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The Lesson of Afghanistan

Foreign Policy Brief #132 | By: Brandon Mooney | September 28, 2021

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Policy Summary

With the U.S. military officially pulling out of Afghanistan, an almost 20-year conflict and the longest war in American history comes to an end, alongside a mandate from all those whose lives were lost and impacted to reflect upon what the war and its legacy meant. Although I am sure that the reader knows or at least has a general idea of the evolution of the War in Afghanistan, a quick summary is needed to better understand the coming analysis section and bring those who may not be as versed in the conflict up to speed.

Beginning in 2001 following the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers in New York City, the Bush administration insisted that the Taliban-controlled government in Afghanistan hand over Osama bin Laden and cease allowing al Qaeda operatives to train, find haven, etc. inside the country. When these demands were not met, the U.S. alongside its NATO allies rolled into Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban regime within a short spate of time. A democratic government headed by Hamid Karzai and run by domestic Afghani elites that were friendly to Western powers and had been fighting the Taliban since the mid-1990s was put into place. It would not take long before said government was dogged by accusations of corruption, nepotism, and election fraud. Meanwhile, not only did bin Laden manage to escape, but the Taliban fell back to and began to operate out of Pakistan, conducting an effective guerilla campaign against U.S. and NATO forces for the remaining years of the war.

Rather than declare the mission objective of toppling the Taliban and preventing Afghanistan from being a sanctuary for terrorists threatening U.S. security, the Bush administration would begin a decades long endeavor to build a new Afghanistan in the image of the West, with women’s rights, democratic freedoms, a modern education system, etc. being chief aims. This nation-building effort would be picked up by the Obama administration, supported by other NATO powers, and tacitly maintained by the Trump administration, before being ended under the current Biden administration.

Policy Analysis

I am not arguing that any of these aims were bad or that the Afghani people are incapable of achieving these aims. Rather, I would argue that these aims were unrealistic due to the sustained will required on the part of the West to maintain necessary manpower and funding, the lack of most Afghani elites putting the national interest first, and the sponsorship of the Taliban by Pakistan.

From the beginning, the success of nation-building in Afghanistan depended upon U.S. and foreign support, which is only achievable through continued public will and support for said spending and conflict. Yet, according to the Pew Research Center, by 2009, 43% of Americans favored withdrawing U.S. troops as soon as possible. To achieve the re-making of Afghanistan, the U.S. and NATO would have had to stay in Afghanistan for many years longer and spend much more. The simple fact is that the American public grew tired and saw little, if any, positive progress.

Photo taken from: Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project

According to the Asia Foundation, surveyed Afghanis in 2012 said that corruption had grown in the past five years, with some evidence that the millions from NGOs and donations were only increasing an already endemic issue. Positioning themselves between those in need and Afghan donors, local warlords, government officials, law enforcement, and other Afghani entities grew impossibly rich. Transparency International has regularly ranked Afghanistan among the top 10 most corrupt nations in the world. The Karzai administration was regularly accused of election fraud, nepotism, taking bribes, not prosecuting connected persons, and stuffing ballot boxes. It is apparent from the swift collapse of the Afghani government following U.S. withdrawal that it was a straw man at best.

  The Pakistani government has supported the Taliban since the beginning, with their interest being the establishment of a friendly regime in Afghanistan. Human Rights Watch would accuse Pakistan of financing, training, recruiting for, giving tactical support to, and sending their own troops to the Taliban before the U.S./NATO invasion. It was even reported that during the fall of the Taliban regime, Pakistani planes were used to evacuate Taliban fighters, Pakistani operatives, and al Qaeda over the border to safety. Bin Laden would later be found living in a compound in northeast Pakistan built in 2005 and less than a mile away from the Pakistani Military Academy. I no doubt stray a bit into conspiracy at this moment, but at the very least, Pakistan had a role to play in the continued insurgency. 

Photo taken from: Canadian Global Affairs Institute

Looking back on the long War in Afghanistan, I draw a few lessons for the U.S. moving forward. First, nation-building is rarely a success and requires a long-term occupation force backed by sustained public will and deep pockets. Wars and conflict are rarely so cut and dry to allow for such scenarios, and it is the height of arrogance to believe so strongly in American exceptionalism that we can overcome any obstacle. Second, democratic states without a strong judiciary, united national goals, and government officials accountable to the people are unlikely to stand for long. Once again, I would never suggest that the Afghani people are incapable of establishing a functioning judicial system or do not wish for better lives or that every official was corrupt. However, pressing Western ideals upon a people with their own or potentially fractured national identity, distinct culture, history, warring factions, and morals is challenging. As the Taliban reassert their control over Afghanistan and push back strides made in public education, women’s rights, religious freedom, etc., I do not see success or even failure. Nothing but a broken promise that was unrealistic from the start.

Engagement Resources​

Click or tap on image to visit resource website.

Taimani One – a website with foreign policy briefs from NPR’s former head correspondent in Afghanistan.

Islamic Relief USA – a non-profit working to help Afghani refugees and immigrants.

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