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Nation-Building at Gunpoint: How American Hubris Failed Afghanistan

Heavily guarded by steel-anchored concrete walls, the American embassy in Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul, symbolizes a striking ground reality of an endless war: American troops and policymakers protect themselves from the very people they ventured out to help. When the United States began its military offensive in Afghanistan in October 2001, it had one clear objective: topple the Taliban’s repressive regime and replace it with a democratic government.

Following the events of September 11, 2001, it became increasingly established that the Taliban’s brutal regime posed a threat to American national security – and the international order at large. Its overthrow by sheer military force was, therefore, seen as justified. Swiftly, a successful American military offensive rid Afghanistan of the Taliban’s reign in December 2001. However, the insurgent group is far from defeated and the Afghan government remains hardly self-sustaining. Understanding Afghanistan’s geopolitical nuances, therefore, remains crucial to any sincere analysis of why the United States must ultimately negotiate with the Taliban and accept its terms of share in the country’s central government. 

Although Afghanistan marks America’s longest war, the question of what victory in the country would constitute has consistently been left unanswered. Would it entail the defeat of the Taliban? If yes, is the military going to wipe out the ethnic Pashtuns who predominantly comprise and support the Taliban? On the one hand, such an indiscriminate eradication of Pashtuns would make the United States complicit in ethnic cleansing. On the other, changes in the degree of troop presence alone cannot mitigate the country’s turmoil as the Taliban seem very willing to wait their opponents out. When it comes to Afghanistan, the Taliban are home; the United States is not.

Nonetheless, the fear of defeat has largely influenced American policymaking. Negotiations with the Taliban – a group the United States has designated as a terrorist organization – constitute an American legitimation of the Taliban’s power in the Afghan administration. Although the United States has already begun negotiating with the insurgent group, Washington seems hesitant to label these developments as signals of American defeat at the hands of its enemy. Had American adventure in Afghanistan not been predominated by its military egotism, it would have negotiated with a weaker Taliban in 2001 when they were on a retreat from Kabul into rural Afghanistan.  

Since the Taliban’s ouster from Kabul in 2001, most, if not all, American military strategies have been aimed at containing their resurgence. America’s nation-building project remained true in rhetoric only, with an ambitious vision that its military power alone possessed the geopolitical prowess necessary for transforming a war-torn nation into a flourishing democracy. Whether Afghans themselves craved an American-style governance did not matter in Washington – policymakers felt they understood what Afghanistan had been missing and deployed more than 100,000 American troops, thousands of miles away, to deliver on this promise.

In order to achieve this outcome, different U.S. administrations chose different levels of troop presence in the country. A wide range of military experiments were carried out in the bid to end the Taliban’s insurgency. Notwithstanding these deployments, Afghanistan remains in a stalemate today, with the Taliban reigning even more supreme. “After 16 years, should the taxpayers of America be satisfied we are in a ‘stalemate’?” the late Senator John McCain asked in 2017. “I don’t think so.”

Since October 2001, an estimated 31,000 Afghan civilians have died in direct violence. Approximately 2,400 US soldiers and 3,500 military contractors have been killed. Civilian casualties hit a tragic high in 2017 when more than 11,500 Afghans were killed and wounded, the highest since the war began. Increasingly resurgent, the Taliban controlled 16 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces as of 2017, wielding either full authority or enormous influence over 277 of Afghanistan’s 399 districts, where approximately 15 million people live.

These objective realities, however, failed to dictate any of Washington’s ambitious nation-building policies. Instead, the Oval Office envisioned a democratic Afghanistan as the singular outcome of America’s sustained military adventure. Resorting to its military has only prevented the United States from winning the trust of local Afghans, for any aid that comes in bomber jets and Humvees comes with an inherent menace. For Afghans themselves, notions of American progress resonate little with their real grievances and with the constant terror that abounds their lives.  

According to General John Nicholson, the former US Commander in Afghanistan, the country still remains “critical to our national security” and “enduring counter-terrorism platform.” In Nicholson’s view, a fragile Afghanistan risks becoming the headquarters for international terrorist groups from where they could orchestrate attacks against the United States. Therefore, between 2001 and 2017, the U.S. spent more than $800 billion to prevent any such large-scale aggression by the Taliban.

However, the myth that the Taliban – or any other group in Afghanistan today – possesses the ability to launch transcontinental strikes against the United States only underscores a fictitious sense of American geopolitical insecurity. The Taliban lost major strongholds of power in 2001 in the aftermath of their overthrow by the United States. They may espouse an intolerant, authoritarian form of governance. Yet, it is in their own interest to resist international terrorist groups in the country given their downfall in 2001 after they had made the mistake of providing safe havens to Al-Qaeda..

Afghanistan’s harsh realities remain unresolved due to a political rhetoric that is predicated on America’s exaggerated faith in its military instead of any realistic prospect of its success in the country. Although negotiations with the Taliban entail a difficult question as to the form of government they will establish, a longer American footprint – in and of itself – cannot alleviate these uncertainties. Nonetheless, these negotiations signify a rational acknowledgment of limits of American power and an acceptance of the Taliban’s leverage in Afghanistan.

Photo: “US army vs. Taliban