Our Plan In Afghanistan Was Doomed From the Start
By David H. Schanzer
The speed with which the Afghan government collapsed over the weekend after two decades of American investments was stunning. Yet the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan was inevitable. The seeds of this defeat were sown in the flawed theory, crafted almost 20 years ago, that we could create a stable, democratic, reasonably competent government in a war-torn, deeply tribal country with a centuries-long history of resisting foreign intervention.
Of course, mistakes were made along the way. In the end, though, this assignment was simply a bridge too far, destined to end in chaos and tragedy.
To understand why we embarked on this mission, we must return to the days and weeks after 9/11. Prior to these heinous attacks, America considered itself the victorious power in the Cold War engaged in a global effort to spread our influence and values throughout the world. 9/11 was a gut punch to our sense of security and the perception that American values were universally welcomed around the world. Instead of developing a strategy exclusively targeted at incapacitating al Qaeda and like-minded groups, George W. Bush decided to double down on the belief that spreading American ideals was the cure to all the world’s ills, including violent Islamist extremism.
Under this ambitious world view, American goals in Afghanistan were not merely denying al Qaeda a safe haven and punishing the Taliban for harboring them. Instead, we aspired to transform Afghanistan into a modern nation-state built on ideals of democracy, pluralism, and tolerance — a state strong enough to resist and defeat radical Islamism.
The architects of this strategy looked toward the highly successful U.S. reconstruction efforts in Japan and Germany after World War II as examples. There, the U.S. reaped a huge return on investment. We occupied the countries militarily for short period, helped rebuild them, constructed democratic institutions, and gradually welcomed both countries into our alliance of democratic nations.
The odds of repeating this history in Afghanistan, however, were always virtually zero. In 2001, Afghanistan’s gross domestic product was $114 — ranking the country dead last of the 195 nations of the world, with a literacy rate hovering around 20 percent. This was hardly post-war Germany or Japan.
Moreover, for centuries, both rulers and outside invaders had struggled, but failed, to exert control over the entire Afghan populace. There was nothing in the country’s recent history to suggest that centralized governance would be welcomed and accepted. Hostility to foreign occupation and intervention had been woven into the Afghan DNA. That hostility would be directed at the new intervenor — the United States — no matter how well intentioned, generous and decent the intervention was (and of course many did not see our intervention as beneficent at all). Our large-scale presence in Afghanistan allowed the Taliban, which ruled the country horribly in the 1990s, to embrace the highly popular role of the resistance to outsiders.
An even greater problem was the lack of an Afghanistan national identity. Nationalism has often been identified as a toxic element in international affairs. However, some level of national identity is necessary to maintain a nation state. Afghanistan’s social structure is not built around the idea of nationhood, but rather allegiance to family, villages and tribes. For 20 years now, we have seen Afghans make choices based not on what is best for their country, but what will best protect and help their families and kin. So, when the Taliban could offer many Afghans more protection and a better livelihood than the distant Afghan government in Kabul, they sided with the Taliban.
More damaging still, our Afghan project was unable to stem government corruption. To succeed in defeating a deep-rooted insurgency like the Taliban, the local government must have popular legitimacy. Endemic corruption by government officials eroded any possibility that the nation-building effort Bush launched could ever succeed. Poor, struggling Afghans viewed government officials getting rich — often by siphoning off American largess — with hostility and disdain. The rugged, austere Taliban benefitted mightily in the public’s eye in comparison officials in Kabul padding their bank accounts.
America has gone through multiple cycles of recrafting it strategy and goals in Afghanistan. At each turn, though, it has bumped up against one critical flaw — the impossibility of creating a sustainable government against the vibrant Taliban insurgency. As the memory of the 9/11 attacks waned, popular opinion turned against sending our servicemembers in pursuit of this fruitless, never-ending task.
The politicians eventually caught up with public opinion.
At the beginning of his term, Obama agreed to a surge of troops to mount a counterinsurgency, but demanded time limits to the endeavor, setting the stage for a drawdown. Trump was hostile to nation-building from the beginning and entered unilateral negotiations with the Taliban that undercut the legitimacy of the Afghan government. The agreement that emerged in February 2020 was merely a timetable for American withdrawal that did not even pretend to create a framework to push the Taliban toward peace. By the time Biden entered office, having campaigned to end American involvement in the war, Trump had pushed troop levels down to 2500, the lowest since 2001.
With our tiny presence in the country and fighting season about to begin, Biden would have had to send more troops and get them more involved in direct fighting to stave off the Taliban, a position that would have been opposed by a strong bipartisan majority of the American public.
Instead, Biden bravely faced the inevitable by sticking with Trump’s withdrawal. Corrupt, incompetent, and now abandoned by its patron, the Afghan government was nothing but a hollow shell. No wonder the Afghan troops wouldn’t fight; there was nothing left to fight for. Bush’s post-9/11 nation-building project had failed. America would now have no choice but to manage the consequences.
David Schanzer is a professor of the practice at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and director of the Triangle Center on Terrorism and Homeland Security.