The One Thing That Could’ve Changed the War in Afghanistan

Had Osama bin Laden been killed or captured in December 2001, justice would have been served in the way Americans like: fast, hard, and cheap.

In Kunar Province's volatile Pech River Valley, a U.S. Army soldier fires a rocket-propelled grenade during a firefight with Taliban insurgents.
Sebastiano Tomada / Sipa USA / AP

About the author: David Frum is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of Trumpocalypse: Restoring American Democracy (2020). In 2001 and 2002, he was a speechwriter for President George W. Bush.

Had the United States caught and killed Osama bin Laden in December 2001, the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan would have faded away almost immediately afterward. I cannot prove that. It’s only an opinion from my vantage point as one of President George W. Bush’s speechwriters in 2001 and 2002.

Yet I strongly believe it. The U.S. stayed for 20 years in Afghanistan because first Bush and then his successors got trapped in a pattern of responding to past failures by redoubling future efforts. In the fall of 2001, the U.S. mission in Afghanistan was clear, limited, and achievable: find and kill bin Laden. After bin Laden escaped, that mission escalated into something hazy and impossibly difficult: to rebuild Afghanistan’s society and remodel the Afghan state.

Had U.S. forces succeeded against bin Laden in 2001, justice would have been served in the way Americans like: fast, hard, and cheap. Republicans could have campaigned in the elections of 2002 as the winners of a completed war—and pivoted then to domestic concerns. Remember, if George W. Bush learned one single lesson from his father’s presidency, it was that even the most overwhelming military success does not translate into reelection. In November 1992, the elder Bush won 37 percent of the vote against a Democratic nominee who had opposed the triumphant Gulf War.

Bin Laden’s survival doomed any idea of pivoting back to domestic concerns. Without a kill or capture of bin Laden to show, the swift overthrow of the Taliban government seemed very much a consolation prize.

The road opened to the Iraq War.

Again, this is only one man’s opinion, but I don’t believe Bush was yet committed to a ground war against Saddam Hussein when he delivered his “Axis of Evil” speech in January 2002. That speech identified Iraq’s weapons potential as a deadly serious security threat. It said the same of Iran’s and North Korea’s weapons potential, and Bush had no intention of fighting either of them. There were and are many ways to address weapons potential short of a ground war, whether sanctions or sabotage or air strikes.

Yet in the year after that speech, the decision for war coalesced. Something had to be done against Islamic terrorism that was not Afghanistan; the Iraq War became that something. A strange dichotomy split the U.S. foreign-policy elite. Prominent figures in the Bush administration—Vice President Cheney, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld—wished fiercely to escape Afghanistan. This wish was partly because of their determination to finish off Saddam Hussein, but it was also a policy preference in its own right. (For what little it’s worth, that’s how I personally felt at the time: However steep the odds against a stable future for Iraq, that urbanized and literate country was a more promising terrain for U.S. strategic goals than hopeless Afghanistan.)

The logic that impelled Bush toward Iraq operated in reverse to impel his Democratic opponents deeper and deeper into Afghanistan. I doubt that either John Kerry or Barack Obama would independently have selected a ground war in Afghanistan as a sound foreign-policy undertaking. But having arraigned Iraq as the wrong war in the wrong place against the wrong enemy, they backed themselves into identifying Afghanistan as the right war in the right place against the right enemy.

It became Democratic Party doctrine to demand more and more for Afghanistan. Thus the Democratic platform in 2004 urged: “We must expand NATO forces outside Kabul. We must accelerate training for the Afghan army and police. The program to disarm and reintegrate warlord militias into society must be expedited and expanded into a mainstream strategy. We will attack the exploding opium trade ignored by the Bush Administration by doubling our counter-narcotics assistance to the Karzai Government and reinvigorating the regional drug control program.”

America’s Iraq-skeptical allies likewise committed more and more to Afghanistan. In January 2002, they pledged a comparatively modest $4.5 billion over five years to Afghan reconstruction, a little less than $1 billion a year. By 2004, they had doubled that rate of annual spend to $7 billion over three years.

Barack Obama had been even more against the Iraq War than John Kerry had been—and so the logic of “do something” pushed him to be even more in favor of the Afghanistan War than Kerry had been. In February 2009, President Obama approved a surge of 17,000 additional U.S. forces to Afghanistan. He ordered 30,000 more in December. Almost 65,000 U.S. personnel were deployed in the country by the end of his first term.

