Lessons from Afghanistan a Year Later
As we approach the first anniversary of America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, it’s worth distinguishing two different questions. The first is about the wisdom of America’s exit. Did the Biden administration leave at the right time and in the right way? That’s open to debate. The second is about the wisdom of America’s entry. Was the Bush administration right to invade and occupy Afghanistan in the first place? That answer is much clearer: No. The decision proved to be an utter disaster. According to Brown University’s Cost of War Project, the war cost the US roughly $115 billion per year for twenty years. For that amount, according to a study by the Brookings Institution, the US could have come to close eliminating child poverty. And the cost wasn’t just financial. The Afghan war killed more than two thousand Americans and seventy thousand Afghans and Pakistanis, and left Afghanistan itself in ruin.
What can we learn from this catastrophe? Two lessons stand out. First, respect the power of nationalism. Second, listen to voices outside the foreign policy mainstream.
But first, a word about this Friday’s Zoom call. Earlier this month, Israel exchanged fire with a group in the Gaza Strip called Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which it has also been battling in the West Bank. The American media sometimes focuses on Palestinian militant groups at the expense of ordinary Palestinians: As if the only thing you need to know about people in Gaza is that sixteen years ago a plurality of them voted for Hamas. Nonetheless, Palestinian politics matters. And the recent fighting reminded me how little I know about Palestinian Islamic Jihad. That’s why I invited Erik Skare to join us this Friday. He’s a postdoctoral researcher at the Paris Institute of Political Studies (Sciences Po) and author of the book, A History of Palestinian Islamic Jihad: Faith, Awareness, and Revolution in the Middle East. As always, we’ll take your questions in the chat.
Back to the lessons of Afghanistan. In a recent column on the war, Fareed Zakaria made two essential points. First, the Taliban defeated the US largely because they harnessed the power of nationalism. Zakaria quotes a former US advisor in Afghanistan, Carter Malkasian, who wrote that the Taliban “fought for Islam and resistance to occupation, values enshrined in Afghan identity. Aligned with foreign occupiers, the government mustered no similar inspiration.”
Had US officials better grasped this, they would have tried much harder to keep the war against Al Qaeda—a transnational group led by a Saudi and an Egyptian who were using Afghanistan as a base—from turning into a war against the Taliban. But they didn’t. Instead of seeing the Taliban as a nationalist force, and thus fundamentally different than Al Qaeda, American commentators tended to focus on what the two groups share: A grotesquely illiberal, even totalitarian, form of Islamism. The assumption was that no movement that ideologically ugly could wage a successful insurgency against the US.
But that assumption was a mistake. It was a mistake because nationalism need not be liberal or humane to inspire fervent commitment. Given the historic power of illiberal nationalism in our own country—the millions of Americans utterly devoted to figures like Andrew Jackson, Joe McCarthy, George Wallace, and Donald Trump—American officials should have understood that better. But they didn’t. Instead, again and again since World War II, American policy makers have embraced ideological prisms that blind them to nationalism’s power overseas even as they channel it at home. Because the Kennedy and Johnson administrations were obsessed with fighting communism, they couldn’t see that many ordinary Vietnamese viewed Ho Chi Minh as a nationalist fighting an anti-colonial struggle that had begun against the French. Because Bush administration officials focused on Saddam Hussein’s brutality toward his own people, they couldn’t imagine that even Iraqis who loathed Saddam—for instance, Muqtada al-Sadr, the Shia cleric whose father, father-in-law, and siblings Saddam had murdered—would still fight the American invaders who overthrew him because they did not want their country controlled by a foreign power. Because hawks in Washington today see Iran as the root of anti-American and anti-Israel militancy, they overlook the fact that the movements Iran backs—from the Houthis to Hezbollah to Hamas—draw their real support from nationalist and sectarian grievances on the ground. Iran no more controls militant groups in Yemen, Lebanon, and Gaza than China and the Soviet Union controlled North Vietnam.
