With the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attack on 9/11, and with the last U.S. troops leaving Afghanistan, it is important that we learn from our experience. The main lesson is that there are limits to American power, and the ability of our armed forces to overwhelm any enemy they meet in battle does not mean we can control the world outside our borders. When we first sent troops to Afghanistan, we were the world’s only superpower, and had the ability to defeat any nation militarily. But that did not give us the ability to remake the world in our image. Members of both parties fell into the trap of thinking we could; conservatives liked the idea of demonstrating American power to put the rest of the world on notice that resistance was futile, which would enhance our ability to get what we wanted internationally, while liberals feared being accused of being soft on terrorists and thought that replacing a repressive theocracy with a more liberal regime would be a worthwhile side benefit. There was also a lot of popular pressure to respond dramatically and forcefully, and invading Afghanistan provided an outlet for that.
Al Qaeda had sponsored the Saudi terrorists who carried out the attacks on 9/11, and the Taliban government was harboring its leader, Osama bin Laden. Most Americans supported attacking Al Qaeda in Afghanistan as both revenge for the attack and as an effort to prevent future attacks. This was not an unreasonable response, and initially, it went quite well. Using a small ground force (initially around 1,500 troops), overwhelming air power, and working with Afghans already fighting the Taliban, the U.S. quickly controlled most of the country. In December 2001 the Taliban was willing to surrender and disband, asking only for amnesty. The Bush Administration, believing the U.S. could wipe out the Taliban completely, passed on that opportunity to end the conflict; Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, demonstrating the hubris of the administration, asserted, “The United States is not inclined to negotiate surrenders.”
While most people thought the quick victory over the Taliban was a win, when Bin Laden escaped at Tora Bora, that meant there would not be a quick end to our involvement in Afghanistan. Some argued that we should declare victory and withdraw, because even though Bin Laden had escaped, his life in hiding minimized him as a threat. But failing to get Bin Laden was unacceptable to the world’s most powerful nation, so we stayed to complete the job. While it took a decade, Seal Team 6 killed Bin Laden in 2011; by then, many who were wary of the difficulties of nation building (including then-Vice President Biden) felt it was time to leave Afghanistan. Others felt that while we were in Afghanistan, we could do more; we could help establish a functioning government (“government in a box”) and build a more inclusive society (allowing women to live a more active life). While few wanted to call it “nation building,” that’s what it was.
The problem is, once you invade a country, it is extremely callous to leave without trying to fix the damages caused by the invasion. Colin Powell’s warning about the invasion of Iraq also applied to Afghanistan; the alleged Pottery Barn policy of “you broke it, you own it.” Additionally, there was a great fear that without U.S. support, the progress that had been made would all be erased.
While the decision to invade Afghanistan was understandable, a better response would have been to treat the terrorists as international criminals, rather than using the military to go to war against terrorism. The reason people resort to terrorism is they are too weak to attack their enemies by more conventional means. Terrorists succeed when they can generate fear which makes their opponents either change their behavior or overreact and generate support for the terrorists. We did both. Some changes were warranted (tightening security, making it easier for government agencies to share information), but fear caused us to violate our principles, locking suspects away at Guantanamo, torturing people, using “extraordinary rendition,” operating black prison sites, violating civil liberties and other regrettable actions. We also overreacted, going after terrorists using weapons of war, which no matter how hard we tried to limit civilian casualties, inevitably killed innocent people, creating more support for the terrorists. Killing known terrorist leaders did disrupt their operations, but only temporarily and it did not address the underlying causes, so other groups sprang up (ISIS).
One of the greatest mistakes made by the Bush Administration was to dismiss the international support for the U.S. that 9/11 had generated. As the sole superpower, with even our enemies (Russia, China and Iran) expressing a willingness to help us respond, we could have strengthened international cooperation and made it much more difficult for terrorists to operate. It would have taken longer, and inevitably some terrorists would never be found, but it would have built international cooperation instead of damaging it. Instead, Bush and his advisers used the attack as a pretext to do what they had wanted to do for years (as expressed in the Project for a New American Century); ignoring the warnings of allies they tried to assert American dominance in the Middle East. This hubris led to the disastrous invasion of Iraq.
The world is a big place, and there will always be some people who will try to bring us harm. But we cannot let them change who we are. Over the last 20 years we have allowed fear and hatred to drive a militarized response that has made us weaker and less safe. Instead of using our military to assert our will around the world, we need to devote more efforts to working with other nations to address common problems (such as the worldwide threat of climate change), as well as focusing on the home front, making sure our own citizens have decent jobs, education and health care.
Kent James has a doctorate in History and Policy from Carnegie Mellon University and is an adjunct in the History Department at Washington & Jefferson College.