The Case for Nation-Building
When we look at what went wrong in Afghanistan—well, that's a very big topic. Books can and will be filled with exhaustive examinations of everything we did wrong, from how we trained the Afghan army to our failure to end or at least curtail Pakistan's support for the Taliban, and much more besides.
All this will be worthwhile and valuable, and there are a lot of lessons to be learned. But the real, central, useful answer is the simplest: What went wrong is our failure to sustain a cognitive effort over a period of years. We lost in Afghanistan because we stopped making the effort to think about it.
An adage attributed to various Taliban figures—the actual origin is a little obscure—is that "you have the watches, but we have the time." The idea is that the US has a vast technological and material superiority, but we don't have the patience to endure against a determined enemy. We just proved the Taliban right.
This is the root of all our other errors. We might have corrected our strategy or come up with a better way to protect our national security in that region. But to do so would have required a sustained thinking effort that no president has wanted to engage in since perhaps 2002.
George W. Bush did engage in such an effort—about Iraq. In 2006, he rethought our entire approach to Iraq, chose to adopt a proper counterinsurgency strategy, and chose the right man to implement it, with surprisingly good results. But he was too focused on Iraq to do the same with Afghanistan, and his successors did not really try. President Obama took a politician's approach to Afghanistan, trying to split the difference between a surge and a withdrawal without really committing to either. Trump just wanted out, and so did Biden.
Success in Afghanistan required active presidential initiative and engagement, and that's precisely what it didn't get. We can blame our political leaders, or we can blame the public who voted for them without ever requiring them to take this issue seriously.
This is not the lesson anyone wants to take from the current debacle, because it indicts everyone on all sides. So instead, they've all settled on a false issue: so-called "nation-building."
The Biden Doctrine
The real lesson of Afghanistan, many people are telling us, is that we should never engage in "nation-building."
You know this idea is wrong because this is what Joe Biden is saying, and that guy has been wrong about virtually everything. You can also tell it's wrong because of the reason Biden is saying this right now, after having said very different things early in the war: This is becoming a bipartisan consensus that unites the defeatist left and the "isolationist" right.
Biden seems to be trying to turn this consensus into a "doctrine," saying that we are going to "turn the page on the foreign policy that's guided our nation the last two decades" (though it's actually much longer than that).
"This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It's about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries. We saw a mission of counterterrorism in Afghanistan—getting the terrorists to stop the attacks—morph into a counterinsurgency, nation-building—trying to create a democratic, cohesive, and united Afghanistan."
I've got a few people barking at me recently about how I should apologize for opposing Trump because of Biden's disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal. Aside from the fact that Biden was merely continuing Trump's approach to Afghanistan (more on that below), we can now see that Biden's whole foreign policy is just another form of Trump's so-called "America First" anti-interventionism.
We've been sliding into this for years. In retrospect, President Obama's foreign policy was a transition period; he wanted to arrive at a policy in which America is largely irrelevant to the world and "leads from behind," but he was held back by his fear of the political influence of the residual hawkishness of the right. Then Trump largely swept away the remnants of Republican support for the projection of American power and values abroad, leaving Biden free to implement a dogmatic anti-interventionism in full. Both the left and the right have converged on the same policy for nominally different reasons.
But "nation-building" is a false issue.
The Case for Nation-Building
The first time I realized there was something fishy about this was before the War on Terror, in the 2000 election, when a presidential candidate made opposition to "nation-building" the distinctive selling point of his foreign policy. That candidate was George W. Bush. So did Bush suddenly forget about or abandon his position on nation-building after 9/11? Not really, because it was never a well-thought-out position in the first place.
When Bush opposed "nation-building" he was actually trying to assert the idea of acting in America's national self-interest, but being unable or unwilling to argue in those terms, he fell back on opposition to "nation-building" as an inadequate proxy. What he had in mind was examples like our ill-fated deployment to Somalia, which used the US military as a kind of global Meals on Wheels, motivated almost entirely by his father's attempt to convince the world that the Gulf War was not an assertion of US interests. He was also criticizing President Clinton's forays into the Balkans, which were somewhat dubiously connected to our interests (but at least incurred very little cost).
