The Lesson of Afghanistan: Nations that Don’t Want To Be Built Will Not Be

It was ‘mission accomplished’ by 2002, but then the U.S. embarked on a much bigger, and impossible, mission

Taliban fighters stand guard along a street in Kabul on Aug. 16, 2021, as thousands of people mobbed the city’s airport trying to flee. Image Credit: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

The 20-year American-led experiment to turn a rogue state into a Western-style democracy has come crashing to the ground. There will be plenty of recriminations, and likely plenty of blood and sorrow to follow. Many will be pointing fingers as they ask, “Who lost Afghanistan?” But the more important question is, why was there an Afghanistan for us to “own” and lose in the first place?

Those of us who want to learn from this experience should focus on the basic question of whether it is right to impose a new form of government on a foreign nation, and if so, under what circumstances? The U.S. was right to topple the Taliban in 2001. Was it right to try to build something else in Afghanistan in its place?

Rumsfeld’s Blitzkrieg

In the wake of the al-Qaida-orchestrated attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the righteous fury of the U.S. was rightly turned on the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, which had provided a safe haven and material support for the terrorist organization. The partnership must have felt relatively secure in the mountain fastness of its remote redoubt—“relatively” because al-Qaida took care to assassinate Ahmad Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance and the only effective resistance to Taliban rule inside the country, in the days before the 9/11 attacks.

The U.S., with support from the U.K., Australia, France and other allies, and in concert with vengeful Northern Alliance militia, overran the country in short order beginning in October 2001. Embedding special operations advisers and forward air controllers with indigenous formations, Western militaries directed airpower to help pave the way to swift victory. Supporting U.S. ground forces, including units of the U.S. Marines, the Army’s 10th Mountain Division and Special Forces, deployed quickly and with a light footprint, generally leaving their heavy artillery at home. Flying artillery in the form of fighters, bombers and attack helicopters struck at enemy positions and provided close-air support, enabling rapid advances that routed the Taliban and its al-Qaida allies by December.

Although clearly stung by the unprecedented speed of the U.S.-led offensive less than a month after 9/11, many enemy leaders and forces subsequently evaded the meager Western forces and escaped into the wilds of the Afghan-Pakistani border region, forming a persistent base of resistance to the new Western-supported regime in Kabul. Nevertheless, the apparent success of the lightning offensive seemed to vindicate the military concept of light, rapid forces backed by overwhelming airpower that was espoused by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Yet the big fish—notably Taliban chief Mullah Muhammad Omar and al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden—slipped the net and remained implacably hostile to the West and the newly constituted government of Afghanistan.

This moment represented the fork in the road. While there were significant military engagements in the months following, notably Operation Anaconda in February 2002, these were mainly against enemy combatants trying to filter back into the country from the so-called tribal regions in the Pakistani marches. The real decision was how to engage with the rest of the country.

There were two options: first, to remain with a light footprint and use small units, intelligence operatives and deadly airpower based at Bagram Airfield and elsewhere in the region to enable anti-Taliban forces in Afghanistan to fight for the integrity of their own country. Or, second, to go big and try to build a new country from scratch. The U.S. opted for the latter.

‘You Broke It, You Bought It’

Keeping the Taliban out of Afghanistan was the job of the Afghans. Unfortunately, “the Afghans” didn’t exist. Afghanistan, it turns out, is a beautiful mosaic of tribes and nationalities, but its diversity hampered its ability to coordinate a unified response. The U.S. had picked a horse—the Tajik and Uzbek tribes of the Northern Alliance—that was motivated, had good fighters and was amenable to Western assistance. It was a good bet, at least as far as gaining a military victory. It was an instance where the U.S. intelligence apparatus paid off. Alas, the alliance’s membership was drawn from ethnic groups that represented only a fraction of the country’s population. Meanwhile, the Taliban was largely stocked by the Pashtun majority, who could be kept out of government for only so long.

It should be remembered that the project to forge a new government for Afghanistan had tremendous bipartisan American and international support at the outset. Americans enjoyed the heady knowledge that some manner of vengeance had been quickly served to the perpetrators of 9/11. The international community, including the United Nations, was sympathetic, supportive and on board with the project of remaking Afghanistan into a modern representative democracy.

