The Real Lesson of the Afghanistan Disaster

I will never forget a formal dinner I attended shortly after the 9/11 attacks. It was sponsored by a conservative-oriented libertarian foundation. There were hundreds of people in attendance, mostly conservatives and conservative-oriented libertarians. There was no doubt about where most everyone at that dinner stood: They were fully in support of President Bush’s plan to launch the “global war on terror” and to invade Afghanistan.

After the dinner was over, I was waiting for my car to be brought to me when I saw a friend of mine who was working at the conservative Heritage Foundation. I asked how things were going. He didn’t hesitate. He told me that they were jumping right into supporting Bush’s “war on terrorism” with “position papers” that they were already writing and publishing.

Shortly after that dinner, I delivered a speech at a libertarian gathering in Arizona. I explained how U.S. foreign policy was the motivating factor behind the 9/11 attacks and why it was critically important to understand and examine that point. I also told the audience that an invasion of Afghanistan would prove to be a disaster, not only for the Afghan people but also with respect to the liberty and well-being of the American people.

The conservative-oriented libertarians in that audience went ballistic and lashed into me. They were fully on board with both the war on terrorism and the invasion of Afghanistan. They were not interested in hearing about motive — they accused me of “blaming America” for the attacks. They wanted vengeance for the massive death and destruction of the 9/11 attacks.

Those were lonely days for The Future of Freedom Foundation. Only a few libertarians were opposing both the war on terrorism and Afghanistan invasion. We were inundated with subscription cancellations and loss of donations from donors. We had to make major reductions in salaries and author fees in a desperate attempt to survive. We were flooded with hate mail that accused FFF of cowardice, treason, naiveté, stupidity, and ignorance. One member of FFF’s board of trustees resigned in protest against our non-interventionist position on foreign policy.

But we never wavered. Thanks to loyal supporters who kept us going, we were able to survive the ordeal.

And here we are 20 years later, when most everyone, including many conservatives and conservative-oriented libertarians, are jumping on the bandwagon with their criticism of President Biden for the Afghanistan debacle.

Unfortunately, however, most of the critics still don’t get it. Their criticism revolves around mistakes and errors in judgment made by U.S. presidents and the national-security establishment. They argue that if only their plan had been adopted — that is, the plan of the critics — then the Afghanistan invasion would have been a tremendous success.

But the critics are living in la la land. As we were pointing out 20 years, it didn’t matter whose plan was adopted. There was no way the Afghanistan invasion was going to be a success, not for the Afghan people and certainly not us Americans.

If all that we learn from the Afghanistan debacle is that the wrong plan was used for that intervention, then we will have learned nothing, and we will continue to live in a society that is characterized by continuous and perpetual crises, chaos, conflict, and war.

In the wake of this debacle, now is the time for Americans to engage in some serious soul-searching about where we are as a nation, how we got here, and what we need to do to get our nation back on the right track.

What went wrong?

The first step in that journey involves a very simple question: What do you want out of life? Do you want a life that is riddled with daily crises and chaos and in which the rights and liberties of the American people are under constant assault and destruction? Or do you want the restoration of a normal life, one in which you are free to live your life to the fullest in a peaceful, harmonious, and free society? Assuming your answer is the latter, the question is: How do we get there?

Before addressing that question, however, permit me to address one of the most popular plans being promoted by the Afghanistan critics. I call it the “in and out” strategy. It is one that is favored by many libertarians who favor foreign interventionism, who are referred to in the libertarian movement as “liberventionists.”

The “in and out” strategy holds that the U.S. government should invade foreign countries only when it is in our “national interest” to do so. What liberventionists fail to realize, however, is that that is no limitation on power whatsoever. That’s because it is U.S. officials, not some libertarian committee, that decides whether a particular invasion is in our “national interest.” You can rest assured that U.S. officials were convinced that invading Afghanistan and Iraq, along with all their coups, assassinations, and regime-change operations over the years, were in our “national interest.”