Yet attributing the problem with these missions to "nation-building" (which we never even attempted in Somalia or the Balkans) substitutes criticism of tactics for criticism of goals.
I find this to be endemic in our debates over foreign policy. Debates about the ends for which American power is to be used become swallowed up in debates over the means by which we pursue those ends. Should we use nation-building? Balance-of-power calculations? Democracy promotion? Economic aid? Diplomacy? Military force? Whole schools of foreign policy are defined by embracing some of these tools and rejecting others. But the correct answer is that we should use all of these tools, as needed. Instead, people arbitrarily declare the means that we should or should not use, and shape our goals around that.
From a proper perspective, "nation-building" is not a goal of our foreign policy. It is a tool for reaching our goals. We should use it when it helps us reach those goals. For example, in Afghanistan we were effective for a very long time at getting Afghan army and police to act as our local allies in fighting the Taliban so we didn't have to.
This, by the way, is the other false narrative of the war in Afghanistan, that the Afghans weren't willing to fight. Yet they only collapsed at the very end, when we knocked all the props out from under them. A British soldier who served alongside the Afghans recalls the scale of their effort.
"From 2001 to 2014 the Afghan forces suffered 14,000 dead, but from 2015 to 2020 an estimated 45,000 were killed. While the US has suffered just under 2,500 combat deaths in Afghanistan since 2001, they lost 93 servicemen from 2015 to 2020."
For many critics, both on the left and the right, "nation-building" is imagined merely as a kind of international welfare-statism, which we should end so we can engage in domestic welfare-statism, a policy of "nation-building at home." That is the bipartisan Trump-Biden consensus that is now forming.
But "nation-building" actually refers to building up the institutions of an effective nation-state. In this case, it meant building up an Afghan military and police to fight the Taliban, which in turn required strengthening the central government that commands the police and the military. For those who claim that the military doesn't have the skills and tools for nation-building—well, of course it doesn't. That's why this was a coordinated effort that combined the work of the military with the work of diplomats and foreign aid agencies. But the benefit to us was obvious. Over the past five years or so, the Afghan war was primarily an Afghan effort, in which they were the ones doing the overwhelming majority of the fighting and dying.
Moreover, for those like Biden who say that we should instead engage in a "counter-terrorism" strategy in Afghanistan, gathering intelligence on possible terror threats and striking them from afar, it is also obvious that this is going to be vastly more difficult without our own boots on the ground, and without local allies and intelligence sources to work with. (We just blew up our CIA base in Kabul and evacuated many of our most effective local allies.) The "nation-building" in Afghanistan is what supported counter-terrorism.
You could definitely offer a lot of criticism about how we went about "nation-building" in Afghanistan, from failing to control official corruption, to failing to train our troops for "cultural literacy," to military training that made our allies too dependent on our direct support. There are many lessons to be learned. But if our new doctrine is never to engage in nation-building again, we will not learn those lessons. As with counter-insurgency, we're in a vicious cycle in which we don't want to use this particular tool, so we never learn how to use it, so we're bad at it when we are finally forced to do it—and then we conclude that we should never use it, and the cycle begins again.
That's where we're at right now. It's the inverse of the old saying that when you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail. By the same token, if you're told you can't ever use a hammer, you'd better not run across any nails.
That leads us to the most persuasive case for nation-building, which is what happens when we don't do it.
We Are All Israelis Now, But Not in a Good Way
If we don't engage in nation-building, then we become dependent on whoever is building a state. What that means in this case, as totally insane as this may sound, is that we are left to rely on an alliance with the Taliban.
"In written and verbal communications, Gen. Frank McKenzie, commander of US Central Command, and Rear Adm. Peter Vasely, head of US forces on the ground in Afghanistan, have referred to the Taliban as 'our Afghan partners,' according to two defense officials."
(I want you to perform a little mental exercise and imagine sending this news report back as a sort of message in a bottle to yourself in, say, October of 2001. Imagine how you would have felt about it. I'll wait here while you go into your backyard to scream in uncontrollable rage for a few minutes.)
