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Nation-Building Was Not the Point

The realist case for staying in Afghanistan.
August 25, 2021
Nation-Building Was Not the Point
American soldiers look into Pakistan from an U.S. outpost October 15, 2006 near Camp Tillman, Afghanistan just two kilometers from the Pakistan border. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

Damon Linker is one of the sharpest political/cultural observers writing today. If you’re not already reading his contributions to The Week, you should. He is also my colleague on The Bulwark’s weekly podcast, Beg to Differ. In the spirit of our podcast, I must beg to differ with his recent column about the withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Linker writes that the argument over Afghanistan is in part partisan (as nothing can escape that sinkhole) but more broadly part of a well-established disagreement about America’s role in the world. Those who are criticizing Biden today, Linker writes, are Wilsonian idealists. They smiled upon Obama’s troop surge to Afghanistan in 2009 and frowned at his withdrawal from Iraq in 2011. They approved Trump’s decision to bomb Syria and opposed his deal with the Taliban to withdraw all American forces by May 2021. These interventionists, he suggests:

are united in thinking that the United States is responsible for spreading liberal democracy around the world, that our safety depends on the success of this effort, that the effort requires us to use military force against opponents of liberal democracy, and that we must never pull back from that confrontation.

Well. Let’s concede that liberal internationalism or neoconservatism or Wilsonianism has a long history in this country, and let’s further allow that there are some who believe in deploying America’s military might to support democratic forces against authoritarian aggressors. But it’s a bit of a leap to suggest that even these interventionists are so sweeping in their enthusiasm for military force. In fact, believers in liberal internationalism understand that there are practical and prudential limits to what can be achieved militarily—because the risks of military force are forbidding, or the goal is simply not possible with the resources available, or the problem cannot be solved militarily.

There was no vast outcry among liberal internationalists for the United States to rush forces to Crimea when Russia annexed that territory in 2014. In fact, there wasn’t a single peep. Russia was clearly the aggressor, and liberal democracy (as imperfect as it is in Ukraine) was the evident loser in that confrontation, but pretty much everyone understood that the risks of outright conflict with Russia ruled out intervention. Ditto for the conflicts in Georgia, Chechnya, the North Caucasus, and Nagorno-Karabakh. Similarly, as much as it pains us to see Hong Kong’s liberty being snuffed out by China, this is not a situation in which the U.S. could plausibly “use military force against opponents of liberal democracy.” Nor have interventionists called for military force to be used in Yemen, Lebanon, Chad, or dozens of other world hot spots. Why? Because even the most dewy-eyed idealist recognizes that the use of force requires that American national interests be strongly implicated.

None of this belies the lessons of experience. Speaking for myself, the Iraq War sobered me up about many things including 1) how much we can trust intelligence, and 2) how competent Americans are at occupying countries.

Which brings us to Afghanistan. Linker argues that our withdrawal was necessary on grounds of “empiricism, pragmatism, and realism.” Liberty cannot be gifted from one people to another, he cautions, and it is “messianic” to assume otherwise. I’m not so sure he’s right about that. South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, and others arguably would not be as free as they are absent U.S. influence, and that doesn’t count all of the nations that would have been fascist had the U.S. not fought World War II.

But where I most differ with Linker is in his depiction of the Afghanistan mission as some sort of delusional, dreamy adventure in nation building. This theme has been prominent in the commentary lately. You’ve probably seen lots of takes along the lines of “we learned that we couldn’t turn Kabul into Kansas” and so forth.

But that’s a straw man. The Afghanistan deployment could be justified entirely by “empiricism, pragmatism, and realism.” President Biden says we were there to punish the Taliban for 9/11 and to get bin Laden. Mission accomplished. Time to leave. President Trump thought the same. But the U.S. presence was doing far more than providing the conditions for girls to be educated, minorities to be free of persecution, and all to live in a non-medieval state. The troops were also preventing Afghanistan from reverting to being a base for al Qaeda. The terror group that attacked us on 9/11 has been set back for 20 years, but the triumphant return of the Taliban will prove a boon. Blood-thirsty jihadists from around the world will flock to Afghanistan and many others will be lifted by the example of the Islamists who defeated the Great Satan. Al Qaeda’s English-language magazine is called Inspire and the next issue will doubtless be brimming with it. Recall that ISIS proved a beacon to Islamist terrorists throughout the world when they proclaimed their “caliphate” in Iraq/Syria. The control of territory signifies Divine approbation in their worldview.

The presence of U.S. and NATO troops in Afghanistan also helped to stabilize neighboring Pakistan. The Pakistanis were always playing a double game with us and the Taliban. Now they must contend with the possibility that the Afghan Taliban will support the Pakistani Taliban. As Bret Stephens noted, however much they may deserve their fate, it really isn’t in our interests to see a nation with nuclear weapons destabilized by Islamic extremists.

President Biden keeps reassuring us that we can achieve all of our counter-terrorism goals by “over the horizon” methods. But if we were unable to accurately predict the Taliban’s blitzkrieg with personnel on the ground, how will we be able to do so from hundreds or thousands of miles away? “When the time comes for the U.S. military to withdraw, the U.S. government’s ability to collect and act on threats will diminish,” CIA Director Bill Burns told Congress in April. “That’s simply a fact.”

The Afghan Study Group estimated in February that a force of 4,500 Americans, supplemented by 7,000 NATO troops, would have been sufficient to maintain the stability of the country. That is far fewer than the 35,000 Americans in Germany, the 28,000 in South Korea, and the 54,000 in Japan. It is just slightly more than the 4,000 in Bahrain.

Americans should be proud that while we were there, as Jonathan Rauch pointed out, Afghanistan’s infant mortality rate dropped by 50 percent and life expectancy increased by six years. University graduates increased from 31,000 to nearly 200,000. And women were able to attend school, venture outside without covering, and participate in life. But that wasn’t the main reason we were there. The chief accomplishment of our Afghanistan deployment was to prevent another 9/11-style attack on the United States—and we did.

So we don’t need to beat our breasts about how misguided it was to suppose that we could transform a tribal society into a liberal democracy. Any movement in that direction was a bonus, but it wasn’t the chief goal. We were there to thwart attacks by terrorists who mean us grave harm. For 20 years, we succeeded. The future is now assuredly wretched for Afghans. And it is less safe for us. That’s not the voice of a disillusioned democracy-spreader, but a hard-headed realist.

Mona Charen

Mona Charen is Policy Editor of The Bulwark, a nationally syndicated columnist, and host of The Bulwark’s Beg to Differ podcast. She can be reached at [email protected].