How the ‘Global War on Terror’ Failed Afghanistan

How the ‘Global War on Terror’ Failed Afghanistan

The Global War on Terror has failed; but failure, they say, is a better teacher than success, and if the United States can learn from this failure and how it was generated, it may be able to avoid more disasters in future.


Some historians have averred that the North Korean invasion of South Korea, which occurred two months after NSC-68 was written, proved the validity of its arguments. This, however, can also be seen the other way around: that the U.S. meta-narrative of the Cold War made Americans see what was in fact a Korean civil war initiated by the Korean Communists as part of Soviet grand strategy planned in Moscow; and see the Chinese military intervention to stop an American army appearing on China’s land border as another carefully-planned part of that strategy.

Three decades later, the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan was seen throughout the U.S. political and media establishments not for what it clearly was and has been revealed to be by Soviet documents—a defensive attempt to save a crumbling client state, with close similarities to the U.S. intervention in Vietnam—but as part of a Soviet plan to march to the Indian Ocean and eventually conquer the world. The result was to justify massive U.S. aid to the Afghan Mujahideen. To fit the Mujaheddin into the U.S. meta-narrative of democratic resistance required amazing mental contortions, but U.S. officials, politicians, and many journalists contorted themselves accordingly. The eventual result was 9/11.


Because the false beliefs underlying the Cold War meta-narrative were never adequately examined and critiqued after it ended, these features of U.S. thought replicated themselves disastrously in the GWOT. In the Cold War, they consisted chiefly of the following assumptions: that the Soviet Union possessed overwhelming military and economic power; that Soviet policy was inherently and permanently aggressive, not in any way rooted in genuine Soviet fears; that the Soviet menace to the United States was existential; that the Communist menace was monolithic, and every left-wing nationalist force in the world was simply a local agent of Soviet communism; that the Soviet menace was permanent and essentially unchanging; and that a clear line distinguished Soviet “totalitarianism” from the (often just as savage) authoritarianism of key U.S. allies.

Some of the terrible consequences of this meta-narrative should have been apparent long before the Cold War ended. These included the dreadful crimes committed by the United States and its allies against governments and peoples portrayed as “Communist,” and U.S. support for a range of regimes that were not only wicked in themselves but in some cases hostile to real American interests.

Most importantly of all, the casting of world politics as a universal struggle between “Communism” and “The Free World” blinded the American establishment to the power of local nationalisms. The U.S. overthrow of the secular nationalist government of the (supposedly “pro-communist”) Iranian Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 contributed directly to the Islamic revolution a generation later and, therefore, haunts the United States to this day. 

Despite ample evidence from the junior ranks of the CIA, the reality and importance of the Sino-Soviet split went unrecognized for years. This contributed directly to the U.S. decision to intervene against “Communism” in Vietnam, and delayed by more than a decade the U.S. strategy of playing the USSR and Communist Vietnam off against China—which would have removed any rationale for U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

The “Domino Theory”—the absurd assumption that one state after another would automatically fall to Soviet domination irrespective of national tensions between them—came to dominate U.S. analysis. And the obsession with Vietnamese Communism blinded U.S. analysts to Vietnamese nationalism and led America to step into the hated and defeated shoes of French colonialism in Indochina.

As is now apparent, 9/11 was not the result of a global movement that posed a mortal threat to the United States and its values. It was the work of a few terrorists who managed to stage a malignantly brilliant one-off, which was only possible because of extreme carelessness on the part of the relevant U.S. authorities. Since then, U.S. institutions acting in concert and with allied services have been able to prevent any new major attack on the continental United States itself. The really effective measures taken were all simple and low cost, like better airport security and strict controls on the sale of nitrate fertilizer (the most common material for terrorist bombs).

Instead, the George W. Bush administration framed the U.S. campaign as the GWOT and extended it vastly beyond Al Qaeda. The designation of mutually hostile elements (Al Qaeda’s Sunni Salafism, Iran’s Shiism, Saddam Hussein’s secular Arab nationalism) as one homogenous enemy of the United States served U.S. geopolitical ambitions and hatreds, but violated a fundamental rule of strategy: you should seek to divide, not unite, your enemies. The casting of the GWOT as a universal struggle for freedom and democracy gained support for the invasion of Iraq from liberal intellectuals, journalists, and analysts who might otherwise have remembered the terrible lessons of Vietnam.

