Everyone seems to believe that the withdrawal from Afghanistan is in some sense the end of an era, and I am trying to figure out what that era was. Here are some thoughts, inspired in part by reading the remarkable book by Craig Whitlock, The Afghanistan Papers.
This era began, clearly, not long after the collapse of Communism in 1989, which put an end to the Cold War as we have known it and seemed to leave the United States without serious political rivals on the world stage. In academia, Francis Fukuyama announced that the Hegelian "end of history" had arrived--a position he has since reconsidered. At the Pentagon, Paul Wolfowitz wrote that the United States must now try to make sure that no new "peer competitor" emerged to replace the Soviet Union, and he has since been quoted as saying that the US had ten or fifteen years to eliminate smaller hostile regimes like Iraq before a new peer competitor emerged to defend them. The new era coincided with a generational shift in American leadership. While some members of the Silent generation like Colin Powell, Warren Christopher, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld and Madeleine Albright remained important figures in new era, GIs like George H. W. Bush and Brent Scowcroft gave way to Boomers like Bill and Hillary Clinton, George W. Bush, Wolfowitz, and Condi Rice. They were in power when 9/11 gave the foreign policy establishment a new mission.
I honestly cannot think of a single individual who did more to change the world in his time than Osama Bin Laden. Operating on his own, he led the world's leading nation onto a disastrous course of action that continues to this day, twenty years later. Al Queda was not the first international terrorist movement that the western world has faced. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, European anarchists killed a Russian Czar, an Italian King, the Empress of Austria, a President of the United States, and many others. As late as 1920, anarchists perpetrated the Wall Street bombing in New York, killing thirty people and wounding hundreds--but none of these events led to international crusades. 9/11 did, because the US leadership was already looking forward to a dramatic extension of American power.
My current book project has taken me through a tour of the renewed growth of western imperialism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, particularly as it related to the United States. The North Atlantic nations began interfering in what we now call the third world for several reasons, but failures to observe international law and keep order ranked high among them. Such failures included outrages against foreign life and property, as in China in 1900, and failure to pay foreign debts, which brought the British into Egypt in the 1880s and the US into various Caribbean nations early in the twentieth century. When William McKinley in 1898 decided to go to war against Spain in Cuba, he cited the need to stop a cruel war, in which the Spaniards had resettled tens of thousands of Cubans into concentration camps. European nations began trying to intervene in the Ottoman Empire on behalf of its endangered Armenian minority in the 1890s, without much success. Partly, perhaps, because universities don't spend much time on such history anymore, we haven't seen many analogies between the early 20th and the early 21st modes of imperialism, but they are there to be made. Because of its own anti-colonial tradition, the United States did take the lead in one respect. After 1898 it left Cuba independent--albeit while reserving a right to intervene to keep the government in friendly or competent hands--and although it brutally suppressed a Philippine insurrection, it took quite seriously, I have found, the task of preparing the islands for self-government. That in fact became a party issue, which Democrats favoring relatively rapid independence while Republicans found excuses to postpone it, but by the 1930s the US had promised Philippine independence by 1946, and it kept that promise.
During the Cold War, of course, any threat of Communism--or even supposed threat of Communism, as in Iran in 1953--became an excuse for American intervention, political or military, to install and maintain a friendly regime. That rationale changed governments in Iran, Guatemala, Brazil, British Guyana, and Chile, and tried and failed to do so in Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Syria, and probably other places as well. "Nation-building," or attempts to make client governments more responsive to their peoples' needs, accompanied military intervention in South Vietnam, without much success, and later played some role in El Salvador in the 1980s, where a friendly government settled a war with Communist guerrillas after the Cold War was over. The Reagan administration also started and supported costly guerrilla wars against pro-Moscow regimes in Nicaragua, Angola, and Mozambique, with no immediate success. Bloody internal conflicts, meanwhile, rarely led to calls for foreign intervention, such as those in Nigeria and Indonesia in the mid 1960s.
