U.S. Marine escorting Afghan evacuees at Kabul Airport. Photo by Staff Sgt. Victor Mancilla, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The images of American soldiers passing babies over a fence-moat at the Kabul airport in a desperate attempt to help citizens and some of their collaborators flee amidst a sudden collapse of the Afghan government in September 2021 were all too predictable.¹ The United States spent an estimated $2.313 trillion in Afghanistan and lost 2,324 soldiers along with more than 10 times as many local casualties, with little of lasting value to show.² Indeed, the complete and sudden collapse of the local government, suspect because of its utter reliance on foreign support for security and finances, should not have been a surprise to those who have noted the continual machinations of that government, including its preference for making deals with regional warlords rather than building democratic roots. Such was a symptom of a system that was rife with well-publicized corruption from the start.³ The trillions of dollars were siphoned off instead of being invested into projects that would have created popular support throughout the country.
The tragic outcome of two decades wasted on ineffective nation- building goes well beyond Afghanistan. It includes the unnecessary debacle of the invasion of Iraq and the continuing civil war in Libya. In each case, the rush to war reveals that the sources of conflict are often not the result of careful calculations, as most political scientists would posit. Rather, they are irrational, although falling into recognizable patterns.⁴ An even greater tragedy would be to draw a lesson of isolationism from such incredible miscalculations.
The dubious origins of Western intervention
Let’s consider the roots of the incursions. The first intervention was Afghanistan, which President George W. Bush announced on September 20, 2001.⁵ The mood in the United States was one of bloodthirsty revenge, understandable in the wake of the 9/11 downing of the World Trade Center and attack on the Pentagon. These incidents were unprecedented in American history and far beyond the magnitude of the attack on the naval base at Pearl Harbor at the outset of World War II. Bush’s rhetoric created a Manichean perspective of good-and-evil, with-us-or-against-us, at one time evoking the Old West “Wanted Dead or Alive” poster in relation to Osama Bin Laden. The presentation contained a general ideology similar to colonialism, manifested in its references to “religious extremism” and backwardness, including repressing women’s rights. In other words, the mission became not just finding Bin Laden and holding him responsible, but bringing civilization to barbarians. Support from the country was overwhelming.
The next intervention was Iraq, in 2003. There was no reason to think Iraq had anything to do with the 9/11 attacks. Bin Laden and most of the hijackers were Saudis. Al Qaeda had no known bases in Iraq. The grievances against Iraq were of a different nature, as evoked by President Bush in his March 18, 2003, speech justifying the war, but were cloaked in the ongoing need to avenge 9/11.⁶ Saddam Hussein, Iraq’s dictator, whose more secular approach made him an ally during the Cold War and the Iraq-Iran conflict of the 1980s, remained a thorn in U.S. policymaking elites’ side by surviving the disastrous defeat of his army after the 1990 Kuwait invasion. Saddam was accused of developing “weapons of mass destruction,” but the results of UN weapons inspections were unclear. His obfuscation is hard to understand, though perhaps it served a deterrent purpose in a moment of weakness following his defeat in 1991 and the imposition of sanctions. Regardless, the spectre of a “mushroom cloud” repeatedly evoked by the Bush administration was enough to justify another well-supported rush to war, in the afterburn of 9/11. Even in the wake of flimsy evidence, as famously presented by Secretary of State Colin Powell to the United Nations, there was no real media scrutiny and little questioning of the reasons for war at the time. The irrationality spread to the U.K., where Prime Minister Tony Blair declared his ill-fated tribal allegiance to the cause.
The third intervention is a bit more surprising, because it came under the administration of Barack Obama, a president who had campaigned on his moral separation from the Iraq war. Like Saddam, Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi had been a fly in the West’s ointment for many decades, from complicity in the 1988 Lockerbie bombing to supporting revolutionary movements around Africa. The rebellion that started in eastern Libya came in the wake of the “Arab Spring” which, beginning in Tunisia and spreading to Egypt and eventually to Syria, sparked Western aspirations for the spontaneous creation of likeminded democracies in a region that supplied most of the world’s oil yet presented the greatest threat in terms of terrorism.
The push to “free Libya” gained momentum with European impetus. While Americans have gained all the attention, French intervention in the name of civilization has taken place more quietly, for example in Chad and Mali, with similarly limited results. In Libya, the price for liberation seemed relatively cheap, as no American soldiers would invade. The allies just needed to provide air cover and supplies to the rebels in Benghazi and the “good guys” would win and create democracy. The result in Libya, as in Syria, has been ongoing civil war. Egypt moved backwards from democracy to a reactionary dictatorship. Only Tunisia, where no major intervention took place, has shown progress towards democracy.
