Afghanistan’s Fall Is 9/11’s Latest Unlearned Lesson
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- There have been many dark moments in the two decades since 9/11, some of them in Kabul last month. I remain especially haunted by a snapshot from 2007 Iraq. British political adviser Emma Sky was riding a Blackhawk with U.S. commander Gen. Raymond Odierno. She mentioned to her boss over the intercom a glimpsed graffiti on a building wall in Baghdad: “THE HERO, THE MARTYR SADDAM HUSSEIN.”
Odierno responded tersely that the hanged dictator was a mass murderer. Sky, who liked to live dangerously, said: “We still don’t know who killed more Iraqis, you or Saddam, sir.” There was a deadly silence in the helicopter, and even the diplomat wondered if she had gone too far. “General O,” as she called him, then shouted, “Open the doors, pilots. Throw her out!”
There are many layers to this story, recorded in Sky’s memoir of her Iraq service. Odierno deserves credit for taking the harsh jibe on the chin. Sky commands respect, for never having told the military what they wanted to hear.
The ugly part, of course, is that she touched on a truth about the U.S. response to 9/11. Incomparably more Afghans and Iraqis have died during the intervening 20 years than Americans perished in the attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, and few had anything whatsoever to do with violent Islam.
As a historian, I acknowledge that this is not a unique phenomenon. In 1944-45, British and U.S. aircraft killed many more French and Dutch civilians in air attacks against Hitler’s V-weapon sites on the continent than Nazi flying-bombs and rockets killed British people. That does not, however, make disproportionate force any more acceptable now than it was then.
Amidst all the breast-beating on both sides of the Atlantic that has accompanied the withdrawal from Kabul, I have rewound my mental clock back to 9/11. The only question that seems to matter is: What should we, America and its allies, have done differently, following the most devastating terrorist atrocity in history?
Let us all agree — Americans and Europeans, Democrats and Republicans, military and civilians — that an option to do nothing did not exist. My friend Lord Heseltine, a veteran British statesman, once stopped me short when I criticized some Western folly in Syria. He said: “There are moments when a government absolutely must be seen to take action.”
9/11 represented such a moment. The case for direct assaults on al-Qaeda’s camps in Afghanistan, and the pursuit of Osama bin Laden, remains unanswerable. A final reckoning with the terrorist leader was delayed until 2011 in Pakistan, but the CIA and U.S. Navy SEAL operation was a model of its kind, wholly justified in the eyes of most of the world.
The November 2001 overthrow of the Afghan Taliban regime, by Northern Alliance tribesmen supported by U.S. air strikes and special forces, also represented a proportionate action, which again commanded international support. British war reporter Toby Harnden has just published a book written with CIA cooperation, “First Casualty,” portraying the early months of the Afghan campaign. It vividly describes the rollicking adventures Langley’s men enjoyed amid the blood, dust and tribesmen, which ended — apparently — with the bad guys in flight.
It was then, of course, that things started to go awry. Amidst the orgy of hubris shared by politicians, soldiers and spooks, a delusion gained hold that Afghanistan could be remade on a Western template. Worse, George W. Bush and the neo-con zealots sharpened swords for the invasion of Iraq.
Why did they do it? Why did they lie, lie and lie again about the complicity of dictator Saddam Hussein in 9/11, when no shred of intelligence endorsed such a claim? Why did Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair wreck their reputations by promoting spurious claims that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction?
When Madeleine Albright was U.S. secretary of state back in 1998, she proclaimed with a cross-party arrogance that would be reflected in much done by Washington after 9/11: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall, and see further than other countries into the future, and we see the danger there to all of us.”
Henry Kissinger justified his own support for the Iraq invasion by saying: “because Afghanistan wasn’t enough.” America’s enemies had aspired to its humiliation, “and we need to humiliate them.” Stephen Wertheim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace has written recently: “rather than pose a threat, Iraq offered a stage. On its territory, the United States would exhibit overwhelming power.”
In the months after 9/11, America’s warlords were exasperated by how meager was the budget of credible targets for American might, that could be identified with al-Qaeda. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said: “We have to have something to hit…There is not a lot of Al Qaeda to hit.” He, Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and a handful of others made the fatal call to expand their objectives: to destroy America’s enemies and secure its hegemony across a great swath of the Muslim world hostile to the West.
There is no merit in recycling details of what followed. We should focus on essentials. I never forget a conversation with the then-head of the British Army, Gen. Sir Mike Jackson, in the fall of 2002 after he returned from meetings in Washington, to plan the Iraq invasion in which British forces participated. “Getting to Baghdad will be the easy bit,” said Jackson laconically. “But they [the Americans] haven’t a clue what they will do afterwards.”
So it proved, of course. The first important lesson of both Afghanistan and Iraq is that the campaigns exposed institutional failures in Western intelligence that are still unrepaired. The U.S. National Security Agency and its British counterpart GCHQ possess extraordinary electronic resources. But neither the CIA nor the British SIS has ever fathomed the tribal and family networks which are critical to political behavior throughout the Muslim world. Our Islamic “humint” is lousy.
