Seventeen years, 2,351 Americans dead, 20,094 wounded. These grim numbers scarcely begin tell the story of the Afghanistan war, which marked its 17th anniversary [this year]. It’s been a tragic failure, but for reasons few people understand.
A lot went wrong, but the common explanations fall short. Was the Afghanistan war a failure of the military? That’s false and unjust. Even granting mistakes and tactical errors, these pale in significance when you appreciate the vast military superiority of U.S. forces and their coalition allies — compared with the Islamist fighters, known for their improvised explosive devices, Cold War-era rifles, and battered pickup trucks. Nor was it fundamentally a matter of troop numbers or a shortage of resources, because at various times these were “surged” upward, yet the war kept grinding on.
What was the war’s goal? At minimum it should have been to remove the Taliban regime, which had provided safe haven to al Qaeda, and to leave Afghanistan a non-threat. (That would have been a valid first step on the path to forcefully confronting the wider Islamist movement, an ideological cause encompassing not only al Qaeda but also those regimes that spearhead the movement.) But the war’s actual goal was not primarily to eliminate whatever threat existed in Afghanistan; rather, it was to carry out nation-building: “reconstructing” Afghanistan, pouring in billions of dollars, and mounting elections.
You’ve doubtless heard that the U.S.-led coalition forces quickly toppled the Taliban regime; at the time, some chalked that up as a victory. What actually happened is that the Taliban and their al Qaeda allies were given advance notice in the form of an ultimatum — hand over Osama bin Laden or we’ll come for him — and when the fighting began, some Islamist forces were allowed to escape.
Some fighters took refuge in the lawless territory along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. By 2006, they had re-armed and launched a resurgence, seizing control of territory. Since then, Islamist forces — not only the Taliban, but also offshoots of the Islamic State — have continued their fight.
On the battlefield, in keeping with the nation-building goal, U.S. forces were hamstrung by self-crippling rules of engagement; for example, the military had to avoid hitting holy sites or mosques, where enemy forces were known to hide. Such constraints subordinated the lives of American soldiers while handing enemy forces tactical advantages.
From viewing the Afghanistan war as an early, decisive victory, we come to today’s nadir: the straight-faced proposal to coax the undefeated Taliban to meet us at the negotiating table for “peace” talks.
What has set the direction of American policy, from basic goal to battlefield conduct, are particular ideas about morality.
The United States could have defeated the Islamist forces in Afghanistan, but we did not believe we had a moral right to. What we believed to be morally acceptable was to pursue a policy aimed at serving the needs of others, the impoverished Afghans — while deluding ourselves that benefits somehow would come our way. This approach flows from the commonly held ethic that we are our brother’s keeper.
The Afghanistan debacle is an object lesson in the power of philosophic ideas to shape our culture, politics and lives. Guided by self-denying moral ideas, U.S. policy ended up needlessly miring us in a no-win war. To adapt an observation from Ayn Rand: It is philosophy that has brought us to this low point in our foreign policy — it is only (rational) philosophic ideas that can lead us toward a better future.
First published in The Hill.