What the War in Afghanistan Could Never Do

Twenty years ago, Americans sought to feel as strong and invincible as they had the day before the towers fell.

An illustration of an American flag as mosaic pieces
Getty; The Atlantic

About the author: Adam Serwer is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covers politics.

Even in the context of war, attacking fleeing civilians is a depraved act. The Islamic State’s attack on Kabul’s airport during the American evacuation of Afghanistan, which killed nearly 200 Afghan civilians and 13 U.S. service members protecting the facility, was bound to draw a military response. “The Kabul airport massacre compounds the humiliation of the botched Afghan withdrawal and will further embolden jihadists,” The Wall Street Journal editorialized.

Days later, the U.S. executed a drone strike on what it said was an ISIS operation that threatened the final evacuations out of Kabul—a strike General Mark Milley called “righteous.” Several weeks later, General Kenneth F. McKenzie Jr. apologized, acknowledging that the strike had killed 10 civilians. “I offer my profound condolences to the family and friends of those who were killed,” McKenzie said on September 17. In early September, Ahmad Fayaz, a relative of one of those killed, told The Washington Post that the U.S. “always says they are killing [the Islamic State], al-Qaeda or the Taliban, but they always attack civilian people and children … I don’t think they are good people.”

The two events were themselves a microcosm of two decades of war, in which the U.S. military responded to a genuine threat with a heavy hand that undermined whatever goodwill it was trying to generate. “When comparing the Taliban with the United States and its Western allies, the vast majority of Afghans have always viewed the Taliban as the lesser of two evils,” the former U.S.-military interpreter Baktash Ahadi wrote in The Washington Post. They were also the first acts of a war that will continue past the Afghanistan withdrawal, a war more modest in objectives, but one in which the U.S. maintains the authority to use lethal force anywhere in the world.

The U.S. reliance on airpower has been motivated by an attempt to strike what it believes to be enemy targets while avoiding American casualties. That reliance has also meant that, far more frequently than the U.S. acknowledges, innocent people pay the price for American security concerns. It also provides the opportunity for swift retaliation, not simply to meet military objectives but to stave off what the Journal described as “humiliation.”

The Pentagon’s most recent error involves the inherent difficulties of determining who and where their enemy is. But it’s also a reflection of an American foreign policy preoccupied with “humiliation” and its avoidance. Ironically, it is this very obsession with humiliation that has led the U.S. to wage indefinite wars in pursuit of impossible objectives, employing self-defeating means. The compulsion to win grand, sweeping victories that exemplify American strength and power has prevented realistic judgments about what is achievable. And when politicians prove unable to present their voters with the triumphs that were promised, they choose to lie instead, maintaining the illusion until the wars can be passed on to a successor. At least, until Joe Biden made a different choice.

The realities of the withdrawal seem to have come as a shock to much of the country. Biden and Donald Trump did not agree on much, but Biden’s decision to honor Trump’s withdrawal deal with the Taliban drew the ire of the defense establishment, whose retired luminaries flocked to broadcast outlets where reporters echoed their criticisms. Afghanistan coverage on cable news in August 2021, Matt Gertz writes, exceeded that of any full year since 2010, when then-President Barack Obama ordered an increase in troops. Trump, for his part, described the exit he himself had negotiated as “the greatest foreign policy humiliation” in American history.

Biden drew harsh and sometimes justified criticism for the withdrawal itself, as the U.S. evacuated more than 100,000 people but, U.S. officials acknowledge, left some Afghan allies and U.S. citizens behind. These legitimate criticisms, though, have become a vehicle for those who planned and administered nearly two decades of stalemate and Taliban revival to cast the withdrawal itself as the debacle, in an effort to hide their own years of failure preceding it. Humiliation, in this case, has many parents, but none wish to claim paternity.

People all over the world were justly horrified by the Taliban’s rapid advance, and what seems like the certain reimposition of a cruel and authoritarian system that will deprive Afghans, women in particular, of their fundamental human rights. Irrespective of its early protestations, the Taliban remains repressive and authoritarian, intent on forcing its austere interpretation of religious law on the Afghan population through brutal means. Unlike the civilian casualties of the past two decades, more recent images of suffering in Afghanistan—crowds chasing planes on the runway, masses of Afghans fleeing the Taliban’s return, the hard faces of Taliban fighters as they grip their firearms—are far more readily accessible to American eyes.

But there is also a detectable undercurrent of imperial narcissism—where the suffering of Afghans is primarily important because of how it makes Americans feel about not being invincible. It is sometimes difficult to discern whether people are afraid for Afghans, or are simply nostalgic for the fantasy that the United States, or the West generally, could remake whole societies through force of arms.

