America’s war in Afghanistan has ended not just without victory, but in collapse. The Taliban have returned to power, triumphant. Thousands of Afghans, running for their lives, desperately throng the international airport in hopes of leaving the country. U.S. forces are attempting to airlift American diplomats to safety. Though comparisons to the Fall of Saigon in 1975 may be strained, the unraveling of America’s mission in Afghanistan is no less ignominious.
But the actual explanation for America’s failure in Afghanistan is far different from what you’ve heard.
Many have savaged the Biden administration’s withdrawal timeline; the fiction that the Afghan government could outlast a U.S. pullout; the notion that the Afghan military could repel the Taliban’s relentless advance; the Trump-era “peace” accord with the Taliban. All relevant, yes; but such explanations ignore the fundamental issue.
The pullout was a late-stage symptom of a deeper problem, going all the way back to 2001. This is not a military, but a policy, failure. Blame our political and intellectual leaders, across two decades, for evading the ideological nature of the enemy and, consequently, miring U.S. forces in a “no-win” war.
To defeat the enemy that struck on 9/11, we needed to understand its nature and goals. But George W. Bush shut his eyes to the facts. He evaded the fact that our enemy is an ideological movement dedicated to Islamic totalitarianism, that it is wider than al-Qaeda, and that it is inspired, embodied, and funded by regimes such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. Instead, he launched a “Global War on Terrorism,” myopically focusing on a tactic. And he endlessly and implausibly claimed that jihadists “hijacked” a great religion.
This self-induced cognitive fog vitiated our foreign policy post-9/11. U.S. policymakers were blind to what would have been necessary to defeat the enemy: naming and condemning its religiously inspired motives, targeting its state sponsors, demoralizing its followers, crushing their will to fight, and inducing them to give up their cause as lost. Instead of victory, we pursued “compassion.” After allowing our military only to displace the Taliban regime, not destroy it, the Bush administration pursued “reconstruction,” nation-building, and the beginning of a democracy crusade in the Middle East.
The Taliban, like their al-Qaeda allies, were scattered. Many fled into Pakistan, where they regrouped.
Bush’s Afghanistan policy, some complained, faltered because the U.S. deployed too few troops and resources, thus allowing the Taliban to resurge.
That ignores the deeper problem. Bush’s priority was not defeating the Islamist threat we faced, but rather building a new society for the downtrodden Afghan people, one that would somehow incorporate a benign version of Islam. Consequently, U.S. forces were hamstrung on the battlefield by self-crippling rules of engagement; for example, the military had to avoid hitting holy sites or mosques, where enemy forces were known to hide. Such constraints sacrificed the lives of American soldiers while giving enemy forces tactical advantages.
And this account overlooks the results of the Obama administration’s policy. Having campaigned as the anti-Bush, claiming that the Iraq war deflected our attention from Afghanistan, Obama put more resources into the conflict and “surged” thousands more troops. Even so, the Taliban and their Islamist allies were nowhere near defeated. Indeed, Obama, echoing Bush, dismissed the notion of achieving anything like “victory.”
The through line of America’s policy since 9/11 has been to evade, fudge, and dance around the fact that the movement waging jihad against us is driven by a set of ideas rooted in Islam. Hence, Bush endorsed an Afghan constitution predicated on Islamic law. Hence Obama’s extending a hand of friendship to Iran, a standard bearer of Islamic totalitarianism since 1979.
Which only served to embolden, rather than demoralize, the Taliban and Islamists everywhere. Since 2006, the Taliban have been resurgent. The amount of territory they seized has waxed and waned, but their determination was obvious. Encouraged by America’s compounding policy failures, this far weaker adversary was bent on returning to power.
Our leaders in Washington have capitulated.
It was Trump’s team who deluded themselves into pursuing a “peace deal” with the Taliban. One justification (or, rationalization) for the deal is that the Taliban had “moderated” and might soften even more over time. To call this magical thinking is unduly charitable; this is of a piece with America’s anti-intellectual foreign policy, blind to the role of ideas in animating the Islamists.
More than willing to accept the fictions underlying that deal, the Biden administration had no conception of what success in Afghanistan might even look like. Witness, in the days prior to the Taliban’s victory, the ugly spectacle of Biden officials offering the Taliban a bribe of foreign aid, if only they’d leave our embassy untouched.
Across four administrations, the self-induced philosophical blindness of our foreign policy is the deeper cause of the Afghanistan disaster — and it will cost us.
For years, Osama bin Laden and other Islamist leaders rallied their followers and recruited new ones by portraying America as a paper tiger. Two decades after 9/11, we have let ourselves be stalemated by a piddling enemy. The world’s superpower emerges from Afghanistan humiliated — a sight that can only galvanize jihadists.
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Ghate and Journo are coauthors of the just-published ARI book, Failing to Confront Islamic Totalitarianism: What Went Wrong After 9/11. Read the preface here, read the whole book online (below), or download it as a PDF for free.