The liberventionist “in and out” strategy holds that invasions should be quick and effective. Just go in, get the job done, get out, and come home. That’s the strategy that liberventionists say should have been used in Afghanistan. President Bush should have ordered U.S. troops to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and as many al-Qaeda members as possible. They should have also “punished” the Taliban regime for “harboring” bin Laden by killing thousands of Taliban soldiers and bombing some infrastructure within the nation. Bush, liberventionists say, should then have issued a warning to the Taliban regime: “Don’t ever do this again.” And then Bush should have brought the troops home instead of engaging in “nation-building.”

Let’s imagine a hypothetical scenario. Given that bin Laden escaped to Pakistan despite the best efforts by U.S. troops to kill or capture him, as soon as U.S. troops return home, he comes back into Afghanistan. Even if he had been killed, there is no reason to think that he couldn’t have been replaced by another al-Qaeda member. Bin Laden or his replacement could then have reformed and began using Afghanistan as a base of operations for planning and orchestrating another massive terrorist attack on American soil.

Several months later, the terrorists blow up the Capitol. What would the liberventionists have advised then? They wouldn’t have been advising anything because they would have been inundated by attacks from everyone else. Critics would be saying to the president, “What in the world were you thinking when you adopted the liberventionist “in and out” strategy? By leaving the Taliban in power and killing a few al-Qaeda members, you left the door open to their doing it again. To keep America safe, you now need to go back in and wipe out the Taliban regime in its entirety and replace with it with a responsible regime that will not serve as a haven for anti-American terrorists.”

There is something else to consider about the Afghanistan debacle. There was never any evidence that the Taliban regime was complicit in the attacks. If U.S. officials had believed that, President Bush would never have even considered going to the United Nations to seek authorization to invade. He would have just ordered the invasion.

Thus, when interventionists and liberventionists say that the United States needed to invade Afghanistan to “punish” the Taliban for “harboring” bin Laden and al-Qaeda, what they mean by “harboring” is that the Taliban refused to comply with Bush’s unconditional demand that the Taliban deliver bin Laden to the Pentagon and the CIA, where he would have been brutally tortured into confessing to the crime. Keep in mind, after all, that the Taliban were willing to negotiate turning bin Laden over to an independent third country for trial and that Bush said no.

That raises another important point: Notwithstanding what interventionists and liberventionists were saying immediately after the 9/11 attacks, the attacks were not an “act of war.” The attacks were criminal offenses, just as the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center was. That’s why one of the terrorists in that attack, Ramzi Yousef, was indicted in federal district court, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to life in prison.

The fact is that the Taliban regime was under no legal authority to comply with Bush’s order to extradite bin Laden to the Pentagon and the CIA, given that there was no extradition treaty between the United States and Afghanistan.

Let’s pose a hypothetical. Suppose a Cuban exile living in the United States travels to Cuba and sets off a bomb that kills hundreds of people. He makes it back to the United States. Cuba demands his extradition. The U.S. government refuses the demand and points out that there is no extradition treaty between Cuba and the United States. What would U.S. officials say if Cuba invaded the United States in the attempt to capture the terrorist and killed hundreds or thousands of Americans in the process? My hunch is that U.S. officials would not like that at all.

To determine what should have been done after the 9/11 attacks, it is necessary for us go back 20 years, because what FFF was saying at that time is true and valid today.

Terrorists’ motives 

The first thing we said is that we have to examine the motives of the people who committed the attacks. Examining motive is important if we want to avoid future terrorist attacks.

There were four principal things being said about motive in the immediate post-9/11 environment.

First, some people said that terrorism was much like a virus, one that had struck other nations around the world, but had mostly missed the United States. Finally though, on 9/11, the terrorist virus had reached the United States and, therefore, Bush and the national-security establishment had no choice but to declare war on it and vow to eradicate it from the face of the earth.

Second, others said that the terrorists just hated America for its “freedom and values.” They hated our Christian churches, our rock and roll, and our hedonist lifestyles. Since Americans didn’t want to give up these things, it was said, U.S. officials would have to go to war against the terrorists, with the aim of protecting our “freedom and values.”

Third, still others claimed that the 9/11 attacks were part of a centuries-old Muslim conspiracy to take over the world and establish a global caliphate. Muslims, it was said, hate Christians and were hell-bent on killing and conquering them. Americans had no choice, these people claimed, except to go on the warpath against the Islamic world.