This headiness quickly soured in the buildup to the Iraq War, which created a serious impediment to subsequent American freedom of action, such as against Iran. You can blame the George W. Bush administration and Rumsfeld’s apparently vindicated belief in fast, light strike forces for that. You can also blame the philosophy that you can build something from nothing.

It’s one thing to kick down a door, kill bad guys, rummage around for intelligence and then get out. It’s another to stick around and try to remake society. The decision to call an audible on invading Iraq, during a moment of enthusiasm for action not matched since the attack on Pearl Harbor, did cause some thoughtful people to raise the question of America’s responsibilities in the wake of military intervention. As a moral and ethical people, are we not required to rebuild what we have destroyed?

Hence, the “Pottery Barn rule”—the idea, which arose and gained credence especially through Secretary of State Colin Powell, that if you busted up a country you were obliged to own it. This idea came up in 2002 in the prelude to the Iraq invasion, but it is applicable to contemporary Afghanistan policy.

The U.S. under the George W. Bush administration had decided to go big. Yet its commitment to Afghanistan becoming a country where women could go to work and girls could go to school did not translate into the same success it had with nation-building in Iraq. America also went big in Iraq and decided to fight Iranian-backed militias and other hostile forces in a surge that was designed and executed by leaders and required reinforcements. In Iraq, the U.S. was working with a government and civil society that was broken but that had recognizable institutions. But in Afghanistan, the U.S. and its allies were attempting to build civil and military structures where there were no existing foundations.

Is Iraq today a Western-style democracy allied with the U.S.? Not exactly. But it’s a country, and it’s not ruled by Baathists. It can choose its own course. By contrast, in the end, the effort in Afghanistan has come to nothing. Now schoolgirls are being turned into “wives.” Who offered them up?


Ironically, the fall of Kabul happened on V-J Day—Victory over Japan Day—which was the last time (76 years ago) the U.S. unambiguously won a real war. Aug. 15 thus marks both the wisdom and folly of a nation.

The last time the U.S. (with allies) defeated hostile countries, occupied them and essentially remade their societies, it did so in the wake of extreme application of military force over many years that resulted in millions of deaths. There is no question that America was justified in its involvement in World War II, just as there is no question that the defeated have never been so well treated in occupation and rehabilitation.

There is no opportunity to remake a society unless you kill, rehabilitate or co-opt its leadership. After World War II, there were mechanisms for identifying, trying and punishing the leaders and chief operators of a horrific regime. The Nuremberg Trials, for example, provided an internationally sanctioned forum for pursuing Nazis. In Afghanistan, however, the U.S. decided to try to remake a society without the prerequisite nastiness of trials, hangings and shootings. There is no international mechanism to hold the Taliban to account. There was no legal justification for America’s actions, so there was no opportunity to remake society.

Afghanistan was never defeated by the U.S.; it was never really our enemy. Perseverance and amazing intelligence, technical and Special Forces skill resulted in the killing of bin Laden in Pakistan, even with his concealment by that treacherous government. Just as we had no responsibility to answer to Pakistan, we had no responsibility to Afghanistan to make a country for them out of nothing. There was no legitimate leadership to answer to.

America did not break Afghanistan by driving out the Taliban in 2001. In that initial conflict, we did not inflict a modicum of the sort of damage we did on Japan or Germany. Our coming and going could have been like the wind. Enough of us could have stuck around to use radios and laser target designators, embedded with militia from tribes that we trusted, to keep the Taliban out and maybe catch wind of bin Laden. And then, after bin Laden was dead, we maybe could have stayed in an advisory role.

Instead, we decided to go all in with bodies, money and reputation, until we decided not to. The defeat in Afghanistan was of our own making because we constructed that hill. Then, when the decision to hold it came, we bugged out unceremoniously. Helicopters leaving the embassy again are our legacy of good intentions. Among the people listening to those last rotors will be the people who believed—wrongly—in America’s commitment to nation-building.

Submit a Letter to the Editor
Submit your letter
Subscribe to our newsletter