What were those troops in Afghanistan to do? It became progressively harder to say. America’s most important partner in Afghanistan was adjoining Pakistan. Without some cooperation from Pakistan, military operations inside Afghanistan could not be sustained. Yet at the same time, Pakistan was also the deadliest and most implacable enemy of the U.S. effort in Afghanistan—the ultimate patron of the Taliban against whom the United States was fighting. When bin Laden was finally killed, he was killed in Pakistan, where somebody had been hiding him for many years.

In 2001, bin Laden’s death would have concluded the war. By 2011, it concluded nothing.

Like President Obama, President Trump began his administration by deploying more troops to Afghanistan. By the end of his first term, Trump was looking for an exit at almost any price. The price he paid was a deal with the Taliban: final U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan after the 2020 election in exchange for a Taliban commitment not to inflict U.S. casualties before the 2020 election. Trump collected his political benefit—his boast of at least ending the “endless war”—while bequeathing an ugly dilemma to his successor: Renege on the Trump deal and relaunch a shooting war? Or stick with the Trump deal, accept the collapse of the Kabul government, and suffer ferocious pro-Trump abuse for continuing Trump’s own policy?

What’s coming next in Afghanistan will be grim and gruesome. What the U.S. can mitigate, it should mitigate, especially by helping those who helped U.S. forces and the international community. But in the cold calculus of state power, the impact upon the U.S. will likely be much less than many now worriedly anticipate. The U.S. smashed the military power first of al-Qaeda, then the Islamic State. Opinion surveys suggest that Islamic extremism is subsiding in the Arab Middle East and North Africa. Bin Laden relocated to Afghanistan as a safe haven to fight for control of the Saudi state. But the strategic significance of the Middle East is also likely soon to subside. World oil consumption will likely peak sometime in this current decade, then decline. The U.S. and other developed countries are moving especially rapidly into a post-petroleum future. Even to the extent that they continue to burn oil, that oil will come from many more sources than in the past. The U.S. has been a net exporter of oil for nearly a decade now. Bin Laden’s vision of Afghanistan as the launching place for a world caliphate looks even stranger now than it did 20 years ago.

Instead, getting out of Afghanistan liberates the U.S. to confront more directly the security challenge presented by the Pakistani state’s support for regional and global jihadism. Since 9/11, the U.S. has developed new ways to strike terrorist enemies while putting fewer of its own military personnel at risk. The U.S. can exact very severe retribution against the new rulers of Afghanistan if they decide to return to the business of harboring anti-U.S. jihadis.

Maybe the most important lesson to take from the outcome in Afghanistan is the steep strategic cost of America’s fierce partisan polarization. Decisions in Afghanistan by Republicans and Democrats alike were driven much more by domestic political competition than by realities inside Afghanistan. George W. Bush couldn’t afford to quit Afghanistan when he should have, early in 2002. John Kerry and Barack Obama were compelled to overpromise about Afghanistan despite their own misgivings. Donald Trump backdated a debacle because he wanted a seemingly cheap win for 2020.

Through the Cold War, the U.S. found methods to manage foreign policy that rose above party. Since 1990, the U.S. has succeeded less well at this essential nonpartisan task, and in the 21st century, even worse than that.

We are surely headed to another vicious round of foreign-policy partisanship after the fall of Kabul. For five years, pro-Trump voices have championed protectionism, isolationism, and the betrayal of allies such as Estonia, Montenegro, and the Syrian Kurds. Trump himself envisioned U.S. foreign policy as more or less a protection racket, with payments due from aspiring U.S. partners both to the United States Treasury and to his own enterprises. Now those advocates of a predatory “America Alone” will try to retcon themselves as defenders of U.S. strength and leadership.

Over the next weeks, pro-Trump critics of Biden will astonish the world with their shamelessness, as they convert from attacks on endless wars to laments for the last helicopter out of Saigon. That shamelessness will prove more effective than it deserves to—but less effective than it needs to. The brave lives lost in Afghanistan, the money squandered there: Those will haunt American society for a long time. But the new possibilities opened for the United States, the freedom of action recovered, the future waste now prevented—those will be realities too. The material, economic, financial, and moral assets that make America strong—the United States still possesses all of those. The domestic political dysfunction that leads to politics-instead-of-policy—that, and not the iconography of helicopters out of Kabul—that’s the weakness now to overcome.