A New York Times analysis—the label denoting opinion pieces by reporters on the news side—offered that the “political danger for Mr. Biden may be that the chaotic exit provides fodder for a broader Republican argument that he is not up to the job and has left the United States humiliated on the world stage.” The NBC News host Chuck Todd argued, “Yes, Americans in both parties supported an end to this 20-year ‘forever war.’ But they also want security, and no one likes to see America humiliated.” Yascha Mounk contended in The Atlantic that Biden would pay for the “scenes of national humiliation now playing on television and social media,” invoking the specter of “humiliation” four times in a single essay.

The right-wing pundit Hugh Hewitt, who supported the withdrawal when Trump supported it and opposed it once Biden began executing it, lamented, “My adult life has included fall of Saigon, Iran hostage crisis, Beirut bombing, KA007, Iran-Contra affair, 9/11, escape of bin Laden, the Iraq WMD and occupation, JCPOA, Putin and Georgia and Ukraine, Hong Kong. This is the worst, not in loss of life, but in deep damage to soul.” Even if the war in Afghanistan could not be won, it seems that Biden was wrong to withdraw because of the damage that has been done to American self-esteem.

As Mounk argues, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan aided Trump’s rise by allowing him to portray American leadership as feckless. It does not follow, though, that foreign wars should be pursued indefinitely so that America’s political leadership can continue to feign competence, or that doing so would prevent someone like Trump from exploiting the sense of humiliation that results from the failure of American colonial projects.

In fact, the causality is backwards. As Spencer Ackerman writes, it was precisely two decades of war nationalism and the state of exception they produced that eroded American democracy. Those conditions also set the stage for a racist demagogue whose primary criticism of American wars was that they were incompetently managed because feckless American elites were insufficiently murderous. And yet not even the war-crime enthusiast Trump could slaughter his way to victory in Afghanistan—another national humiliation Trump rushed to ameliorate with an exit toward the end of his term.

This reaction—the fixation on humiliation above any of the material realities of the mission in Afghanistan—may be difficult to understand for Americans who were not alive on 9/11. In the immediate aftermath of al-Qaeda’s act of mass murder, millions of Americans were seized with a sense of missionary purpose.

“Does anybody but me feel upbeat, and guilty about it?” David Brooks wrote in The Weekly Standard less than a month after the carnage in Manhattan and Washington, D.C. “I feel upbeat because the country seems to be a better place than it was a month ago. I feel guilty about it because I should be feeling pain and horror and anger about the recent events. But there’s so much to cheer one up.”

Real American values had been revived by the War on Terror. “To me this whole event has been like a national Sabbath, stripping away the hurly-burly of normal life and reminding people of nation, faith, and ideals,” Brooks wrote. He exulted that even “the most reactionary liberals amongst us are capable of change,” noting that Bruce Springsteen recently had sung a tribute to the NYPD, despite previously having written a song criticizing the killing of Amadou Diallo, who was shot 41 times by police who said they believed he was armed; he had been holding his wallet.

Although the country remained closely divided—George W. Bush’s reelection was  narrow—the years after 9/11 felt to many Americans like a period of conservative cultural and political dominance. During the Obama administration, when Glenn Beck held his “9/12 March,” it was an expression of nostalgia for national unity on right-wing terms. The sense of purpose and unity was also attractive to liberal hawks, who were drawn to the sense of national mission and the opportunity to marginalize radicals who embarrassed them and, in their view, weakened the Democratic Party’s political fortunes.

A few years earlier, Brooks had written about the need for a “National Greatness Conservatism,” calling for Americans to embrace a new “national mission” along the lines of “settling the West, building the highway system, creating the post-war science faculties, exploring space, waging the Cold War, and disseminating American culture throughout the world.” In other corners of the right, this neoconservative idealism took on a darker cast.

Writing in The Atlantic, Christopher Hitchens sneered that left-wing war skeptics were “the sort who, discovering a viper in the bed of their child, would place the first call to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.” Shortly after the invasion of Afghanistan, he announced in The Nation that “the United States of America has just succeeded in bombing a country back out of the Stone Age.” In National Review in 2002, during the run-up to the Iraq War, Jonah Goldberg approvingly quoted his colleague Michael Ledeen, who said that “every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business.” That the people who live in those countries might object, or might have the capacity to resist such arbitrary demonstrations of American power, was an afterthought.

After the 9/11 attacks, the Bush administration undertook the task of remaking the world in America’s image, at gunpoint. The War on Terror was the New Cold War, the New New Deal. To express skepticism about this national mission—not even opposition, but merely skepticism—was to side with the terrorists, to be the kind of person who would not lift a finger to save their own child. It was to abandon America, and Americans.

