The Washington Post’s blockbuster investigation revealing nearly two decades of government documents pertaining to the war in Afghanistan is nothing short of devastating. It’s a strike against public trust in governing institutions, which are already suffering from a critical confidence deficit. It’s a blow to the vital American project overseas that began in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and remains a mission of paramount importance. And it’s an assault on the psychological conceit shared by interventionists and foreign policy extroverts, which had once absolved them of responsibility for America’s failures abroad.
“We don’t invade poor countries to make them rich,” said James Dobbins, a special envoy to Afghanistan under both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in one of the documents uncovered by the Post. “We don’t invade authoritarian countries to make them democratic. We invade violent countries to make them peaceful, and we clearly failed in Afghanistan.” The Post’s investigation not only demonstrates the extent of that failure; it exposes the contempt with which successive presidencies regarded Americans who took notice of it.
The investigation portrayed the Bush administration as disengaged from the conflict and deceptive when the facts on the ground failed to align with its objectives. It exposed how outright mendacious the Obama White House became when the realities of the war failed to meet its expectations. What’s most troubling about the failure of the American mission in Afghanistan is that it is not attributable to a lack of political will to stay the course.
This was not Vietnam, in which Congress prevented the enforcement of the Paris Accords and we failed to deliver on a Nixon-era promise to renew the air campaign against North Vietnamese forces if they broke the truce. Nor was this Iraq, where a troop surge in concert with the renewed commitment from the nation’s Sunni tribes to combat the insurgency had all but pacified the country by the time Obama failed to pursue a status of forces agreement and withdrew all U.S. troops. The effort to nation-build in Afghanistan was defined by a conspicuously durable political, financial, and military commitment across three presidential administrations. It failed anyway.
Afghanistan’s unique hostility to occupation may render it a special case, but interventionists who advocate institution building as a remedy for radicalism and irredentism abroad must take stock of the disaster there. And yet, the prescriptions for the Afghanistan conundrum implied in the Post’s reporting are equally unsatisfying.
The Post notes that the mission objectives in Afghanistan were confused from the start. They alternated between democracy-promotion, counter-terrorism operations, increasing cultural acceptance of women’s rights, and creating a satellite state to balance against the regional interests of nations like Russia, Pakistan, Iran, India, and China. But each of those missions are critical in their own way, and the abandonment of one in favor of another would likely become a politically untenable position for any administration.
Likewise, if the alternative to nation-building in Afghanistan is striking terrorist targets and the institutions that support them, caring little for what springs up through the rubble, it’s hard to see how the American public would find that preferable. The humanitarian concerns and the prospect of radicalizing the civilian population would quickly outweigh the near-term benefits America gleans from maintaining a 30,000-foot remove from the people its war efforts affected.
The Post’s all but explicit intention with the release of these documents is to influence the course of negotiations between the Trump administration and the Taliban, presumably with an eye toward hastening America’s withdrawal from the country. The ethics associated with strengthening the hand of an American enemy abroad while weakening the president’s to achieve a preferred political outcome do not seem to have weighed heavily on the paper’s editors.
Regardless, it’s not clear that the Taliban is even a reliable negotiating partner. The U.S. had to consent to the release from custody of ranking Taliban if only to reconstitute a leadership with which it could negotiate. Even as those negotiations were ongoing in September, forces loyal to the Taliban were conducting attacks on U.S. interests and service personnel—calling into question the level of operational authority that America’s new partners in peace could claim. The organization’s steadfast refusal to renounce its support for terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda, is another discouraging sign. And as recent history in Iraq suggests, an abrupt withdrawal from a conflict zone absent a durable peace with a stable centralized government is a recipe for a second intervention—albeit on terms less favorable to the U.S. than those that prevail today.
For the better part of this decade, Americans had resigned themselves to losing the war in Afghanistan, itself a display of contempt for the officials who told them otherwise. The government documents uncovered by the Post demonstrate that this faithlessness was mutual. But the report is short on more gratifying alternatives to the course America has taken over the 21st century. Perhaps there aren’t any.