Why We Failed in Afghanistan
Following the ignominious end to a 20-year effort, American foreign-policy elites must reassess their ambitions and assumptions.
We were officials in the Department of Justice two decades ago when al-Qaeda attacked us, destroying the World Trade Center in New York and one-fifth of the Pentagon and killing nearly 3,000 civilians, including all those on board four hijacked airliners. We advised President George W. Bush’s administration as it launched its lightning attack to rout the Taliban from power in Afghanistan, where it had provided safe haven to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist gang. We are aghast at the Biden administration’s disastrous flight from Afghanistan almost two decades to the day since the 9/11 attacks.
As part of the administration that played a part in the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and its subsequent occupation by American forces, we accept part of the blame for what went wrong. On September 25, 2001, we advised the White House that the United States had the right to attack al-Qaeda to prevent future attacks and to overthrow the Taliban for sheltering terrorist operations on its territory. We believed that President Bush had the constitutional authority as commander in chief to defend the United States from attacks by nations or by brigands such as al-Qaeda, that he had the right to disrupt any opponents that might launch future attacks, and that Congress had given its support in the Authorization for Use of Military Force, which we helped negotiate with congressional leaders. We stand by that legal advice, which recognized the president’s traditional constitutional powers; those powers have justified the campaign against al-Qaeda not just in Afghanistan but throughout the world.
The United States achieved much of its original goal in attacking Afghanistan 20 years ago. In the icy mountains of Afghanistan and Pakistan, our forces killed or captured much of the al-Qaeda leadership but failed to stop Osama bin Laden from slipping out of Tora Bora to hideouts in Pakistan. With a light footprint and supported by local allies on the ground, our military drove the Taliban from power within a few weeks, and Afghan factions agreed to install Hamid Karzai as a provisional leader. While the Taliban pursued an insurgency, and U.S. deployments ebbed and flowed, al-Qaeda could not resuscitate its operations in Afghanistan. Although in the course of the long war the U.S. lost about 2,300 service members, with 20,000 more wounded, its military actions prevented al-Qaeda from carrying out another major terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland. (Sporadic attacks, often by self-radicalized Islamists, did occur in Boston, San Bernardino, Miami, and Fort Hood.)
But in the end, the U.S. failed. Biden’s humiliating retreat not only is a disaster at a tactical level but also reflects a failure at the strategic level by his three presidential predecessors. The U.S. erred in allowing our mission in Afghanistan to transform from one of self-defense, in which our forces sought to eliminate Afghanistan’s role as a safe haven for terrorist attacks on the homeland, to one of constructing a democracy on Afghan soil. Our goals slid almost imperceptibly into such grandiose dreams after the shocking ease of our wins in Afghanistan and Iraq, which led us to think that American arms could achieve almost anything. After all, the United States had achieved similar feats in Germany and Japan immediately after World War II; during the Cold War, America had shepherded other allies such as South Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, and the Philippines toward some form of democratic government; and then after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Washington had midwifed the birth of stable democracies in Eastern Europe. The Bush and Obama administrations were betrayed by the hubris that we could achieve similar success in Afghanistan (and Iraq), while the Trump and Biden administrations searched only for a way out.
While the two of us had left the Bush administration by the time nation-building had replaced self-defense as America’s mission in Afghanistan, we must reflect on why our nation failed and even to ask whether the last 20 years’ effort was worth it. The Afghanistan debacle has made clear to us that the limits on American power are not military but political. We cannot impose a democratic constitution and political system on a people who themselves do not demand it and are unready for it.
Constitutions grow organically out of a people’s history, culture, and tradition. In referring here to “constitutions,” we mean not legal texts, which can be altered as desired, but the basic institutions, practices, rules, and norms that structure a society’s legal system and govern its operations. In that sense, constitutions are highly resistant to change. Even when outward constitutional forms undergo drastic transformation — as in the Russian Revolution — the deep structures of the old regime tend to persist, and entrenched patterns of governance reemerge. Russia was an autocracy under both czarism and communism, although the communists were more efficient and brutal.
Our own constitutional history shows this clearly. The Constitution of 1787 was not a bolt from the blue. It grew organically from deep roots in the traditions of the English common law and a century and a half of experience in self-government in the colonies. It was a product not of abstract thinking but of generations of political experience and experimentation. It was, so to say, native to the soil.
The U.S. failure in Afghanistan stems in large part from our refusal to recognize the constraints that history places on constitution-making imposed by force from without. The American project in Afghanistan was based on the assumption that any political and cultural environment would be receptive to the attractions of liberal democracy, capitalism, and international human-rights law, especially its doctrines about religious toleration and women’s rights. But nothing in the political culture or traditions of Afghanistan — an undeveloped, impoverished, tribal, Muslim state ravaged by prior wars — was favorable to such a radical constitutional transformation. Two decades later, after the waste of many lives and trillions of dollars, we have begun to acknowledge our tragic error.
