The 20th anniversary of 9/11 and its fallout was always going to be a moment of deep soul searching about what has been lost and learned.
But the retrospective, until a few weeks ago, risked having a historical, even sepia, quality as the attention of political leaders moved to a more contemporary set of threats – health pandemics, climate emergencies, Big Tech and great power competition, including the rise of China. The “war on terror”, after all, looked if not won, at least drawn. It was even possible Islamist terrorism was a temporary manageable phenomenon, increasingly confined to Africa and some lethal loners in European shopping centres.
Instead the ignominious end to the US’s 20-year stay in Afghanistan – meaning the 9/11 anniversary coincides with the start of a second Taliban emirate – has injected a thousand contemporary volts into the retrospective.
If there is one early victim, it appears to be the concept of nation-building, and possibly its already ailing lesser distant cousin, the doctrine of the responsibility to protect. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff, said he did not yet know whether this was for the short term or an inflection point that historians would look back on.
Joe Biden, a sceptic of an Afghan war extended beyond narrow counter-terrorism goals, clearly intends it to be the latter. “This decision is about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries,” he told Americans last week. In language similar to Trump’s, he argued the US secured its vital national interests in Afghanistan once Osama bin Laden had been sent to “the gates of hell” and the extremist’s training camps were eliminated.
In short, the US military’s democracy export department was closing for business. Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said he too was no longer interested in nation-building, citing Mali.
The contrast with the start of this century is stark. Before he entered the White House, George W Bush campaigned against nation-building, declaring: “I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war.” In so doing he was rejecting Bill Clinton’s efforts in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Haiti, not to mention Truman’s efforts in Japan and Germany. Even in the wake of the attack on the Taliban in 2001, the US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld was clear he was not interested in postwar planning, telling a press conference: “I don’t think it leaves us with a responsibility to figure out what kind of government that country ought to have.” The strategy, in the words of Colin Powell, the US state secretary, was one of “bomb and hope”.
But in his autobiography, Bush said: “After 9/11, I changed my mind. Afghanistan was the ultimate nation state building mission.” The fall of Kabul in 2001, the installation of a UN-endorsed administration, the arrival of a UN peacekeeping force, operating under British national control and initially confined to the capital, dragged America into thinking how to remake the country to make it safe from terrorism in the future. By April 2002 in a speech at Virginia Military Institute, Bush was converted. “We know true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations. Peace will be achieved by helping Afghanistan develop its own stable government.”
Later in the year the official US national security strategy said the spread of democracy was “a vital US national interest”. By 2005 the Pentagon issued Directive 3000.05 making “stability operations” a core military mission. The 2006 Army and Marine Corps Field Manual stated on its first page: “Soldiers and marines are expected to be nation-builders as well as warriors.”
The international community in an era of globalisation had a permission, even a duty, to intervene in cases of genocide or war crimes.
But with the Afghanistan withdrawal, the backlash already under way has intensified. Advocates of liberal intervention find the intellectual tide in America, if less so perhaps in Europe, is running fast away from them.
The old foreign policy establishment is in a state of near siege, attacked by a rare alliance of America First, Obama-era Democrats and progressives. HR McMaster, a security adviser under Trump, angrily described it as the point when “the neo-isolationist right meets the self loathing left”.
It is argued that if support for an Afghan government can evaporate in a month after two decades of aid and training, this is surely the moment to drive the final nail in the coffin of the belief the world can be remade in America’s image. The retired admiral Michael Mullen, the top US military officer under Bush and Obama, strongly supported nation-building but became the first senior military figure to admit the error, saying: “We should have pulled out our troops a decade ago, soon after Osama bin Laden was killed. Biden got it right.”
There are now calls for congressional hearings into why it was easier to stay in an unwinnable war for 20 years than to get out. Interest has been rekindled in the Afghanistan Papers, the Washington Post series in December 2019 that “laid bare that the US political and military establishment routinely lied to Congress about the progress on the ground, and that they did not believe the mission was likely to succeed”.
Some critics of the foreign policy establishment claim there is almost a warfare state embedded in foreign policy commentators and the thinktank world, including the Centre for Foreign Relations, Brookings, and the American Enterprise Institute.
Matt Duss, Bernie Sanders’ chief foreign policy adviser, said: “If we’ve learned nothing else over the past week, we’ve learned how deeply committed our elite media is to the US imperial project.”
Stephen Walt, a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School and author of The Hell of Good Intentions – a book about the US foreign policy elite – condemned the “chorus of overwrought pundits, unrepentant hawks and opportunistic adversaries now proclaiming that defeat in Afghanistan has left US credibility in tatters. They are wrong. Ending an unwinnable war says nothing about a great power’s willingness to fight for more vital objectives.”
Many argue for a wider course correction. Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to Barack Obama, has been at the forefront of this call. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he suggested it was arguable that Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia would have been better off without US intervention, adding that the post-9/11 policies of the US were repurposed by authoritarian states such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. By abusing its powers of detention and surveillance, the US often ended up exporting repression, not democracy.
But he went further. The whole structure of the “war on terror”, including the over-reliance on drone strikes, needs dismantling to allow the US to move decisively past the 9-11 agenda, he argued. Liberal military interventions may have been well intentioned, but they have ended in failure or insanity, such as the actions of clever US military commanders such as Gen David Petraeus calling in anthropologists to convince Obama there was a way the US army could shape Kandahar residents to shun the Taliban.