In the early 1990s, after Communism's fall, pressure arose to intervene to stop mass killings and ethnic cleansing both in the former Yugoslavia, which immediately broke up after Communism fell, and in Rwanda. Western governments rarely showed enough commitment and resources actually to try to stop it, only setting the Serbian-Bosnian conflict after the Serbs had achieved many of their objectives and the war had run its course, and ignoring Rwanda. Meanwhile, the neoconservative sector of the American foreign policy establishment was increasingly opposed to allowing anti-American dictatorship in the Middle East to remain in power. 9/11 provided them with the excuse to try to implement this policy. American forces easily overthrew the governments of the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein in Iraq, and tried to turn them into western-style democracies. In both cases these efforts turned out to be bad jokes. Iraq descended into religious civil war within a few years, and that war has never been settled. The new Shi'ite government we helped create allies itself with Iran. As for Afghanistan, Whitlock in The Afghanistan Papers draws on hundreds of after-action interviews with American military and civilians to show that our ideas for its future never had a chance. They pretended that we could eliminate competition among warlords and the drug trade, key elements of Afghan politics and the Afghan economy. Our attempt to spread western ideas about women's equality made many friends in urban areas but alienated much of the countryside--just as a very similar Soviet attempt had twenty years earlier. We appropriated billions more than the country could possibly absorb, and the profits went to contractors and well-placed Afghans who immediately moved the money overseas. Our military tactics killed thousands of civilians, and we tried, and failed, to train the Afghans in the use of modern weapons despite their illiteracy and innumeracy. I shall return to another even more depressing aspect of the adventure momentarily.
Incredibly, the failures in Iraq and Afghanistan under Bush did not prevent Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton from ramping up the Afghanistan war despite the warnings of the American Ambassador that more troops would do more harm than good, or from extending similar policies to Syria and Egypt after the Arab Spring broke out. In Syria we could not depose the tyrant whom we had identified as the problem, merely encouraging hopeless resistance against him. In Egypt, after the Muslim Brotherhood won the first free presidential election the country had ever had, we cooperated with the Egyptian military to restore dictatorship. In Libya the Obama administration intervened to depose Muhammar Qaddafi, and that country also sank into chaos. The policy created millions of refugees who are still fleeing to Europe, with serious social and political consequences there.
The Whitlock book, sadly, suggests that our military and foreign policy bureaucracy will not only undertake any mission civilian leaders give it, but will also refuse seriously to re-evaluate it when it goes badly and will publicly defend the indefensible for as long as higher authority needs them to do so. Whitlam lays out the continually, absurdly optimistic statements of successive military leaders in Afghanistan in excruciating detail. Whitlock's book puzzled me in one respect. Like his fellow Gen Xer Barack Obama--whose leadership in Afghanistan comes across as disastrous--Whitlock apparently doesn't want to compare Afghanistan with Vietnam, but the parallels are endless. We did not understand the politics of either nation; we thought they could adopt western-style institutions; we didn't understand the depth of corruption in either one; and we used tactics that inevitably alienated the people were were supposed to be trying to help. In neither case could we create a client regime that would fight on without us. This time, however, the American people remained surprisingly detached from what was going on in this new theater of war, and Congress and the press did not fundamentally challenge the administration's rosy requests. Indeed, it is astonishing how much the American press and the Congress deferred to both the Bush II and Obama administrations--opening up, as it turned out, the opportunity for Donald Trump to win the White House in 2016 and embark upon the destruction of American democracy.
From 100 to 140 years ago, imperialist nations did frequently restore order to parts of the third world. I do not think that they can do so any longer, even in a good cause. The biggest single reason is probably population. Iraq had about 1.5 million people when the British took over in the early 1920s; both Iraq and Afghanistan have tens of millions now. Western armed forces have shrunk. And western institutions and ideas do not enjoy the prestige they did around 1900 in most of the world, because they haven't been working especially well. The foreign policy establishment seems to be shifting its attention to Russia and China, but there, too, it is drawing on earlier traditions from the Cold War that may not help us move into a new world at all. We are long past the point where we could live off the achievements of the middle of the twentieth century.