Rethinking Afghanistan after a Decade

Reading what I wrote about Afghanistan a decade ago reminded me of how much my understanding of the role of war and hard power in upholding security for the nation and the world has changed. Actually, it seems clear to me that my views on Afghanistan back in 2001 were an exception to my general skepticism about Western interventions in the non-Western world, a view formed during ten years of opposition to the American role in the Vietnam War. At the time, with the Al-Qaeda attacks so recently seared into my political consciousness, and some anxiety that more attacks of a similar kind were likely to follow, it seemed logical and helpful to adopt a war strategy as part of an overall effort to disrupt the mega-terrorist capabilities to inflict further harm either in this country or somewhere else on the planet.

Although I realized that the international law argument for attacking Afghanistan, with the clear objective of regime change, was weak absent the exhaustion of diplomatic remedies, such considerations were overcome in my mind by the political argument for doing immediately whatever was necessary to uphold security in this country and generally and by the moral argument that any successor government to what was being imposed on the Afghan people by the Taliban would almost inevitably be a step in the right direction. At first, these early assessments of mine seemed vindicated, but now, with the benefit of ten further years of military engagement and retrospective insight, a reappraisal is long overdue.

There were some reasons for skepticism and worry from the outset of the approach to Afghanistan. The manner in which the air war was conducted and its failure to adopt tactics designed to have a maximum impact on Al-Qaeda’s capabilities were disturbing to me from the beginning of the military operations. The American military undertaking seemed poorly conceived and implemented, naively relying on untrustworthy coordination with Afghan ground forces that had their own distinct agendas, often at odds with US counter-terrorist priorities. This unreliability should have been known on the basis of intelligence and prior counterinsurgency experience. But the US government, and especially the Rumsfeld Pentagon, was ideologically committed to fighting the war with minimum American ground involvement, thereby avoiding heavy American casualties while still achieving the goals of the intervention. This was proclaimed at the time to represent a test case for a “revolutionary” transformation of warfare in which technology displaced troops on the ground. We learned very soon that virtually the entire Al-Qaeda leadership had managed to escape across the border to Pakistan along with its main cadre of militant trained fighters.

Beyond this central mission failure, the promised regime change in Afghanistan quickly became a costly and obvious fool’s errand. The authority of the new political leadership in Kabul, handpicked by Washington, could hardly extend its writ beyond the capital city, despite its dependence on the delegitimizing presence of foreign occupying forces. This led over time to the resurgence and regrouping of a variety of forces of national resistance to foreign occupation as well as to the unexpected revival of the Taliban as both a fighting force and a serious political challenger for control of the country.

Faulty perceptions in this post-9/11 period, including my own, ignored the lessons of Vietnam. It was one thing to mount a counter-terrorist operation against the Al-Qaida presence in Afghanistan, which was itself an alien intrusion on national political space, but another for the leading country in the West to seek to override the workings of self-determination within Afghanistan so as to impose a governing structure and political culture more to its liking. This renewed reliance on counterinsurgency thinking, of which General David Petraeus (now the director of the CIA) was the most influential voice within the military, sought to overcome memories of defeat in Vietnam by adopting an approach more friendly to and respectful of the indigenous culture and the human rights of the people supposedly being protected. But it is one thing to be abstractly sensitive in these ways and another to remain a benevolent presence when you are killing the inhabitants of a country, especially its women and children, while simultaneously doing everything possible to minimize risks of injury and death to one’s own troops. In the circumstances that exist in Afghanistan, these two sincerely held objectives are often in tension, with notable incidents leading to anger either at the scene in Afghanistan or at home in the United States.

It is ironic that Petraeus, despite his historical knowledge and political acumen and his own prior efforts to right the mistakes of the past, relied on drone strikes at a rate of ten times that of his predecessor, resulting in a predictable rise in civilian casualties and popular alienation. The use of sophisticated unmanned aircraft firing missiles at human targets carries to new heights the technological one-sidedness of such counterinsurgency warfare, where as much of the risk as possible is shifted to the territorial society and those who pick targets in safety have neither accountability for deliberate or accidental wrongs nor leverage over the political dynamics within the country being targeted. It is this disabling irony that has yet to have its proper impact on American policymaking. Our political leaders seem unwilling to learn that, in the early twenty-first century, military dominance rarely translates into favorable political outcomes at acceptable costs.