“America needs to ask itself: what do we truly need to keep this country safe? The number of militants has gone up every year since 9/11. Clearly what we are doing is also creating terrorists,” Rhodes wrote.
Bellwether Democrats, such as Chris Murphy, a thoughtful senator on foreign issues, probably catch the current mood. “The question is: should we have stayed there forever to protect those advances? … There are really awful, despotic regimes all across the world and the US does not make the decision to send troops into every single one.”
This leaves the advocates of intervention arguing on difficult terrain that Biden could have maintained a modest 2,500 further troops in Afghanistan to tilt the battlefield. Richard Haass, the chairman of the Council of Foreign Relations since 1993 and a veteran diplomat, has argued that the alternative to withdrawal from Afghanistan was not “endless occupation” but “open-ended presence”. “Occupation is imposed, presence invited. Unless you think we are occupying Japan, Germany, and South Korea,” he said. He argued US troops at the current level – what Biden called the low grade option – could have worked.
One of the difficulties is that those who defend liberal intervention often end up saying the policy was right, but there were mistakes of execution. James Dobbins, a former special envoy to Afghanistan, is one example. He said the Bush administration faced a choice between “occupying permanently, reinvading periodically, or committing to help build a minimally competent successor regime” ideally at peace with itself and its neighbours. He said Bush wisely had chosen the latter course, but never dedicated the cash or troops required, becoming distracted by the Iraq war. Dominic Raab, the UK foreign secretary, has been fishing in these waters, saying the resources never matched the commitments.
Another version of this was provided by Richard Holbrooke, a diplomatic veteran of Vietnam and Obama’s special Afghan representative, who wrote in a note to Hillary Clinton that counter-insurgency can work in principle but it requires considerable coercion, as in colonial wars in the Philippines, Malaya or French Morocco. There were two problems specific to Afghanistan, he said. Counter-insurgency only works if the enemy does not have a cross border sanctuary – the Taliban had Pakistan – and “the current government does not have the sufficient legitimacy and appeal to motivate hundreds of thousands of Afghans to die for it”.
Douglas Lute, who spent six years in the White House during two administrations focusing on South Asia, said the US had its priorities wrong. “We did too much to build the Afghan army in our own image when it had 80% illiteracy, rampant drug abuse, a political culture of corruption endemic all the way down to the bottom,” he said. “For years and years we gave them close air support, fired precision weapons, ferried them around in our helicopters, gave them the intelligence from our drones, we would send them to a US airbase to train and they would defect and seek asylum. There was a 30% attrition rate each year.”
It was less that Afghans were not ready for democracy, but it was never possible in an insurgency for democracy to gain a foothold. The special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction found that “successes in stabilising Afghan districts rarely lasted longer than the physical presence of coalition troops and civilians”.
As a result, “getting to Denmark” – as Francis Fukuyama once described nation-building – requires time, expertise, resources and skills.
Purist opponents of nation-building dismiss this as “the incompetence dodge” and argue surely that after 20 years in Afghanistan, almost every variation of the policy has at some point or other attempted from surge to light touch, and nothing, judging by the precipitate collapse of the Afghan army, stuck.
Either way, three issues arise. If democracies conclude military-backed liberal intervention in pursuit of democracy cannot work, will autocracies show the same self-restraint? In his speech describing the call for an end to “forever wars” as imbecilic, Tony Blair pointed out that Putin in Syria had shown he is ready for the forever wars. Mark Sedwill, the former cabinet secretary, applied the point to China: “If you are one of our authoritarian adversaries, you will be right now going around the rest of the world to those countries that are in play and saying to them, ‘You see, we told you so, we have the strategic patience and they don’t,’” he said. Nation-building is not just a western phenomenon.
Second, if large-scale military intervention has been delegitimised by Afghanistan, what objectives can still be achieved militarily, and what can be achieved in the absence of the US? Blair for instance fears fragile states in the Sahel may be left to disintegrate, and genocides to go ahead. A retreat to the old toolbox of indirect coercive measures – economic sanctions, political isolation, referral to the international criminal court, diplomatic pressure – has hardly worked in Syria or Belarus.
Finally, if large scale military interventions are over, how is counter-terrorism to be fought – a fight in which Biden insists the US remains engaged? The former CIA director Mike Hayden argued piecemeal drone strikes could hit high value al-Qaida leaders, but are only worthwhile if aligned to intelligence on the ground.
Suzanne Raine, former director of the UK government joint terrorism analysis centre, said last week Biden’s “over the horizon capability will struggle to get beyond names and data and be vulnerable to misinformation, prejudice and manipulation and will miss opportunities to know how the west’s adversaries are thinking”.
In a sobering essay to coincide with the 9/11 anniversary she warned: “There are now aligned movements, even if under different command and control, from Nigeria and Burkina Faso to Mozambique to Afghanistan, the Maldives, Indonesia and the Philippines. The once unimaginable physical caliphate lasted five years and has supporters around the world, many of whom have fought together or nurse grievances because they couldn’t. There are still more than 60,000 Daesh fighters and family in camps and prisons in Syria and Iraq, including foreign nationals from at least 60 countries. Meanwhile al-Qaida’s affiliate in Syria, Hurras ad-Din [Guardians of Religion Organisation], released a Zoom-style video in January encouraging lone actor attacks against the west. It is believed that at least half of its membership, estimated as up to 2,500, are foreigners, with a leadership of Egyptians and Tunisians. This is definitely not progress.”