If you’re sad about Afghanistan, blame the invasion and occupation of Iraq.
Or so goes some recent reflections on the failed 20-year Afghan nation-building project by former US officials who labored in both Afghanistan and Iraq.
US President Joe Biden, who unceremoniously pulled US troops out of Afghanistan on August 31, said the whole occupation of Afghanistan was an expensive mistake (though in his old career as a US senator, he thought it was a good idea).
Not so fast, revisionist officials say. It was the subsequent Iraq war and the even grander nation-building scheme that detracted from Afghanistan and turned the “good war” there sour.
This may be a way for so-called “neo-cons” whose hawkish proclivities date back as far as the Vietnam War, to defend disastrous decisions. Or it may be a way to resist the urge to dispense with nation-building as a useful foreign policy tool in the war on terror. That is, military force is not enough; better local government (and especially democracy) is.
Either way, the Biden anti-nation building doctrine is ascending.
The invasion of Afghanistan was ordered by President George W. Bush in response to the September 11, 2001, terror attacks on New York City and Washington. The Americans, along with Afghan tribal allies, drove the Taliban, who ruled the country, and al-Qaeda allies who perpetrated the 9/11 assaults out of Afghanistan. The Taliban returned on August 14 as Biden rushed to withdraw the last rump US military forces, US citizens and Afghan allies by August 31.
The US invaded Iraq less than two years after 9/11 and occupied it for eight years. The justifications were cloudy and full of false accusations against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. In particular, the Bush administration said he was developing nuclear weapons and had connived with al-Qaeda. Neither was true.
Both interventions fed off rage over the 9/11 attacks. Each was avidly overseen by the George W. Bush Administration and then by subsequent US governments, albeit with declining enthusiasm.
The costs were comparable, though greater in Iraq: about 2,500 American dead in Afghanistan, 4,500 in Iraq; untold Afghan and Iraqi deaths and wide destruction in both countries; hundreds of billions of dollars spent in nation-building; expensive military training in each which failed to produce effective armies; and, finally, a battering of US reputation across the globe.
But there were glaring differences in attention. During most of the Bush years, troop strength in Afghanistan never exceeded 20,000 and many of those were involved in training and building schools.
President Barack Obama, responding to a resurgence of the Taliban and the appearance of al-Qaeda offshoot Islamic State, increased combat forces to over 100,000 but then drew down to about 8,000 in advance of the 2016 presidential election campaign. His surprise successor Donald Trump shrunk troop strength down to about 3,000.
The US invasion force in Iraq numbered 125,000 soldiers and exceeded 170,000 in 2007 to defend Baghdad against the Islamic State, an al-Qaeda offshoot.
Biden ended the intervention in Afghanistan, but not Iraq, where Trump had left 2,500 solders. Biden left the skeleton crew there – not to hunt down al-Qaeda or the Islamic State, but to keep an eye on Iraqi militias supported by Iraq.
Some officials in involved in both undertakings have taken to the media to identify an original sin of the Iraq intervention: it pushed Afghanistan into sideshow status. “The signal error, if you will, of the (Bush) administration was going into Iraq,” asserted John Negroponte, the US ambassador to Iraq in 2004 and 2005 and later Bush’s director of national intelligence.
Retired general David Patraeus, who oversaw forces in both countries, said, “You focus on Iraq very early on and so we never got ahead of the situation in Afghanistan.
“We were running a massive, industrial-strength security force development program in Iraq and this thing in Afghanistan is just sort of hand-to-mouth.
“We completely missed the opportunity to start building host-nation security forces in a serious way and start supporting host-nation governance.”
Karl Eikenberry, an Army lieutenant general who served in Afghanistan from 2005 to 2007 and was US ambassador there from 2009 to 2011, concurred. “That’s not to say after 9/11 there was a detailed plan to invade Iraq. But I think there was probably a sense of some of the civilian leaders that we wanted to, in quick order, deal with Afghanistan and then pivot and put the main effort against Iraq,” he said.
Such critiques are not entirely new. Reports of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which monitored the nation-building efforts for the US Congress, contained plenty of warnings. In a 2015 interview with SIGAR, Bush advisor Douglas Lute, said, “Attention would break down to about 85 percent on Iraq and 15 percent on Afghanistan, or maybe even 90 percent attention on Iraq and 10 percent attention on Afghanistan.”
In 2017, David Richards, a British general who labored with NATO forces early in the Afghan war, told SIGAR that the US had sent “the best minds and resources to Iraq.” When the Taliban showed signs of revival, the Bush administration pressed NATO to take on more responsibility because, “The US had too much on their plates.”
Invading and trying to transform Afghanistan at least had a vividly concrete justification – 9/11. Iraq had none and this was a disastrous byproduct of the invasion. The pile up of false accusations against Saddam Hussein’s regime – that it had a nuclear weapons program and connived with Osama bin Laden– discredited US intelligence.
“I didn’t see a way to connect it to the war on terror,” said John McLaughlin, who was deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency in 2001, when talk about a possible war with Iraq was progressing in the Bush administration. “There was no connection between Iraq and 9/11.”
As for weapons of mass destruction, “That may have been one of the public rationales used by the administration, but I think that administration was determined to go to war with Saddam Hussein regardless,” he suggested.
Given the general fatigue that overtook the projects in Afghanistan and Iraq, it’s unlikely the notion that without Iraq, the Afghan mission might have worked. A new similar effort is unlikely: Biden appears to be sticking solely to military solutions to the ongoing, post-9/11 war on terror.
This includes training and arms support support for local governments fighting Islamist rebels, as well as occasional drone bombing in places like Somalia, Mali, Burkino Faso and Niger. For Afghanistan, Biden has threatened undefined violent “over the horizon” responses should terror groups emerge in Taliban-run Afghanistan.
It took fifteen years for the American appetite for major ground combat to return after the Vietnam War, and even longer to occupy a country and transform it into something resembling western democracy. Ground warfare only returned when facing a militarily feeble Iraq in 1990’s Persian Gulf War. The victory over the Iraqis was swift, but Washington had no desire to occupy and reform Iraq.
The urge to try a full-fledged occupation had to await 9/11 and as a sort of foreign policy gluttony, encompassed both Afghanistan and Iraq. Nation-building failures haunt them both: the Taliban return in Afghanistan and relentless sectarian tensions in Iraq.
It will take a long time for an American impulse to occupy to re-emerge – if it ever happens. Biden is insisting nothing must get in the way of a single-minded focus on two big foreign policy issues he has identified – possible confrontations with Russia and China. Period.
Daniel Williams is a former staff foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald and an ex-researcher for Human Rights Watch.