Despite the evidence supporting such an interpretation of recent historical trends, the mistakes of the past are stubbornly repeated, and such a pattern calls for an explanation. It is necessary to consider the impact of factors that overcome the expected rationality of government decision-making and problem-solving. Perhaps the most important of these is the emergence of what Mark Selden calls “the permanent warfare state” in the United States. The country has for decades made a disproportionate investment in achieving military dominance on a global scale.1 The existence of such expensive capabilities generates strong bureaucratic and ideological pressures to rely on military approaches to ensure a favorable outcome of international conflicts. After all, if the United States spends more than the next ten countries in the world combined, there must be a commensurate political payoff or else it is extremely discrediting with respect to the use of taxpayer revenues in a setting of intense fiscal concern about government spending.

It is this hard-power dogmatism that has led the United States, along with its Western junior partners, to engage in a nation-building war in Afghanistan that seems destined for defeat and humiliation. As the Afghan saying goes: “You got the watches, we got the time.” Because the benefits to the United States of persisting in Afghanistan despite the costs seem so uncertain as compared to the clear goals of the opposition to rid the country of foreign occupiers, it seems likely that the longer-term and deeper commitments of the Afghan national resistance will eventually reap the rewards of its persistence. Of course, this prediction is reinforced by the low quality of the Karzai government, which undermined its democratizing claim by stealing the most recent faux elections and through its corrupting links to the drug trade and warlords. In the twenty-first century, those who cooperate with foreign invaders and occupiers rarely are able to claim “mission accomplished” with any credibility at the end of the day.

It is important also to realize that this was not the case in the colonial era, during which the superior military technology of the colonialists generally prevailed without large losses or major expenditures. Prior to World War II, there was insufficient confidence in the capacity of most non-Western societies to mount an effective national resistance to a determined military intervention, although even then Afghanistan stood out as the one country in Asia that colonial powers found impossible to pacify in a manner that served their interests, with both Britain and Russia failing in their attempts to do so. It is difficult for Americans to appreciate that foreign occupation poses such a stiff challenge to self-determination as to be very rarely viewed as liberating or legitimate by the civilian majority in a country subject to military intervention.

Such generalizations need to be distinguished from the sorts of interventions that seem to have been effective in Kosovo in 1999 and maybe again this year in Libya. In Kosovo, the foreign intervention was a rescue operation in support of a domestic struggle of the Albanian overwhelming majority against what was perceived to be Serbian alien rule sustained by atrocities against Kosovars and posing an imminent threat of violent ethnic cleansing. It was, to the extent that the people of Kosovo enjoyed the status of being “a people” in international law, possible to consider the NATO intervention as being in furtherance of self-determination rather than an attempt to impose a Western-oriented outcome. True, the clarity of such an endorsement of the Kosovo War is qualified by the absence of any UN Security Council authorization for the use of force and by NATO’s controversial reliance on high-altitude bombing that killed an estimated five hundred civilians on the ground.2 The post-conflict establishment of Camp Bondsteel, a huge NATO military base, also raises questions about the purity of the alleged protective intentions.

In the case of Libya, although the NATO operations ignored the limits of the UN Security Council authorization, the military action reinforced a struggle already underway in the country, and backed by a majority of the population, against a hated dictator who was engaging in indiscriminate violence against his own people and threatening to do worse. It remains to be seen whether the victors in Libya can bring constitutional democracy and an equitable economy to the country, but at least the intervention is highly unlikely to engender national resistance as there is no foreign occupation contemplated. There are already concerns about the prospect of manipulation behind the scenes by the intervening parties to bring big profits to NATO oil companies and construction firms. If these concerns materialize, it could be quite discrediting to the nationalist claims of the new Transitional National Council leadership. Nevertheless, as of now, the main point stands: with UN backing, without any intention of foreign occupation and military bases, against an existing cruel, exploitative, and oppressive ruler, and in support of an existing oppositional movement, a Western military intervention can achieve its initial goals, but even then, not without evoking considerable controversy and raising suspicions about ulterior motives. Phase one is regime change, as has taken place with the defeat of the Qaddafi regime; phase two is constitutional state-building and equitable and sustainable development, which depends on national will and capabilities and remains to be achieved in Libya.