As a national mission, this crusade was far less successful than the New Deal, or even the Cold War. The New Deal expanded the American welfare state and empowered workers against their bosses. The Cold War ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Two decades and four administrations later, the War on Terror finds jihadist groups arguably more widespread, dangerous, and influential than they were prior to 9/11.

The roots of its failure are not simply conceptual but lie in the zeal that could not suffer scrutiny or recognize error. Al-Qaeda had not only murdered thousands of people here at home, but questioned American resolve and American strength. Simply protecting the country, defeating those responsible on the battlefield, or even destroying al-Qaeda’s leadership would not be enough.

American leaders sought to purge the fear and humiliation many felt with violence, by turning Afghanistan into a utopia where groups like al-Qaeda could not exist. “Our War on Terror begins with al-Qaeda, but it does not end there,” Bush told Congress and the nation nine days after the attacks. “It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped, and defeated.” America’s new purpose, he said, was to “answer these attacks and rid the world of evildoers.”

Acting on that impulse, the Bush administration was not satisfied with simply defeating the Taliban in 2001. It drew up plans to invade Iraq in order to continue the glorious national mission, but it also sowed the seeds in Afghanistan for the Taliban’s revival. “From the very beginning, the U.S. had the idea that there’s only unconditional surrender; there was no surrender with amnesty,” the former New Yorker correspondent Anand Gopal told MSNBC’s Zeeshan Aleem. “You had a one-sided war in those years, between 2001 and 2004, where the U.S. was fighting an enemy that didn’t exist, and innocent people were the ones who were suffering. That really is what created the Taliban’s resurgence.”

Even if you believe Gopal’s description is oversimplified—the Taliban was still launching cross-border attacks from Pakistan in those years—there’s a great deal of evidence for the argument that American policy strengthened the Taliban after its initial defeat.

A comprehensive report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) shows that the operation was a failure almost from the beginning, an attempt to impose America’s will on a nation whose economic, cultural, and political dynamics American leadership never respected or understood. Although the most crucial mistakes were likely made during the Bush administration, devastating errors were made across four administrations, both Democratic and Republican.

The U.S. attempt to revive the Afghan economy with foreign aid created a weak state dependent on outside support, but failed to reduce unemployment or poverty. Reconstruction projects were unused, abandoned, or destroyed. The cash infusion, combined with corruption, “created new grievances and exacerbated old ones, as some groups benefited from the war and others were alienated and driven toward the insurgency,” the SIGAR report said; the winners “committed major crimes with impunity, creating a kind of mafia rule.” U.S. projects “unwittingly supported one powerbroker or interest group at the expense of another, thereby stoking local conflicts and creating an opportunity for insurgents to form an alliance with the disaffected party.” American leaders relied on “strongmen and warlords to build a nascent bureaucracy,” an approach that undermined the Afghan government’s legitimacy rather than establishing it. In a classic example of bureaucratic failure, “evaluations intentionally obfuscated the truth,” because no one wanted to lose funding or support for their assignment.

In one telling anecdote from 2009, according to SIGAR, General Stanley A. McChrystal ordered the construction of two large diesel generators to provide electricity to 650,000 Kandahar residents, believing that “expanding access to electricity would improve the Afghan government’s legitimacy.” But the fuel costs proved too high to sustain, and the “resulting widespread power outages exposed the project as a bridge to nowhere.” The reporter Azmat Kahn wrote in 2015 that despite American claims, more than 1,000 U.S.-built schools in Afghanistan had been abandoned but were still being funded, with cash ending up “in the pockets of brutal warlords and reviled strongmen, which sometimes soured the local population on the U.S. and the Afghan government.” The Afghan army would collapse 12 years later in the face of the Taliban advance, when deprived of U.S. military and contractor support. Everything the U.S. built in Afghanistan was a sandcastle.

As the Afghan government foundered, commentators ignored these fatal flaws, indulging the fantasy that the war might have been successful if the military had simply killed more of the enemy. The Soviet Union pursued its invasion of Afghanistan with unrestrained brutality—that didn’t work, either. According to Craig Whitlock’s 2021 book, The Afghanistan Papers, by 2018 the Taliban had “swollen to about 60,000 fighters, up from 25,000 seven years earlier,” and had gained so much territory that the U.S. “stopped tracking territorial control altogether.” By July 2018, the U.S. estimated that the Taliban controlled or contested half of Afghanistan. This happened despite the Trump administration removing Obama-era restraints on air strikes.

Few asked why, if the American presence was so unconditionally benevolent, the Taliban managed to rise from the ashes of its early defeat. A farmer south of Kabul told the journalist Emran Feroz last year that he hoped the peace talks would be successful, because “​we can live in poverty but not without peace.”