Toby Harnden’s book describes how a handful of CIA men, in their own eyes hampered by bungling army Green Berets and Navy SEALs who today return the insults, blundered across Afghanistan strewing dollars and directing air strikes, while scarcely one of them spoke a local language or grasped the nuances of personalities. In 2001 the CIA elevated the Uzbek warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum to heroic status, while in Craig Whitlock’s new book “The Afghanistan Papers,” the old man is characterized by the U.S. military as a murderous scoundrel.
PowerPoint presentations should be banned from military operations: They promote a delusion of omniscience among commanders and their staffs. A few years back I visited the operations room of the British brigade headquarters in Helmand province. It closely resembled its American counterparts: Banks of soldiers sat before banks of wall screens that displayed drone and ground live feeds of a dozen actual and prospective battlefields.
The impression of knowledge and control was impressive. Yet almost every man fighting on the ground complained in after-action reports that he knew little or nothing about what was happening in the next street or village — what local people were thinking.
The Australian counterinsurgency guru David Kilcullen wrote a significant 2009 book entitled “The Accidental Guerrilla” in which he highlighted the number of Afghans who joined in firefights not for ideological reasons, but simply for the excitement. He described one such episode in May 2006, when young farmers joined Taliban attacking U.S. special forces — “spontaneously marching to the sound of the guns.”
Asked afterward why they had done it, the tribesmen replied: “Did we understand how boring it was to be a teenager in central Afghanistan? This was the most exciting thing that had happened in their valley in years. It would have shamed them to stand by and wait it out.” Such attitudes are an oft-ignored factor in insurgencies, from Belfast to Bogota. In recent weeks, the Taliban has ballooned exponentially in strength, as Afghans whose only ideology is to back winners have bandwagoned with the imminent conquerors of Kabul.
In almost all recent interventions including Vietnam, the U.S. and its allies have imposed a heavy, self-harming footprint on primitive societies. Air bases, razor wire, blast walls, armor, low-flying helicopters, shopping malls and chow lines for service personnel, sunglasses and helmets that cause soldiers to resemble Darth Vader’s stormtroopers cripple the Western cause even before anybody starts shooting.
Such technology and facilities, along with absurdly brief tours of duty, are deemed indispensable to the welfare of Western troops doing the fighting. Yet they reflect a fundamental error: setting priorities and tactics to enable our forces to conduct campaigns in a fashion that suits us, rather the ones they have actually got, on the ground against enemies who set the lightest footprint. Our forces set themselves apart as aliens, while local people see our enemies as folks like themselves.
I asked one of the most senior officers in the NATO military, who has served repeated command tours in Afghanistan, for his personal menu of lessons we should take home from the past 20 years of combatting Muslim extremism. He has responded with impressive thoughtfulness.
First, “we never addressed the causes of extremism — poor education, lack of opportunity and a sense of exclusion. We lost the moral high ground with moderate Muslims through our behavior in places like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo.”
He deplores the lack of strategic patience for a long game, after launching the invasions. We “turned a bear-hunting mission into a nation-building one…It was ridiculous that we rejected dialogue with the tribes that made up the Taliban.” The allies failed to create sustainable institutions, and “never built a narrative that local populations could understand and support.”
Finally my friend quotes the Italian strategy guru Antonio Giustozzi, who has written extensively about Afghanistan and the Taliban: “Every age has its follies — the folly of our age has been an irresistible desire to change the world without first studying and understanding it.”
The West needs to resolve fundamental contradictions about its interventions in faraway places. Neo-colonalist policies — installing U.S. or allied officials to run other people’s countries, as the British did in large parts of the world for more than two centuries — are unacceptable. But local puppet regimes have proved chronically corrupt and incompetent. The Kabul government collapsed within months of President Joe Biden’s announcement of U.S. withdrawal. Every Western insider knew that, even if the Taliban did not deserve to win, nor did our client regime.
The centralized model established by Washington was wholly inappropriate for a country that has always been loosely run, through shifting networks of regional tribal and family interests. Any government seen to be in thrall to foreigners, whether in Saigon or Kabul, is likely doomed.
Moreover soldiers, whose selling point is that they know how to kill people, make terrible nation-builders. Next time we want a country reorganized, send anybody but generals to do the job. Why should they be any more qualified for such a role than are plumbers or web program designers?
The influence of Westerners upon Afghanistan and Iraq has been no less pernicious than that of the Christian missionaries who, in earlier centuries and with the best of intentions, generated discord and sometimes violent strife across Africa and Asia.
As for the future, Stephen Wertheim suggests: “It is now — just about — possible to see how the United States might find its way to becoming a nation among nations, no longer dominant but no longer minding.” He characterizes the U.S. response to 9/11 as “ultimately disastrous,” because it has so deeply tarnished its image as “the indispensable nation.”
I only partially accept this bleak view. The mistakes and failures are real enough, as most Americans acknowledge. Yet despite all the hard things said by allies as well as enemies, as an Englishman I insistently conclude: The U.S. is still the indispensable power. It is the only superpower we have got, with the might to get stuff done that is vital to us all, and to defend interests common across Western civilization.
We may lament America’s sustained confusion of foreign policy and military strategy since 9/11, without being foolish enough to cry: “Yanks go home!” Contrarily, we need them to stay — just to get a tad more real about what abroad is really like, and about the limits of the possible.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy" and "Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943."
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