A Critique of U.S. Involvement in Afghanistan Focused on “Nation-Building” Won’t Help in Learning Lessons

Emma Ashford’s critique of America’s last 20 years of involvement in Afghanistan focuses on the purported error of embarking on “nation-building.” She casts the U.S. military engagement–at a cost of the lives of over 2,400 U.S. service members and over $2 trillion–as being primarily for this purpose, suggesting that the United States was trying to “impose” democracy, and that nation-building in this time period had been “a core tenet of foreign policy.” This is a misinterpretation of what the American war in Afghanistan was about.

The root of the misinterpretation lies in the characterization of the original goals of the U.S. invasion. She expresses these as the “more modest” goals (as compared to nation-building) of “toppling the Taliban from power and breaking up the terrorist strongholds.” The difficulty with this characterization is that regime change–which is what “toppling the Taliban” means–was a distinctly immodest goal. Ousting the regime was quick work for the U.S. and allied militaries, but the implication of ousting it was that something had to be put in place instead. It would have been–and would have widely been seen to be–the height of irresponsibility to accomplish only half a regime change, out with the old and in with … nothing?

The toppling was the easy part, the replacing not so much. That’s where the nation-building (or state-building, or any of a variety of less hot-button terms) comes in. It was a means, not a goal in and of itself, the Bush-era “Freedom Agenda” that Ashford cites notwithstanding. And it was a means that was directly tied to the primary goal of the invasion: counter-terrorism. Nation-building was seen as instrumental for avoiding a repeat of the Taliban-era coziness with and hosting of al Qaeda by supporting the installation of a new system of government that would be sympathetic with U.S. national security interests, embraced by most Afghans and therefore durable, and, ultimately, able itself to protect itself and the population.

U.S., European, and other supporting governments’ nation-building activities included constructing and equipping security forces, funding elections, providing technical assistance for creating state institutions, and delivering aid for expanding education and health care. On the civilian side, this was in many respects normal development assistance (though on steroids) for a poor country that donors had hoped to ease out of many years of conflict and harsh authoritarian rule. Once the Taliban regrouped as an insurgency and gained strength around 2005-2006, these kinds of activities also became part and parcel of counter-insurgency strategy.

The assistance that was provided for establishing–from scratch–and strengthening Afghanistan’s security forces was meant to be the U.S. and NATO military exit strategy. The idea was to enable the Afghan government to secure the country by itself and to become a long-term counter-terrorism partner in the region, and to enable the foreign military forces deployed in the country to be replaced by indigenous forces. This was the so-called “transition” strategy–which was implemented to a considerable extent, but not completed, by the original deadline, the end of 2014.

It has become commonplace to say, as Ashford suggests, that there was “mission creep,” because the scale of these activities, their costs, and the length of time spent grew beyond what most U.S. policymakers and the public expected in the early years. However, the expansion of the mission was not fundamentally because U.S. goals expanded over time; it was because one of the initial goals–eliminating Taliban rule in Afghanistan, and ensuring it remained eliminated–was much more difficult than originally anticipated. The problem was unrealistic expectations of what could be achieved, especially in a constrained timeframe. What is now seen by many as an expansion of war aims into nation-building terrain was actually the logical consequence of engaging in regime change in the first place, and then attempting to follow through in getting the change to stick.

Certainly, arguments can be made against the practice of nation-building, particularly at such large scale. A wealth of data supports criticism that U.S. security and civilian assistance to Afghanistan did not have its full intended impact and was too often poorly planned and implemented. No doubt there is plenty of room for tactical improvement. But to argue that the United States should have made a different strategic choice not to entangle itself in nation-building requires examining the alternative–which would have been choosing, at the start, to go after al Qaeda but not to change the regime in Afghanistan. Going in a different direction at that fork in the road would have produced a very different history of the last 20 years.

Ashford correctly points out that risk aversion on the part of U.S. leaders played a strong role in hesitance to withdraw U.S. forces even as conditions in Afghanistan deteriorated, and even the continued presence of terrorist groups there came to be seen as less important to U.S. security over time. She inaccurately credits Donald Trump, however, for breaking the spell. Trump was not, in fact, the president who “opened negotiations with the Taliban”; that started during the Obama Administration, with tentative steps first taken in 2009 and then intermittent efforts through to the end of that presidency. The Obama-era initiative was unsuccessful, however.

