Endless War and the De-Politicization of National Security

Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?

(How serious people’s faces have become.)

Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,

everyone going home lost in thought?

Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.

And some of our men just in from the border say

there are no barbarians any longer.

Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?

Those people were a kind of solution.

“Waiting for the Barbarians,” Constantine. P. Cavafy (1904), trans. Edmund Keeley

In Afghanistan, Emma Ashford writes, “For twenty years, the United States and its partners struggled to impose western democratic institutions and liberal norms in a minimally developed and largely unconsolidated nation state.” This is a popular reading of the decision to withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan: it both flatters our past good intentions and lends to the prospect of pursuing self-interest the cover of wisdom and virtue. Given the failure of supposed altruism, Ashford finds “a glimmer of hope in Washington’s increasing obsession with so-called “Great Power Competition,” though she oddly attributes this venerable concept not to Thucydides, Kautilya, or Sun Tzu but to the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy.

Had the United States been interested in a struggle to “impose democratic institutions and liberal norms” on Afghanistan, it could have started the effort much earlier. It could have refrained from helping Pakistan and Saudi Arabia to empower Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf during the 1980s, and it might have responded to the Taliban after 9/11 by means other than toppling their regime by empowering warlords whose misgovernance and violent clashes had initially made the Taliban seem like a welcome relief. The United States could have provided some support to such efforts during the twelve years that intervened between the 1989 Soviet withdrawal and the 2001 al Qaeda attack on the United States, rather than relegating the area to the peripheries of global strategy.

Ashford recognizes that “our initial goals in Afghanistan” had nothing to do with “democratic institutions and liberal norms.” They were “the toppling of the Taliban.” She even asserts that the initial goals did not include “the end of terrorism,” and that the shift to the strategy called “nation building” resulted from mission creep. The rapid shift of resources from Afghanistan to Iraq, however, shows that for the Bush administration, the intervention was from the very beginning the opening salvo of the “War on Terrorism” aiming at the transformation of the Muslim world in the U.S. strategic interest. Afghanistan itself remained at the margins, however. The “war on terrorism,” as the primary strategic goal, always took precedence over democratization and nation-building, which were tactics inconsistently adopted in service of the counter-terrorist goal.

There are many valid reasons that a country as impoverished and with such weak state institutions as Afghanistan would find it difficult if not impossible to establish a stable democracy, but the insurgency did not derive from opposition to liberal institutions. It derived from illiberal counter-terrorism measures, including both political exclusion and violent abuses, and a failure of regional diplomacy, especially with Pakistan.

I have chronicled elsewhere how counter-terrorist priorities, defined “kinetically” (as capturing or killing “terrorists”) always took precedence in U.S. policy in Afghanistan over either democratization or peacemaking. The Taliban did not refuse to join the new “liberal” order. They were told from the beginning, on television, by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, that they were not welcome. On December 6, 2001, the day after the signing of the Bonn Agreement, Rumsfeld publicly rejected a truce negotiated by Afghan President Hamid Karzai, which would have permitted the Taliban leadership to participate in the political processes envisioned by the Agreement. In 2002, U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney ordered a halt to efforts by the CIA to help former Taliban officials organize to participate in the new order.[1] In 2004, when the Taliban sent a delegation to Kabul to negotiate with Karzai, the United States informed the Afghan government that it would not guarantee the security of Taliban officials it considered to be linked to al Qaeda, ending the entire effort. As a result of this incident, the United States codified its position on negotiations with the Taliban. It compiled a list of members of the Taliban leadership whom it considered as “linked” to al Qaeda and told Karzai that he could not engage any of them without explicit agreement from the United States.[2]

This policy was not supported by any analysis or intelligence estimate of its effect on the political future of Afghanistan. Counter-terrorism policy as a construct systematically elided the political. The Taliban and al Qaeda, two completely distinct organizations, with different histories, ideologies, and memberships, were amalgamated along with many others into the concept of “Islamic extremism,” as if their beliefs and actions resulted from a common distinct interpretation of a religion, rather than from the political and social processes that produce other political actors.

Such an analysis is an extreme instance of what social psychologists call “the fundamental attribution error,” which results from “a cognitive bias to assume that a person’s actions depend on what ‘kind’ of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces that influence the person.” Since the “social and environmental forces” that influence al Qaeda and the Taliban included U.S. policies in the middle east and South Asia, including Afghanistan, the counter-terrorist paradigm directs attention away from the United States and its interactions with the rest of the world and instead focuses on the characteristics of other actors that make them resistant to our assumed good intentions.

It is no wonder that such a cognitive framework leads to bad policy. Over two thousand five hundred years ago, Sun Tzu taught “Know yourself, and know your enemy.” That motto includes understanding the interactions that have made the two sides what they are today and made them into enemies. Understanding those interactions can provide insights on how to transform the relationship without fighting, or how to make whatever fighting is needed more effective. Ignoring one’s own role in the origin of the conflict deprives one of the ability to “subdue the enemy without fighting,” which Sun Tzu identified as “acme of skill” in warfare.

Besides ignoring one’s own role, analyzing conflict in terms of the character of the enemy also inhibits political analysis of the “social and environmental forces” in the enemy’s own political environment. U.S. policy toward Afghanistan was dominated by the designation of the Taliban as an enemy to equated with al Qaeda–as President Bush said, those who harbor terrorists will meet the same fate. That rendered understanding the actual political processes of Afghanistan and its neighbors nearly irrelevant. It defined the problem as how to defeat the enemy, rather than as how to achieve a defined political objective. In the course of this incoherent project, the U.S. government seized on many rationales–democracy and liberal norms were just one of many. The lack of self-knowledge and indifference toward the contexts that drive others would have guaranteed failure regardless of how success was defined.


[1]Steve Coll [2018], Directorate S.: The C.I.A. and America’s Secret Wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Penguin Press, 140.

[2] Van Linschoten, Alex Strick, and Felix Kuehn. 2012. An Enemy We Created: The Myth of the Taliban-Al Qaeda Merger in Afghanistan. Oxford University Press,

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.