I’m not suggesting the US should never resist armies powered by nationalism. When one nation’s toxic nationalism bursts its borders and becomes imperialism aimed at its neighbors, it may pose a genuine threat. In such cases—think of Nazi Germany’s invasion of France or Russia’s current invasion of Ukraine—the US will find motivated allies in the countries under attack. But it’s crucial to distinguish battles against foreign imperialism from battles against nationalist movements that, however loathsome, are operating on their home turf.
That distinction will prove crucial in the growing cold war with China. In the emerging global chess match, American hawks are likely to see Beijing’s hand everywhere. It’s easy to imagine a scenario in which a pro-Chinese leader takes power—whether in the Solomon Islands or some country in the Americas—and hawks in Washington call for deploying the CIA or Marines to ensure it doesn’t become a Chinese garrison. The lesson of Afghanistan, and of America’s many misadventures in the cold war, is that this sort of intervention rarely ends well. The US needs to take care that in the coming years our increasingly Sino-centric view of the world does not lead us into conflict with movements that we view as pawns of Beijing but gain their real strength from a nationalist desire not to be bullied by the US.
The second lesson of Afghanistan is that people outside the foreign policy mainstream are sometimes right. Zakaria reminds us that it wasn’t just right-wing politicians who backed the Afghan war. The war was especially popular among Democrats. In July 2008, presidential candidate Barack Obama delivered a speech in which he called for a “timetable for the removal of U.S. forces” from Iraq while simultaneously pledging “at least two additional combat brigades to Afghanistan.” In retrospect, that seems nuts: Both wars were unwinnable. But at the time, opposing both placed you on the Chomskyite, lunatic fringe. It was precisely Obama’s dovish position on Iraq that required him—according to conventional political logic—to be hawkish on Afghanistan so as not be to labelled another George McGovern.
The American media tends to assume that when politicians in both parties agree on something—like the Afghan war—the dissenters must be lunatics. But the lunatics are sometimes right. At certain moments, the range of politically acceptable options are too narrow to include policies that turn out to be correct. When the House and Senate voted in 1964 for the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which authorized Lyndon Johnson to deploy troops to Vietnam—one of the most disastrous foreign policy votes in US history—only two members of Congress voted no. As late as 1968, even Eugene McCarthy, who ran for president as an anti-war candidate, did not support a full and unilateral withdrawal from Vietnam. It took seven more years—and vast numbers of American and Vietnamese dead—before that Congress demanded just that.
The lesson for Americans today is not that the bipartisan foreign policy establishment, which generally inclines in a hawkish direction, is always wrong. But it is that the media should give more airtime, and more column inches, to those who fall outside it. When people fall outside the ideological mainstream, especially during times of war, it’s easy to ridicule them as traitors or nutcases rather than responding to their ideas. Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, for instance, hawks have again and again called people skeptical of NATO expansion pro-Putin dupes. In Washington today, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to advocate cooperation and compromise with China without being labelled an apologist for Beijing. Given how frequently these jingoistic smears have been deployed in the past—against people whose dissents on Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq turned out to be prescient—folks in the foreign policy establishment should exhibit more humility. The lesson of Afghanistan is that, at any given moment, the range of views that may be morally and strategically correct is far wider than the range of views deemed ideologically respectable in Washington. In foreign policy, it’s worth listening to people widely dismissed as crazy. Sometimes they’re right.
Speaking of past foreign policy debates, if you’ve never watched this 2005 rhetorical brawl between Christopher Hitchens and George Galloway about the war in Iraq, it’s quite something.
On Sunday I spoke to MSNBC’s Mehdi Hasan about why America keeps launching disastrous wars.
In the wake of last week’s horrifying attack on Salman Rushdie, a long but useful explainer on what Rushdie’s book, The Satanic Verses, was actually about—and how it intersects with Islamic theology.
George Packer’s epic essay, from earlier this year, on America’s Afghan withdrawal.
See you Friday,