Fourth, here at FFF, we held — and still hold — that all of these supposed motivations for the 9/11 attacks were nonsense at best and intentional lies at worst. The real driving force behind the 9/11 attacks was U.S. interventionism in the Middle East, which had been killing people in the Middle East for more than a decade.

Consider, for example, the 1993 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center. It was no different in principle from the attack on the WTC that would take place eight years later. The big difference is that it didn’t inflict massive death and destruction like the 9/11 attack on the WTC did.

Ramzi Yousef, one of the people who participated in that attack, was apprehended in Pakistan a couple of years later and brought back to stand trial in U.S. District Court. At his sentencing hearing, Yousef angrily said to the sentencing judge words to this effect: You call us terrorists? Well, it is you who are the butchers because it is you who are killing multitudes of innocent children in Iraq.

He said nothing about hating America for its freedom and values and nothing about terrorism spreading like a virus. He also said nothing about the supposed Muslim conspiracy to establish a worldwide Islamic caliphate.

What Yousef was referring to was the brutal system of economic sanctions that U.S. officials imposed on Iraq during the Gulf War, which they then enforced and strengthened for the next 11 years. The aim of the sanctions was to target the Iraqi people with death, impoverishment, and suffering so that they would rise up in a revolution and oust Saddam Hussein from power and replace him with a pro-U.S. regime.

During the Gulf War, the Pentagon had knowingly and deliberately bombed Iraq’s water and sewage treatment plants, with the aim of spreading infectious illnesses among the populace. After the war was over, the sanctions prevented Iraqi officials from repairing the treatment plants. The results were widespread illness and deaths among the Iraqi people, principally children.

In 1996, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Madeleine Albright, was asked whether the deaths of half-a-million children from the sanctions was worth it. She responded that while the issue was a difficult one, yes, the deaths were “worth it.” The sanctions continued for another five years.

One of the things about killing innocent people, especially children, is that it oftentimes makes other people very angry. Think about 9/11. After those attacks, most Americans were very angry and wanted vengeance. Foreigners are not much different from Americans in that sense. They too get angry over the deaths of innocent people, and many of them want vengeance for the massive death toll that U.S. officials were exacting in Iraq. That mindset came through loud and clear at Ramzi Yousef’s sentencing hearing.

There were also the “no-fly zones” over Iraq, which were used as an excuse to kill Iraqis. One victim of a U.S. missile strike was a teenage boy tending his flock of sheep.

U.S. officials also made it a point to station U.S. troops near the Islamic holy lands of Mecca and Medina, knowing full well how that would be received by radical Muslims. Bin Laden himself emphasized this point in his declaration of war against the United States. There was also the unconditional U.S. governmental support of the Israeli government, regardless of how badly it treated the Palestinian people.

U.S. foreign policy blowback

Prior to the 9/11 attacks, here at FFF we were saying that if U.S. officials remained on this course of action, the inevitable result would be a major terrorist attack on American soil. We weren’t the only ones. Prior to 9/11, the noted analyst Chalmers Johnson (whose trilogy of books on American empire I highly recommend) wrote a book titled Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire, which warned that the continuation of U.S. interventionism in the Middle East was almost certain to result in a major terrorist attack on American soil.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to make this prediction. There had been the attack on the World Trade Center, as well as the attack on the USS Cole, and the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania — all before the 9/11 attacks. All of them were motivated by anger arising from the U.S. government’s deadly and destructive interventionist foreign policy. And then there was bin Laden’s “fatwah,” which pointed to U.S. interventionism as the reason al-Qaeda was declaring war on the United States.

Thus, as we pointed out 20 years ago, once the 9/11 attacks came, the very worst thing that U.S. officials could have done was to invade Afghanistan and, later, Iraq. The reason? These interventions would bring even more death, destruction, and suffering to people, which would then produce even more anger and rage, which would then lead to even more anti-American terrorism.

By invading Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. officials were ensuring a constant and perpetual supply of terrorism. That’s what made the “global war on terrorism” a perpetual one. Many times after the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, I said that the U.S. government had produced the greatest terrorist-producing machine in history.

But the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA — that is, the three principal components of the national-security establishment — were fine with that result because it enabled them to continue acquiring ever-increasing budgets, power, and influence.

