In explaining his follow-through on withdrawing the U.S. from Afghanistan, President Biden was emphatic about what it signified: “This decision about Afghanistan is not just about Afghanistan. It’s about ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.”
He said the nation must learn from its mistakes and that missions must have clear, achievable goals and must focus squarely on national security interests. In sum, he said he was declaring an end to the American doctrine of “nation-building.” Unfortunately the president ignored the goals we were able to achieve through our presence in Afghanistan and didn’t tell us how we will be able to achieve them going forward.
Nor is the anti-nation building sentiment peculiar to the United States and Biden. Last week Russian President Vladimir Putin went on at length about the U.S. “mistake” in Afghanistan:
U.S. forces were present on this territory for 20 years and for 20 years tried…to civilize the people who live there, to instill their own norms and standards of life in the widest possible sense of this word, including when it comes to the political organization of society…. The result is only tragedies and losses of life for those who did it, the United States, and even more so for those people who live on the territory of Afghanistan. The result is zero, if not a negative one all round.
Of course Putin is no stranger to this sort of thing. The old Soviet Union was also forced to withdraw its forces from adjoining Afghanistan in 1989 after a decade of fighting there to stem the spread of radical Islam. But the Soviets surely never sought to impose democracy and therein lies an important tale.
The Soviet Union largely failed in its ostensible mission, and never came close to pacifying large parts of the country. To the contrary, though, the U.S. mission was designed primarily to deny terrorists a safe haven from which to launch attacks against U.S. interests. Initially this was supposed to be achieved by the American presence and later by the Afghans themselves following U.S. efforts at democratization. The latter plan was driven by the seemingly reasonable idea that democracies do not allow the export of terror.
It should also not be forgotten that we had an extremely important security interest in having a major military presence in Afghanistan – which included huge air bases – if only because of its close proximity to China.
So, in fact, the plan actually worked for a significant part of the U.S. mission there. It has been years since a 9/11 magnitude attack against the United States or indeed, any sizable American casualties in Afghanistan And contrary to what Presidents Biden and Putin intimated, the plan to democratize Afghanistan was never conceived as some stand-alone warm and fuzzy project to bring civilization to a people less fortunate than us. To the contrary, it was to be a project closely tied to securing important American national interests.
No question that democratization ultimately failed as a policy in Afghanistan. But this is not to say that it is perforce a fool’s errand. More importantly, those who say it was now must come up with an alternative to address the militant Islamism that is on the march and threatening our critical security interests.