This backlash to the failure of the national mission undertaken after 9/11 explains why American leaders lied to the public for so long about the progress of the war. No president wanted to be the president who lost Afghanistan, and no general wanted to be the general who brought American forces home from a defeat. “For those millions of Americans who demanded vengeance for 9/11, and then for the United States’ compounded misfortunes in seeking it, the Forever War brought only the pain and humiliation of attaining neither peace nor victory,” Spencer Ackerman writes. So the war continued. It fell to Biden to deliver the bad news.

No one has made a compelling or coherent case for how the U.S. could actually have succeeded in Afghanistan after 20 years of failure. We have instead been treated to nonsense arguments that low American casualties during talks with the Taliban was the new normal, and that the risk for an American service member during a deployment to Afghanistan was comparable to being stationed in South Korea. But there are also no improvised explosive devices in Seoul, and soldiers don’t get to take their families with them to Kandahar. Afghanistan was not an easy assignment like being stationed in Berlin, where you get a housing allowance that will easily pay for a luxury apartment if you are not assigned on-base housing.

This argument elides the steep casualty rate of the Afghan army, and the inevitability that American force would eventually be needed to repel the Taliban advance, which would mean more American casualties. The only alternative to withdrawal was a resumption and escalation of the war the leaders of the U.S. government have quietly known for years was not winnable.

Last week, General Mark Milley testified that contrary to Biden’s public assertions, he advised the president to maintain a residual force in Afghanistan. But he also acknowledged that the U.S.-backed Afghan government could never have survived on its own, testifying, “the end state probably would have been the same no matter when you did it.”

Few American leaders—except for those with relatives in Afghanistan—and few American families, except for those whose loved ones deployed over and over to fight a battle their leaders knew they could not win, were concerned about the fate of Afghanistan until Biden injured their pride by withdrawing. Then, people unwilling to wear a mask inside or get vaccinated to protect others from a disease killing 1,000 Americans a week were suddenly seized with an eagerness to send other people’s fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters back to an unwinnable war so they could avert the shame of defeat, the realization that the national mission to forever purge the trauma of 9/11 through military might could not succeed.

Americans grow up being taught that America is invincible; the most popular film franchise of the current moment is a 12-year monument to commercial filmmaking in which a blue-eyed World War II veteran clad in an American flag leads a posse of demigods back through time to undo an allegorical representation of 9/11. Ardent nationalists are unused to accepting trade-offs or limitations on American power, and many prefer leaders who will paper over such trade-offs with belligerent fictions about American omnipotence.

Whether it is anger over the thought of impoverished Taliban fighters outlasting the world’s most expensive and powerful military or fears over the fate of those left under Taliban rule, the lives of Afghans are but chipped tiles in the mosaic of American nationalism. There was little public anguish in the United States over the Trump administration quietly increasing civilian casualties more than 300 percent from 2017 to 2020 by relaxing rules governing air strikes, because those deaths were not understood to illustrate the limits of American power. But when Americans suffered the sting of defeat in a war they had not spent five minutes thinking about over the previous five years, then, and only then, did Afghan lives start to matter to them.

But only to a point. In an echo of the Obama era’s aggressive deportation efforts, the Biden administration has proved exceedingly frightened of the backlash from reversing Trump-era immigration policies, keeping most of them in place without placating a single one of its critics. Soon after the evacuation began, ambitious conservative politicians and media figures began warning of an “invasion” of Afghan refugees. Trump released a statement accusing the Afghans scrambling to flee Taliban rule of being potential terrorists, and weeks later, Republicans in the Senate voted unanimously to block assistance to them. In fact, Afghans are fleeing an American failure, and America should open its doors to them. This nation’s history of providing shelter to people from all over the world is far more consistent than its record of military victory.

In 1869, Frederick Douglass anticipated the growing wave of nativism in the United States by arguing, “In whatever else other nations may have been great and grand, our greatness and grandeur will be found in the faithful application of the principle of perfect civil equality to the people of all races and of all creeds, and to men of no creeds.” America’s mission, he argued, was to become the “perfect national illustration of the unit and dignity of the human family, that the world has ever seen.” If America wants to be great, there are other national missions besides war.

Those who opposed withdrawal cannot plausibly argue that the U.S. military was close to completing its mission, or that another 20 years would have made a difference. But they can use Americans’ wounded pride, and the echo of the sadness and despair they felt on 9/11, to raise the costs for Joe Biden of delivering the bad news. The preoccupation with American “humiliation” in Afghanistan is a form of mourning for something the invasion was never able to do—make Americans feel as strong and invincible as they did the day before the towers fell.