Origins of the national-security state

One of the watershed moments in American history was when, at the end of World War II, the U.S. government was converted from a limited-government republic to a national-security state, one with omnipotent powers, including legal assassination. The justification was the Cold War that had erupted between the United States and America’s World War II partner and ally, the Soviet Union. U.S. officials claimed that there was an international communist conspiracy based in Moscow that was hell-bent on conquering the world, including the United States. In order to prevent that from happening, the federal government, it was said, had to be converted to a national-security state.

Thus, for some 45 years, U.S. official had an official enemy — “godless communism” and the Soviet Union — that was used to scare people into supporting ever-increasing expenditures for the national-security establishment. But suddenly in 1989, the racket came crashing down with the dismantling of the Soviet Union and its decision to no longer participate in the Cold War.

Without its big official enemy, Pentagon, CIA, and NSA officials knew that they could be in trouble. There were lots of people calling for a “peace dividend,” which meant drastic reductions in the budgets of the national-security establishment.

But with the 9/11 attacks and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon, the CIA, and the NSA had a new official enemy — terrorism, which could very well prove to be more long lasting than “godless communism” and the Soviet Union.

The “global war on terror” became as big a racket as the Cold War, enriching the pockets of the “defense” industry, which was largely populated by personnel who had left the military and the CIA to make their fortune in the “private” sector.

In opposing the invasion of Afghanistan and, later, the invasion of Iraq, we pointed out that most of the people who would be killed in these operations would have had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attacks, which would generate even more anger and rage, along with the ever-growing threat of terrorist retaliation.

Meanwhile, here at home, U.S. officials were destroying the rights and liberties of the American people to keep them “safe” from the terrorist threat that U.S. officials were producing through their interventionism in Afghanistan and the Middle East. That’s when we got the USA PATRIOT Act (an Orwellian name that would match “Operation Enduring Freedom” in Afghanistan), the secret surveillance schemes, and the intrusive pat-down searches at the airports. At the same time, it became established policy that the Pentagon and CIA wielded the omnipotent power to assassinate, torture, and indefinitely detain people, in contravention of the principles found in the Bill of Rights. That’s how we also got the Pentagon’s and CIA torture and prison center at Guantanamo Bay, which they had hoped would be a Constitution-free zone.

What about bin Laden and other members of al-Qaeda? Did opposing the invasion of Afghanistan mean a free get-out-jail card for them? Of course not. Here at FFF, we were saying that U.S. officials should put out big financial bounties for their arrest and conviction. U.S. officials could have simply waited them out until they turned up in some place in which they could be arrested and brought to justice. Remember: that is precisely what happened with Ramzi Yousef. A couple of years after the 1993 WTC attack, he was located in Pakistan. The U.S. government didn’t invade Pakistan and kill thousands of innocent people in an attempt to capture him. Instead, when it finally learned that he was living in Pakistan, officials conducted a raid and arrested him. He was brought back to the United States, prosecuted, and convicted. He is now serving a life sentence in the federal penitentiary.

The virtues of non-intervention

In the wake of the Afghanistan debacle, it is imperative that we return to founding principles. The Constitution called into existence a limited-government republic, one with a basic military force and a foreign policy of non-interventionism. Our ancestors recoiled against the idea of “standing armies” because they knew that large, permanent military establishments, not foreign regimes or gangs, posed the greatest threat to the freedom and well-being of the citizenry.

Our ancestors also established a foreign policy of non-interventionism, a concept described by John Quincy Adams in his famous Fourth of July speech to Congress in 1821, which was entitled “In Search of Monsters to Destroy.” There are lots of bad things that happen in the world, he said, but America would not send troops to foreign lands to slay these monsters. If it ever were to do so, he said, the federal government would begin behaving like a dictator. Who can deny that that has been one of the consequences of having abandoned America’s founding system of non-interventionism?

The interventionists and the liberventionists have it wrong. The future of our nation lies not with smarter or more prudent interventions. It lies in the restoration of America’s founding foreign policy of non-interventionism and America’s founding governmental system of a limited-government republic.

This article was originally published in the November 2021 edition of Future of Freedom.

Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation.