In Depth

Was the US occupation of Afghanistan an inevitable failure?

Bush vowed the US would rebuild the war-torn country. But 20 years and $2trn later, the ‘nation-building folly’ has ended in ‘catastrophe’

Back in April 2002, George W. Bush explained to a group of US army cadets that the history of imperial military involvement in Afghanistan was “one of initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure. We are not going to repeat that mistake,” he assured them. But we did, said Rod Dreher in Newsweek. In that same speech, Bush vowed that the US would rebuild war-torn Afghanistan as it had postwar Europe. Yet 20 years and $2trn later, “our nation-building folly” has ended in “catastrophe”, with the Taliban back in charge, and the US humiliated.

But while the speed of the takeover may have been a shock, it was always clear that America’s Afghan mission would end badly, because the premise on which it was based – that “all peoples want individual freedom and share our vision of prosperity” – was fundamentally flawed. Liberal democracy is not “the natural state of humankind, but rather a mindset that emerges under certain conditions”, and those were just not present in Afghanistan.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say that failure was set in stone, said Daron Acemoglu on Qantara.de. But the “top down” state-building strategy the US adopted was doomed. Of course, the US was right that Afghanistan needed a functioning government; where it went wrong was in thinking that it could use its military might to impose one on a country that is notorious for its ethnic and tribal divisions, and that has a long history of throwing off centralised control.

Had the US worked closely with local groups, it might have been able to create state institutions that had some popular support. Instead, it poured billions into the “extravagantly corrupt” and nonrepresentative regime led by Hamid Karzai. Ashraf Ghani, the president who fled last month, had written books on fixing failed states – but “continued down the same road” as Karzai.

What few in the West seem to appreciate is just how much suffering was inflicted on the Afghan people during the US’s 20-year occupation, said Muhammad Mahmood in The Financial Express. At least 164,000 people were killed – by reaper drones and B-52 bombers, and by the CIA-backed militias, controlled by criminal warlords, who committed countless atrocities under the guise of rooting out the Taliban.

There is a sense in the West that the violent occupation was justified by the benefits it brought to Afghan women, but even these are somewhat illusory: only 2% of women, mainly from the Western-backed elite, had access to further education; 84% are still illiterate. The Taliban may be brutally repressive, but to many in a weary, embittered nation it offered stability – and the hope of something better than the status quo.

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