The abysmal failure of human intelligence
The results of emotionally based strategies are foretold disasters, as Gabriel García Marquez might say. There was no clear strategic aim, definition or metric for success. Military victory turned into nation-building, which meant choosing sides in fragmented societies. Choosing sides led to backlash and resistance. There was and remains a stunning lack of regional understanding, what intelligence operators call human intelligence or “humint.” In Iraq, the clear backlash of the Sunnis against Shi’a rule, the interference of Iran, the development of extremism in response to democratic breakdowns, and the sabotage of basic infrastructure to undermine the economy could have been predicted by anyone with a basic understanding of the regional context. The abysmal failure of humint helps to explain the shock of the U.S. military at the rapid collapse of the Afghan client regime, when in fact the army was known to be filled with “ghost soldiers,” existing only in name, and the Taliban had expanded their positions from the countryside into urban areas over the previous decade.
The history of rebellion generally shows that military success is just the starting point. Only political settlement can restore peace and create the conditions for improved governance.⁷ Removing a dictator is like taking the cork out of a bottle of volatile gas: the pent-up frustration from decades of repression is bound to explode. Yet, when Biden pulled out, the military-industrial complex cried that they needed more – more time, more resources – to finish the job, ignoring two decades of abject failure to achieve either military or political victory.
They cite the ongoing military installations in South Korea and Japan and support for Taiwan, as well as the transformation of Germany after World War II, as models for what could be done. Here again, they miss obvious elements of context. U.S. hegemony in the wake of World War II and the defeat of the German and Japanese militaries was total. Though the occupying armies appeared to remake the two countries into well-functioning Western democracies, what really happened was that ethnically homogeneous nations remade themselves in an evolutionary timescale, perhaps with imitation of the victors having some effect as a catalyst.
The democracies that took hold in Germany and Japan are idiosyncratic, reflecting local conditions and historical experiences. After the war, the Christian Democrats held power for 20 years in Germany, while the Liberal Democratic Party has had a virtual stranglehold on power in Japan. In Taiwan and homogeneous South Korea, dictatorships, not democracy, ensued in the wake of the war. Their more recent moves toward democracy therefore have little to do with military occupation.
Equally important are the global and regional contexts of historical nation-building. The global context was one of a common enemy in terms of the fear of the spread of Communism. This was a common external threat, unlike Islamic extremism, which results in good part from internal repression, lack of economic opportunity and ethnic frustration, and is spread across wide swaths of the globe beyond the Middle East. West Germans only had to look at their divided country and the police state constructed in East Germany to know who their allies were. The Marshall Plan and the development of the European Union in return for military alliance worked hand-in-hand as an “alliance dividend” in Europe. In Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the postwar boom stimulated by industrial policy and American acquiescence to their neomercantilist practices had a similar effect. In constructing a liberal international order and opening its markets, the United States offered its allies in the anti-Communist struggle a very good economic deal in exchange for their cooperation.
Understanding internal-external dynamics
The resulting discourse around lessons of nation-building is dichotomous. The populist explosion under the banner of Trump’s America First agenda⁸ speaks to the breakdown of the Cold War alliance, the erosion of the U.S.’s ability to lead on international economic collective goods as Western economies suffer body blows from China’s highly successful neomercantilist industrial policies, and a wringing of hands at its failed attempts to nation-build. These are countered by provocateurs who would have us return to a neocolonialist approach to ensuring order,9 and neocons who urge ever higher military budgets and continuing occupations to meet the Chinese and terrorist threats. A ratcheting cycle of revenge ensues from such arms races, diverting precious resources from addressing the root causes of the unhappiness. In Afghanistan and elsewhere, only the military effort was ever given adequate resources or attention.
In fact, there is no way the West can retreat from the world. Failing states across the globe, from Somalia to Central America, are not only creating havens for extremism but are also sources of humanitarian and environmental crises of global proportions, from piracy to massive migration. Haiti is the latest example showing that laissez-faire is a completely unattractive option, especially when the alternative to being involved is that the space is occupied by other external powers, such as Russia in Syria, or becomes a haven for terrorism like Somalia. Simply put, the regional context, such as Pakistan’s crucial role in Afghanistan or Iran’s role in Iraq, cannot be ignored; Western power is proportionately far less than it was during colonial times.
The question therefore is: how can we play a more constructive role, build institutions around the world that are stable and accountable, and bring along the necessary prosperity that will dissipate global crises? The starting point is to return to a deeper appreciation and study of local history and dynamics, to build from what exists and deeply set patterns instead of attempting to impose new patterns from scratch. Once political settlement leads to peace, the next step is to nudge local institutions toward locally idiosyncratic democratic and economic evolution on the basis of rule of law, transparency, constitutional rights and orderly democratic transition. Incipient – if somewhat naive – efforts such as the UN’s anticorruption commissions in Central America are a good prototype. The West can offer major financial and trade incentives for such change, but only if it’s patient and empathetic toward local realities. Most importantly, an appreciation for the evolutionary, long-term nature of values change is necessary. Shifting group identities toward a new form of nationalism or democratic values requires generations of work. After all, Western institutions were built over centuries, not decades, and the most recent wave of populist polarization should give us pause to appreciate the ongoing effort required to maintain democracy.