The U.S. is not the first imperial state to have made this basic error. In the Philosophy of Right, the 19th-century German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel analyzes the causes of the military and political failures of Napoleonic France in its war in Spain. Napoleon had attempted to impose a new constitution on Spain, based on the principles of the Enlightenment and the French view of the rights of man. Spain was considered backward, ignorant, in the grip of a reactionary Catholic Church. Hegel fastened on the causes of the failure of Napoleon’s constitution:
To think of giving to a people a constitution a priori is a whim, overlooking precisely that element which renders a constitution something more than a product of thought. Every nation, therefore, has the constitution which suits it and belongs to it. . . . Napoleon insisted upon giving to the Spanish a constitution a priori but the project failed. A constitution is not a mere manufacture, but the work of centuries. . . . No constitution is merely created. That which Napoleon gave to the Spanish was more rational than what they had before, yet they viewed it as something foreign to them, and rejected it because they were not sufficiently developed.
The Spanish preferred the constitutional arrangements that were organic to them — whatever their deficiencies — to the enlightened and progressive model the French sought to impose. In the end, the “Spanish ulcer,” as Napoleon called it, brought him down.
We are not saying that because Afghanistan is a Muslim society, it cannot be a democracy. Indonesia, which is Muslim, is a functioning democracy. So, until recently, was Tunisia. But Afghanistan was always going to be different.
The American foreign-policy elite has indeed studied history, but it has drawn the wrong lessons from it. It believes that after 1945 we successfully transformed Germany and Japan in constitutionally fundamental ways that ran contrary to their traditions. That belief is open to question: Germany at least was familiar with both the ideals and the practice of parliamentary democracy; and Japan too had been exposed to them. Furthermore, both nations had enjoyed high levels of economic development before the war, and both had robust state institutions. Finally, both nations were (at least relatively) ethnically homogeneous — a condition that political scientists have found to be favorable to the forcible implantation of democracy by an intervening power.
But in any event, those two cases were exceptional. The two nations had suffered cataclysmic defeat in war. Their ruling elites had been not merely beaten but disgraced, bringing their own advanced states to the brink of utter ruin. Their conqueror had an unparalleled opportunity to work its will on them. By contrast, of the 28 cases of forcibly imposed regime change identified by political scientists Alexander Downes and Jonathan Monten, only three (Panama, along with Germany and Japan) have proven to be instances in which a lasting democracy was built.
The U.S. record since the reconstructions of Germany and Japan is littered with failures to accomplish lasting democratic transformations at gunpoint. Iraq and now Afghanistan are the most obvious cases. But our elites persist in the desire to remold other societies in our (perhaps mistaken) image of ourselves. Here the most prominent example is China. To date, the U.S. has never formally disavowed the ambition of inducing (or even compelling) China to democratize. Opening the door to China’s admission to the World Trade Organization was intended to further that objective. Indeed, this aim has underpinned much of our China policy for decades.
Given China’s millennial predisposition to autocratic and bureaucratic rule, is the objective attainable? This predisposition results from a combination of factors, including the nature and quality of the soil in northern China and the difficulty that early Chinese farmers encountered in resettling in areas outside the central state’s control; the comparative unimportance to China’s rulers, during much of Chinese history, of mobilizing masses of peasants for military purposes; and the talent, depth, extent, and resilience of China’s imperial bureaucracy even when the Chinese state fell into the hands of foreign conquerors.
Even after the fall of the Qing dynasty — China’s last — in 1911, China failed to make a democratic turn. The Beiyang government, a constitutional republic that succeeded the Qing and remained in power until 1928, borrowed Western models in adopting many of the forms of a modern democracy. Many Chinese welcomed these developments, believing that democratization and Westernization were necessary for China’s recovery. But the short-lived experiment failed. A key element in this failure was the virtual absence in Chinese political history of popular assemblies that sought to limit the power of absolute monarchs. Despite the effort at constitutional transformation, China’s long tradition of bureaucratic and autocratic rule reasserted itself.
Again, we are not saying that the democratization of China is impossible: China could in time take the path that Taiwan, South Korea, and other Asian nations have. Or it could develop a form of popular democracy that did not include regular elections. But it will not take such paths under American compulsion, or simply because of our trade and investment.
In Afghanistan, the lesson that our elites should have learned from history is that external force rarely succeeds in bringing about the constitutional transformation of a society so long as it remains culturally resistant. History teaches humility about transformative constitutional change, especially when attempted coercively and from without. Yet, throughout the U.S. effort in Afghanistan, the American foreign-policy elite remained hubristic. It is time for that elite to reassess its ambitions lest it lead us again into disaster.
This article originally was published by National Review on September 1, 2021.