002 State of the Union Address, when Bush introduced the concept of the “axis of evil” and signalled intentions to enter into conflict with Iraq, he declared “America and Afghanistan are now allies against terror. We’ll be partners in rebuilding that country.” The chairman of the transitional authority stipulated by the Bonn Agreement in Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, who went on to become the country’s president in 2004, was in attendance that night, symbolising the new partnership.
In April 2002, at the Virginia Military Institute, Bush further spelt out the plans for reconstructing Afghanistan. Likening efforts to rebuild Afghanistan to the adoption of the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe after World War II, Bush stated that the United States was “helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from evil and is a better place to live”, with tens of billions of dollars in humanitarian aid.
This became clearer later in the war when the military adopted the strategy of counterinsurgency or Coin, a programme refined by David Petraeus, then-major general in Iraq. In Afghanistan, counterinsurgency reimagined the military as a force for nation-building by utilising cultural and social means, not necessarily violence. Soldiers pivoted to humanitarian and diplomatic means.
After the Bush Administration, many were hopeful Barack Obama’s anti-war rhetoric during the 2008 campaign would end the war in Afghanistan. He campaigned on the notion that the war in Iraq was a “dumb” war, implying that the war in Afghanistan was a “smart” war.
The war in Iraq, which began in March 2003, quickly became unpopular with Americans — and most of the world. By the time the war in Iraq was beginning to be drawn down in 2008, Afghanistan had shifted to the background of American consciousness. Nevertheless, for the Obama administration, it became an arena for the “war on terror” to be revitalised and, ultimately, redeemed.
In 2009 Obama ushered in a “troop surge” in Afghanistan, adding some 17,000 additional soldiers and widening the violent scope of drone programmes. The doctrine of this surge became Coin. Efforts to appeal to Afghans through cultural and social tactics, though, didn’t work, further disillusioned military personnel and contributed to the years-long creep of the mission in Afghanistan.
The premise of nation-building in Afghanistan also contributed to the suspension of the very ideals America’s foreign policy apparatus claimed to be upholding by embarking on the “war on terror”. Some of these are the denial of human rights and due process through indefinite imprisonment in Guantanamo Bay and indiscriminate violence rendered by drones.
The hubris of nation-building in Afghanistan was perhaps demonstrated most clearly during the chaotic withdrawal of the United States military last month. Again, the military and foreign policy establishment greatly underestimated the Taliban and took for granted worsening conditions on the ground.
As the Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in June, if “there is a significant deterioration in security, that could well happen, we discussed this before, I don’t think it’s going to be something that happens from a Friday to a Monday.” However, that’s precisely what happened. When the Taliban descended on Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, the situation deteriorated rapidly.
For 20 years, the longest war in United States history, the line between invasion and nation-building was blurred and, perhaps, one and the same thing. It’s as if the ambition to rebuild Afghanistan was utilised to justify invading. The hubris undergirding this mindset underestimated local actors and conditions in Afghanistan, leading to an inability to commit, the rationalisation of violence as a justification of America’s superior morality, and set the stage for further rule by the Taliban — the very force the United States set out to eradicate. DM