There was another major dimension of the Afghanistan War that appeared different in 2001 as compared to 2011. What I failed to appreciate then, and what has still not been properly registered in mainstream foreign-policy thinking, is that during the presidency of George W. Bush, the grand strategic emphasis was placed on control of the Middle East. This objective of grand strategy took precedence over the successful prosecution of the post-9/11 struggle against terrorism. The two different undertakings were misleadingly merged in public consciousness by relying on the unifying, yet diversionary label of “global war on terror,” but in fact, while Afghanistan was directly linked to the 9/11 attacks, the government of Saddam Hussein in Iraq was only indirectly, if at all, linked.

The Iraq War launched in 2003 increased anti-American resentment throughout the Islamic world and was at odds with an all-out struggle against Al-Qaeda, which would have given continuing priority to consolidating the early gains in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Instead, after the military attacks on Afghanistan produced the collapse of Taliban rule, the American emphasis immediately shifted dramatically to the Iraq War, and Afghanistan became a forgotten sideshow, which encouraged the steady deterioration of political order in the country, making a mockery of early claims of achieving a liberating political change welcomed by the population. Obama tried to overcome this unfortunate legacy of neoconservative foreign policy by promising both to end the Iraq War, a commitment that remains problematic and unfulfilled, and to view the Afghanistan War as requiring renewed attention due to its relevance to the challenge of terrorism.

Finally, ten years after 9/11, the road not taken of law enforcement, intelligence collaboration, occasional special-forces covert undertakings in foreign countries, and the defense of human rights at home and abroad seems attractive on a number of grounds. It would have avoided the costly, mostly failed efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would have avoided the national humiliation associated with the panicky recourse to torture that led to the globally discrediting disclosures of systematic abuse of detainees at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and a homeland-security apparatus containing many features of authoritarian governance. It would have strengthened claims by the United States to provide benevolent world-order leadership based on minimizing the role of war and military solutions while maximizing the role of law, international police cooperation, and diplomacy, including efforts to take steps to acknowledge and overcome the legitimate grievances of the Arab World, especially the American failure to push for a fair and balanced solution to the Palestine/Israel conflict. This approach would have also allowed the United States to concentrate its political imagination and resources on meeting domestic infrastructure problems and addressing such rising global challenges as climate change and persistent extreme poverty. Furthermore, such a non-war path in response to the 9/11 attacks could have demonstrated a realization of the limits of hard-power approaches to the solution of conflict and security problems in the early twenty-first century and avoided falling again into the traps unwittingly set for the country by pro-interventionists and counterinsurgency advocates. Of course, a counterfactual portrayal of the decade is by definition unaware of the bumps in the road that would undoubtedly have been encountered, especially if further attacks had been successfully launched on high-value targets within the United States. Even conceding this unknowability, this alternative path would have been in closer accord with our “better angels” and corresponded with American claims on the global stage to be the home of moral exceptionalism. If it failed once, having been tried, the grounds for a more muscular approach would have been responsibly laid.

These retrospective comments are meant to be nonpartisan as far as internal American politics are concerned. The Bush approach after 9/11 enjoyed overwhelming support among the citizenry and in Congress. There were no influential dissenting voices. The mobilization of national unity on the basis of fear and anger, and reinforced by patriotic pride, was intense, effective, and unconditional. My regrets about the policies pursued are mainly preoccupied with the deficiencies of American political culture given the realities and challenges of our world. Unless the political mind of the country becomes quickly disenchanted with military approaches to conflict resolution, there is every likelihood of repeating the mistakes of the past decade, which will intensify dangerous storm clouds that already cast dark shadows menacing the future well-being of the country and the world.


Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor of International Law Emeritus at Princeton University, where he was a member of the faculty for forty years. Since 2002, he has been research professor of global studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is chair of the board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and directs a research project on climate change.‬

  1. For more on this development, see Mark Selden and Alvin Y. So, eds., War and State Terrorism: The United States, Japan, and the Asia-Pacific in the Long Twentieth Century (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003).
  2. Human Rights Watch, Civilian Deaths in the NATO Air Campaign (New York: HWR, February 2000), http://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/nato/index.htm.