After Trump initially approved a strategy early in his presidency that ramped up the war effort and that put off peace-making, by the end of 2018, in a bid to find a way out of Afghanistan through negotiation, his administration put talks with the Taliban at the center of its strategy. This resulted in a February 2020 U.S.-Taliban deal that called for a complete withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces (by 1 May 2021), in exchange for Taliban promises not to allow terrorist groups to use Afghan territory for activities that could threaten U.S. security.

Ashford rightly observes that President Biden benefitted from Trump having done this deal, given Biden’s own longstanding inclination to reduce U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan. Still, the choice was Biden’s and–if he had been as risk-averse about withdrawal on his watch as his predecessors, including Trump–he could have set aside the deal, arguing that the Taliban have not fully complied with their end of the bargain.

Ashford regards Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan as “the start of a long process of ending a twenty-year war on terror.” The decision might turn out to be part of a broader reconsideration of the role and nature of counter-terrorism operations overseas. But a full appraisal of what the United States did over 20 years in Afghanistan would need to extend beyond counter-terrorism and avoid being too U.S.-centric. The invasion was not just a sideshow in a “civil war [that] has lasted for four decades … and [that] will likely last beyond America’s retreat.” That characterization brushes past the ways that the intervention–undertaken for the United States’ own security purposes–greatly intensified conflict in Afghanistan, leading to far greater loss of life among Afghans than the losses suffered by Americans.

It should not be forgotten that the U.S. exit from Afghanistan in no respect will “end” an “endless war.” Whatever one’s view on the merits of exiting now, there should be room to spare a thought for the costs that the U.S. invasion visited on many Afghans, and the violence ahead that they will suffer in the intensifying war the United States will leave behind. And the United States should spare no effort in trying to mitigate that suffering.

In that regard, steps the U.S. and other governments should take as the withdrawal approaches and afterward include following through on assurances that civilian and security assistance to Afghanistan will continue, and ensuring mechanisms are in place for delivery of humanitarian assistance throughout the country as the conflict probably worsens in the months ahead. In addition, the United States should provide strong political and practical support to establishment of a new UN leading role in peace diplomacy, given the diminishing U.S. role in Afghanistan.

Logic (though perhaps not politics) dictates that once there are no more American boots on the ground, the United States should do more, not less, to sustain its diplomacy and development aid in support of the Afghan government and any possibility of peace talks. Doing so would make good on the claim that military withdrawal does not mean the United States is abandoning Afghanistan and would show seriousness about the idea that diplomacy and aid can be powerful tools of U.S. foreign policy.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Emma Ashford reviews the costs of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and hails the impending withdrawal as long overdue. She suggests that not only is Afghanistan “the poster child for mission creep,” it may have soured the foreign policy community on nation-building as a core element of U.S. foreign policy. Attention may be returning to the great power competition that was formerly, and may soon be again, the center of U.S. foreign policy.

Response Essays

  • Hal Brands argues that there have been lots of good reasons to leave Afghanistan for quite some time—so why is it only happening now? The answer, he says, is U.S. domestic politics, and the fear that previous presidents had of terrorist attacks. Brands finds that Afghanistan’s future may be grim regardless of what the United States does, and that the decision to withdraw amounts to a gamble that the country will not once again become a haven for terrorists targeting America.

  • Barnett Rubin stresses the importance of U.S. actions in creating the mess in Afghanistan. In particular, equating the Taliban with al Qaeda appears to him as a step that dominated U.S. choices on the ground and may have delayed achieving peace for many years. In the resulting chaos, U.S. policymakers seized on many different rationales for their actions, and the result was simply incoherent.

  • Laurel Miller argues that removing the Taliban from power in Afghanistan was “a distinctly immodest goal” and that nation-building was a necessity thereafter, one implicit in the decision to go to Afghanistan in the first place. Far from an example of mission creep, nation-building was exactly what we signed up for.