The U.S. spent 20 years, thousands of lives, and trillions of dollars in Afghanistan. Instead of creating a stable, prosperous democracy beloved by its people and defended by all, Washington did the geopolitical equivalent of digging a big hole and filling it with people and money, then paving over it.
With America’s lengthiest nation-building experiment exposed as a catastrophic and tragic waste, the bipartisan War Party is in a frenzy. In the view of those who gave America two decades of endless war, President Joe Biden obviously is to blame. If only the US had hung in there a little longer, everything would be well.
The Afghan state would be competent and honest. The security forces would be loyal, effective, and determined. The country would be prosperous, uplifting people from the village and the city. Afghans would be rallying around the government, which would be seen as beacon of liberty around the world. The Taliban would be acknowledging defeat, sacrificing their beliefs, and joining Afghanistan’s march into a grand liberal future. The assembled masses would be erecting a huge statue to George W. Bush in Kabul’s center, hailing him as Central Asia’s liberator.
Well, maybe not.
The collapse of America’s Afghan project – despite fielding a military supposedly gifted with vast advantages in manpower, equipment, training, and funding – offers a tragic coda to the geopolitical disaster known as the global war on terrorism. Intervention in Afghanistan to destroy or disrupt al-Qaeda and punish the Taliban regime was the best targeted and most justified response to 9/11. The US achieved its objectives quickly, even occasioning a Taliban offer to yield militarily if allowed to participate politically (which, naturally, was rejected by an arrogant administration planning a grand global crusade).
Alas, hubris quickly overwhelmed the mission. The Bush administration decided to bring liberal democracy and centralized governance to a land which had neither. Three administrations poured resources into a set of Afghan institutions that were never as fine and shiny as described by their advocates in Washington. A Marine Corps captain pulled me aside during a Pentagon-organized jaunt to a police academy in Lashkar Gah and said: "someone is always trying to sell you something." Always.
And the sales pitch often turned out to be a packet of lies. As The Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock reported almost two years ago: "A confidential trove of government documents obtained by The Washington Post reveals that senior US officials failed to tell the truth about the war in Afghanistan throughout the 18-year campaign, making rosy pronouncements they knew to be false and hiding unmistakable evidence the war had become unwinnable." For this thousands of Americans and allied military personnel and contractors died. Tens of thousands more were wounded, some maimed for life.
And now Afghans, who have suffered through four decades of conflict, are paying the final bill. An impressive Potemkin state was erected, with the War Party’s lies its bodyguard. As the system implodes, all but the Taliban’s radical Islamist leadership will suffer. Educated professionals who want to live in a liberal society. Normal rural folks who want to live like their forebears and rule themselves. Good people across the land simply desperate for the war to end. All are likely to suffer under a group of brutal extremists who outside of Kabul are behaving little different than two decades ago when they last ruled the country.
Yet Afghanistan was only the beginning for Washington. Even more hideous, and the mission is not yet completed, was the invasion of Iraq. Based on even greater hubris and more outrageous lies – Baghdad’s nonexistent nuclear weapons – Washington invaded Iraq, expecting an effortless cakewalk, installation of a puppet regime, and use of Iraq as a base for future military crusades, including against Iran. The Mesopotamian swamp would be drained, democracy would be established along the Euphrates, and ever "new realities" would be created for everyone else to study. The Neocons strutted triumphant along the Potomac.
But then the insurgents struck widely, al-Qaeda in Iraq emerged, religious war enveloped the land, and Iranian influence flourished. Thousands of Americans died, tens of thousands were wounded, hundreds of thousands of Iraqis died, and millions were displaced. Sectarian politics ruled as religious minorities were forced into foreign exile. Today Iraqis live in a violent nation under an incompetent, corrupt government ever threatened by lawless militias supported by Iran. Washington daily stokes tensions, occupying Iraq to pressure Iran, even killing Iraqis on Iraqi soil without Baghdad’s consent. Heck’uva job, Dubya! So that is what he meant by "Mission Accomplished!"
Libya proved to be another disaster, though costing America no lives directly. Involvement in this conflict was initiated by Bush’s successor, Barack Obama. The latter followed Bush in using fake news to justify another war – claiming that Muammar Khadafy’s threats against insurgents constituted a danger to civilians. The US and its European allies then joined the opposition to overthrow Khadafy in a conflict that killed far more civilians than Washington purported to save. At high humanitarian cost, fighting has continued sporadically over the last decade, drawing in outside states and mercenaries.
The Libyan campaign also cost Washington much credibility. Lying about the allies’ intentions helped gain Russian and Chinese support for UN approval for the operation, but probably ensured that neither Beijing nor Moscow would ever again support a UN authorization for America to use force. Worse, since Khadafy ended up tortured and killed after being pulled from a storm drain, no dictator is likely ever again to voluntarily abandon his nuclear weapons.
Obama also was responsible for perhaps the worst of the U.S.-supported wars: Yemen. As if Uncle Sam did not already too often and deeply kowtow to the corrupt and oppressive Saudi royals, Obama decided that he would back Riyadh’s brutal aggression against its poor neighbor for the purpose of reinstating a pliable puppet as president. After his election, Donald Trump doubled down in supporting the new Saudi crown prince, as willing to slaughter abroad as murder at home and hence, in Trump’s assessment, apparently a perfect US ally.
Washington sold and serviced the aircraft, supplied the munitions, provided the intelligence, and for a time refueled the planes. In what Yemenis called the Saudi-American war hundreds of thousands of Yemeni civilians have died, millions have been displaced, and the vast majority of the population suffers from disease and malnutrition. Combat that the Saudi royals promised would run a few weeks continues after six years. The Biden administration claims to want to end the conflict but continues to support the "defense" of Saudi Arabia’s absolute monarchy as the latter continues to prosecute the war.
This is a stunning, unbroken record of expensive, incompetent, immoral, and inane interventions. In succession the US decided to enter a civil war that already had run two decades and create a centralized, Western-style democracy in Central Asia; remake along American standards an artificial Mideast state bedeviled by sectarian divisions and foreign connections; oust the leader of another artificial state bedeviled by sectarian divisions without the slightest idea who would take over; and support a brutal dictatorship’s invasion of its neighbor in a vain attempt to win favor for the nuclear deal with Iran.
Is it any surprise that none of these went well?
Afghanistan’s slide toward the abyss should become a learning experience for the nation’s foreign policy establishment. The problem of Afghanistan is not just Afghanistan. The arrogance, callousness, and recklessness were evident in the many foreign misadventures that followed.
President Barack Obama offered a much maligned but easily understood summary of his foreign policy: "don’t do stupid sh*t" (reported more demurely as "stuff"). Most Americans would agree with him, even though he failed to follow his own doctrine. It’s too late to save the people of Afghanistan, but the Biden administration could stop doing endless "stupid sh*t." Indeed, there would be no better foreign policy for the middle class.
Doug Bandow is a Senior Fellow at the Cato Institute. A former Special Assistant to President Ronald Reagan, he is author of several books, including Foreign Follies: America’s New Global Empire.