In the case of Afghanistan, for years on end those experts who argued that the Taliban had real and enduring mass support and legitimacy, and that sooner or later the United States would have to negotiate with them, were brushed aside and ostracized on the grounds that “the Taliban are evil” or “we don’t talk to terrorists.” The result was to delay these negotiations for more than a decade, allow the Taliban to recover its strength, and lose any chance that the Taliban could be brought to accept a compromise with the Afghan government in Kabul.

At the same time, the narrative of the struggle for democracy (as opposed to the hunt for Al Qaeda) trapped the United States into an attempt at democratic state-building in Afghanistan that soon degenerated into a horribly corrupt sham—a sham, however, that was disguised by ideologically-driven U.S. journalists. Both journalists and officials also engaged in colossal exaggeration of the degree of mass support for the post-2001 Kabul government (for example, the hailing of the hopelessly flawed 2014 elections as “a triumph of democracy”).

The GWOT meta-narrative of the fight for democracy could have had far more catastrophic results in the case of Pakistan; for it contributed to a gross underestimation of the hostility of the Pakistani population to the United States and the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, and, therefore, to an underestimation of the consequences of putting extreme pressure on Pakistan. The fact that a democratic majority in a country detests the United States can in a certain sense simply not be recognized by believers in American “leadership of the free world.”

The case of Afghanistan illustrates another important defect of the U.S. policy scene that has been worsened by the dominance of meta-narratives: indifference to specific local expertise. Unlike in planning for the occupation of Japan after World War II, by the time of the U.S. intervention in Vietnam, as Daniel Ellsberg famously remarked, there was not a single middle-ranking U.S. official who could have passed a freshman exam in Vietnamese history, society or culture. As for the American officials sent out to Afghanistan and Iraq, their ignorance and arrogance have become proverbial.

Much of the reason for this is sheer laziness and negligence, compounded in recent years by the decline of area studies and the rise of universal theoretical approaches in academia. However, U.S. meta-narratives also play a part. If the adversaries are not a specific movement of Vietnamese or Iraqis with their own specific cultures and beliefs but “Communism” or “Terrorism”; and if the goal is not to draw up a specific set of changes for a specific society but to spread “democracy” and “the free market,” then there is really not much need for regional experts—least of all, of course, those who might question the appropriateness of U.S. goals. As the distinguished historian Tony Judt wrote of two prominent liberal supporters of the Iraq War and Bush’s “Freedom Agenda” in the Middle East,

Thus Paul Berman, until now better known as a commentator on American cultural affairs, recycled himself as an expert on Islamic fascism (itself a new term of art) … Peter Beinart followed in his wake with The Good Fight: Why Liberals – and Only Liberals – Can Win the War on Terror, where he sketches at some length the resemblance between the War on Terror and the early Cold War. Neither author had previously shown any familiarity with the Middle East, much less with the Wahhabi and Sufi traditions on which they pronounce with such confidence.

The aftermath of 9/11 saw the frenetic spawning of enormous shoals of instant experts and institutes on “terrorism” and “extremism,” who immediately gained access to official jobs and money—while genuine experts on Afghanistan were ignored and, in some cases, deliberately ostracized if they criticized U.S. plans.

And as we know from the malignant example of Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq and a number of baby Chalabis from Pakistan and elsewhere, opportunist local figures desirous of American money and support can also receive it by mastering the language of the U.S. meta-narrative of the “fight for freedom” against the designated evil of the time.

Two other effects of the GWOT and Cold War meta-narratives have both deep roots in U.S. political culture and destructive effects on U.S. policymaking and public debate. The first is the creation of overwhelming establishment consensuses on given issues that embrace politicians, the media, the bureaucracy, the military, the intelligence community, and large parts of academia. The result is to exclude and banish to the fringes dissenting voices and evidence; as witnessed in the case of Afghanistan the long refusal to examine either the roots of Taliban popular support or the real nature of Afghan “democracy.”