Lessons from Afghanistan

Photograph Source: Damien Surgeon – CC BY 2.0

Doesn’t everyone want to live in the United States? Don’t all tourists want to visit Disneyland? Don’t all students want to study at Harvard or Stanford? Don’t all actors want to star in Hollywood? Don’t all financiers want to work on Wall Street? Isn’t the American Dream universal? Well, maybe it’s not so in all of Afghanistan.

Behind the withdrawal of the remaining U.S. troops from Afghanistan are deeper questions about the selling of the American Dream. The assumption in the second phase of the U.S. presence was the construction of Afghan society along American, liberal democratic lines. After the initial phase of counter-terrorism in reaction to September 11, the second objective was nation-building to re-make Afghanistan in America’s image.

The second phase assumption was that Americans know how societies should be organized. Moreover, it assumes that everyone recognizes, admires and wants part of that organization. It assumes that Americans can go – invade, interfere – wherever they want because people all over the world welcome U.S. outreach. Quite simply, it assumes that non-Americans want Starbucks and the Golden Arches.

The American presence in Afghanistan flies in the lessons of successful transformation. The U.S. was not invited. The legal justifications for the 20-year presence can easily be refuted. As the legendary community organizer Saul Alinsky used to teach: “Never go where you’re not invited.” The United States was not invited into Afghanistan. The victorious Taliban don’t want Kentucky Fried Chicken or Burger King.

It seems that the Afghan government and army didn’t buy enough into the American Dream to fight. The Afghan president – Columbia University educated and a former World Bank official – didn’t even go down with the ship. Twice elected, Ashraf Ghani had written on “Rethinking aid to failed states,” but he was not dedicated or competent enough to help his own country let alone stand by it. Too Western; too intellectual, too much rethinking.

Historically, the Spanish conquistadores pillaged the Americas for Gold, Glory and Gospel. The first two reasons were obviously self-serving. The last was in the interest of saving souls. None of them was nation-building. Nation-building, humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect are modern forms of colonialism. They have replaced Gold, Glory and Gospel. Have you ever seen a Southern country invade a Northern one?

If there is one outstanding lesson from the Afghan experience, it is that asymmetric peace-building doesn’t work. Instead of being invited, Western powers invited themselves. They conceived that exposure to our way of life would transform Afghanistan into our superior lifestyle.

While the amount of money wasted in Afghanistan seems staggering in terms of cost/benefit, check out how much money has been spent on peacekeeping in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). UN Peacekeepers have been in the DRC since 1999 at a cost of $1 billion annually. There are now about 18,000 troops from different countries stationed there. In October 2020, the UN secretary general called for a withdrawal of troops in the near future. What will that withdrawal look like? There were already UN troops in the DRC from 1960-1964.

You will say that without the presence of foreigners, countries like Afghanistan and the DRC would break out in horrendous civil wars. That argument is similar to saying that Libya and Iraq were better off with strongmen like Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Some form of stability is better than civil wars and human rights violations, you will argue. And if foreigners or autocrats can supply some order, so much the better. I see the point.

But the Afghan story is specific to U.S. proselytizing. While the conquistadores brought the church with them, the Americans tried to bring the religion of neoliberalism from the top down, supported by a significant military presence. (832,000 American soldiers and marines served at one point in Afghanistan. The high-water mark of troop levels was in 2011 with 100,000 troops in the country, including some NATO troops.)

On the contrary, the UN force in the DRC is basically multinational. Its mission is peacekeeping with a small attempt at nation building. The American presence in Afghanistan was decidedly unilateral. That the United States surprised its allies with its hasty withdrawal proved the unilateral aspect of the unsuccessful occupation.

Nation building cannot be constructed on the assumption that a foreign power knows better. Asymmetry leads to arrogance. The answer on how to organize for one country may not work for another. Yes, there should be a bottom line of accepted behavior. And it is right to ask whether or not the Taliban will follow international norms in human rights. There are universally accepted means for governing. As the ruling party, the Taliban have international obligations whether officially recognized or not. And there are multilateral ways of punishing them if they don’t follow their obligations.

The major failure of the United States in Afghanistan was not the method of the withdrawal. The failure was in the strategy of trying to impose its will and system on a different culture. As Peter Seeger sang in 1955: “Oh, when will they ever learn?” Afghanistan shows they haven’t.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.