This has been the acknowledged state of affairs in Afghanistan during the withdrawal: the Taliban as our supposed "security partners." But while this is generally described as the state of affairs for the past few weeks, it is actually the implicit policy that goes back to the Trump administration's deal with the Taliban in February of 2020, a policy Biden inherited but then chose to adopt and continue. The sheer insanity of this policy escaped most people's notice, partly because they really wanted to get out of Afghanistan and didn't want to think too closely about how we were doing it, but also because the nature of the policy is so outrageous that no one would have even thought to suspect it.
It is becoming clear to me that for at least a year and half, US policy has been to deliberately install the Taliban as the new government in Afghanistan. That's why we made the deal directly with the Taliban, bypassing the Afghan government. That's why we insisted on freeing thousands of Taliban prisoners while getting nothing in return. That's why we pushed the Afghan government to form a new interim government sharing power with the Taliban—one of the demands that led our allies to give up and flee, knowing that we had already betrayed them.
Treating the Taliban as our "security partners" did not start in the last few weeks. It was the policy all along. By negotiating with the Taliban and installing them in power, we hoped to establish a relationship in which they would now cooperate with us in preventing terrorist attacks on the United States. And that is precisely what we are still hoping they will do going forward.
As crazy as this all sounds, this is not the first time such a thing has been tried. The closest model to our new Afghan policy is the deal the US brokered between Israel and the PLO in 1993. The Israelis got tired of their own 20-year-long attempt at nation-building, so they handed over the Palestinian Territories to a terrorist organization and its terrorist leader, on the hope that if they came to power with US and Israeli help, with us as their new sponsor, Yasser Arafat would become a "friendly dictator" working on our behalf. To complete the parallel, we even have ISIS-K, the Afghan offshoot of the Islamic State, as the even more bloodthirsty and fanatical terrorist group—Hamas to the Taliban's PLO—that our Taliban "partners" will protect us from. (Seriously, follow that link. I am not making any of this up.)
I remember back in the 1990s noticing the change. You can tell who sponsors a militant group by the weapons they carry. In the early days of the Palestinian Authority, the PLO thugs stopped carrying their junky old Soviet-supplied Kalishnikovs and started carrying shiny new M-16s—the standard rifle for the US and its allies. And today in Afghanistan, what are the Taliban carrying?
We know the results of this policy in Israel, where it led to an increase in terror attacks, which forced the Israelis to wall off the Palestinian areas, trading perpetual fear of suicide bombings for perpetual fear of rocket attacks. The result was a long, drawn-out, continuing failure.
Whether Afghanistan will turn out any better can be judged by looking at this idea that the Taliban will help us against ISIS-K. ISIS-K is a spinoff from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which was a spinoff from Al-Qaeda is Mesopotamia, which was a spinoff of al-Qaeda, which was sponsored by the Taliban. These are not really separate groups that can be opposed to one another. They are all variants on the same group, with the same agenda.
What We Leave Behind
The best and possibly only hope for Afghanistan is the one bit of nation-building we did successfully. For 20 years, we have brought the children of Afghanistan, and particularly the girls, back into schools. As former Ambassador Ryan Crocker reminded us:
"USAID estimates that when the Taliban were defeated, there were some 900,000 children in school, all of them boys. When I left as ambassador in 2012, a decade after that first school visit, the number of students was nearly 8 million, about 37 percent girls. It is important to note that this progress was not by any means exclusively the result of US or other international efforts. Afghans on their own launched private initiatives in education, especially for girls."
David Frum points out that Afghanistan is experiencing a massive brain drain as its best educated and most talented people flee for their lives. But what may be more important are the brains that are left behind.
The Taliban is not taking over the same nation it ruled 20 years ago. Half of the population of Afghanistan is under the age of 18, and many of them have lived their entire lives outside the restrictions of Taliban rule. They have gotten used to pursuing aspirations that go far beyond anything the Taliban will permit them.
The crushing of those aspirations will be a vast human tragedy—but it might also be a powder keg.