Should The U.S. Have Left Afghanistan?

by | Jul 21, 2023

Military training does not help fundamentalist countries in the absence of value training, and value training could only work if a large portion of the population became pro-reason and thus pro-individual rights.

Actually, we should never have gone to Afghanistan in the first place.

The disintegration of the Afghanistan army after the U.S. withdrawal should not have come as a surprise to anyone who followed the conflict. Afghanistan is a third-world country dominated by the Islamic religion. Fundamentalist Islam is anti-reason and based on mysticism, including the belief that so-called natural law is nothing more than God’s whim, which may change at any time. Fundamentalist Islam does not believe in individual rights and is especially contemptuous of women, who are viewed as inferior creatures who must not even be educated. It advocates total subservience or death for those who reject the faith. Islam views the epitome of moral achievement to consist of self-immolation in the service of killing non-believers. The reward for men who are faithful will be meeting virgins in Heaven—it is not clear whether the women will have any choice in the matter. It is no wonder that Afghans who want freedom try to immigrate to freer countries such as the U.S.

The Afghans defeated the Russians when they tried to take over the country. The U. S. hoped to do better in Afghanistan by defeating the Taliban. We did hold them at bay, but they did not go away. The intervention consisted of extensive training of the Afghan military and various reforms and building projects, including schools for women. It also consisted of many thousands of U. S. troops and fighter planes to hold the country together in the face of the Taliban and other fundamentalist groups. The delusion was that most Afghans would learn to defend themselves and eventually function without our help. Except for one small group of dedicated fighters, they never did. What was the problem?

Military training does not help fundamentalist countries in the absence of value training, and value training could only work if a large portion of the population became pro-reason and thus pro-individual rights. This would mean they would be willing to fight to the death for freedom. It seems unlikely that such training ever occurred. If it did occur, it did not work except perhaps on a very small scale. The change would be too radical. So, in reality, the Afghans we trained to fight were fighting against their own religion and/or people of their own religion, and their fight was based presumably on differences of opinion on the application of Islam.

            Let’s go deeper. Could we have even tried value training in depth and on a wide scale? Most assuredly not, because a core but false axiom today is that all religions and philosophies are morally equal. Telling the Afghans that their philosophy was fundamentally wrong, even though true, would have been viewed as unthinkable—just more “western imperialism.”

But say we had tried. What would have been the reaction? It would have been negative. You cannot come into a third-world country and tell them to just shape up when their anti-freedom philosophy has been considered a virtual axiom for millennia. The entire fundamentalist way of thinking of any religion is alien to the Enlightenment, which took centuries to flourish in the west. Similarly, large-scale cultural change in third-world countries could take centuries.

So, what should we do with such countries? As noted previously, we should achieve the highest degree of separation possible between our world and theirs. The only exception should be if they terrorize our allies or us. Then, we should respond with severe but focused military reprisals (but not occupation).

It is obvious that our government made the same error in Vietnam. South Vietnam was a third-world country mired in centuries of aristocratic rule. Their populace was not inspired by any kind of Declaration of Independence. The few who were pro-rights were no match for millions of soldiers from the North who defeated the French and were happy to die for communism.

What lesson needs to be learned from these fiascos? The key is to provide military support only to countries that are already committed to freedom and are willing to fight for it. This means that they must already support to some degree Western, pro-rights values. Examples would include Australia, Canada, Israel, Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. (I would, of course, include European countries, so long as they pay their fair share of the NATO budget.) I would include Ukraine because the country has shown that it is willing to fight to the death for its freedom. The U.S. should have treaties with such countries, not out of altruism but out of self-interest.

Presumably, Americans themselves will fight to the death for freedom. It will be beneficial if America has allies that will do the same. Afghanistan was no such ally. To repeat, we should never have gone there in the first place. It is very tragic that our soldiers fought heroically for an outcome that was out of reach.

Edwin A. Locke is Dean's Professor of Leadership and Motivation Emeritus at the R.H. Smith School of Business, University of Maryland. He is a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science (APS), the American Psychological Association, the Society for Industrial & Organizational Behavior, and the Academy of Management. He is the recipient of the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (Society for I/O Psychology), the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Academy of Management (OB Division), the J. M. Cattell Award (APS) and the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award from the Academy of Management. He, with Gary Latham, has spent over 50 years developing Goal Setting Theory, ranked No. 1 in importance among 73 management theories. He has published over 320 chapters, articles, reviews and notes, and has authored or edited 13 books including (w. Kenner) The Selfish Path to Romance, (w. Latham) New Directions in Goal Setting and Task Performance, and The Prime Movers: Traits of the Great Wealth Creators. He is internationally known for his research on motivation, job satisfaction, leadership, and other topics. His website is:

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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