Foreign Relations & International Law

Remembering the Gains of the Afghanistan War

Daniel Byman, Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, September 9, 2021, 12:44 PM

It’s hard to imagine a successful counterterrorism campaign in the years that followed Sept. 11 without the invasion of Afghanistan, which played a decisive role in dismantling what had become a major and persistent threat to American lives.

U.S. Air Force pararescuemen secure an area in Afghanistan, Nov. 7, 2012, ( Sgt. Jonathan Snyder/United States Air Force)

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The end of a war is a time to reflect. So is a milestone anniversary like the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11. Now, in September 2021, the two are bound up together—the end of the U.S. war in Afghanistan, not coincidentally, taking place in close proximity to the milestone anniversary.

For Lawfare, the two events are also intimately tied to the history of the site itself. Lawfare surely wouldn’t exist but for the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Afghanistan. The early years of the site were far more concerned with issues arising out of that conflict than they were with cybersecurity, disinformation, authoritarian populism and the other issues that predominate on the site these days.

It is probably not possible to over-reflect on the withdrawal and the anniversary. But it is possible to draw the wrong conclusions from reflections on what went wrong in the Afghanistan war—which ended, as it began, with the Taliban in control of the country. And with Afghanistan today facially seeming like Afghanistan as it was on Sept. 11, it is possible to reflect one’s way to the conclusions that the invasion of Afghanistan was a mistake, that it accomplished nothing and that Americans died in vain. It is possible to conclude that any gains were ephemeral, that only the civilian casualties and the policy blunders had lasting consequences, that 20 years of keeping the Taliban at bay was worth nothing and that the destruction of al-Qaeda’s base of operations was all an exercise in squandered blood and treasure.

A great many sober, serious people have embraced these gloomy conclusions—in some cases selectively, in many cases as a morose, defeatist package. The instinct to evaluate the war in binary terms is understandable. People tend to think of wars as won or lost. And watching the chaotic evacuation from Kabul, it certainly didn’t look like a win. It didn’t even look like a stalemate. It looked like a rout.

The final scorecard looks bad too. The vicious gambler played by George C. Scott scoffs at the young pool shark played by Paul Newman in the movie “The Hustler,” for suggesting he had been way ahead in a game against the world’s best player before losing it all. “This game isn't like football. Nobody pays you for yardage,” the gambler says. “When you hustle you keep score real simple. The end of the game you count up your money. That’s how you find out who’s best. That’s the only way.” By this standard, certainly, the Taliban bested us. U.S. forces smashed them for years, but at the end of the game, they have Afghanistan—and the government the United States supported evaporated just like Paul Newman’s early lead.

Yet there is more to be said on behalf of America’s two-decade-long effort in Afghanistan than these crude analyses allow. We certainly don’t mean to suggest that the war was a complete success. It was not. Many Americans lost their lives fighting there (and far more Afghans died), and the United States spent trillions in a vain effort to build the Afghan state. Yet here it’s not just the end point that matters but the nature of the curve that led to that endpoint. And there’s a great deal of area under the curve of the Afghanistan war, area one shouldn’t throw away lightly.

The truth is that the war actually accomplished a good deal—even if its most ambitious objectives remained ever-elusive. Far from a mistake, the invasion of Afghanistan to topple the first Taliban regime was a necessity in the post-Sept. 11 environment. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a successful counterterrorism campaign in the years that followed Sept. 11 without it. It played a decisive role in dismantling what had become a major and persistent threat to American lives. It provided for a long period of imperfect but nonmurderous government for many Afghans, particularly urban, minority and female Afghans. And it helped to facilitate a long period in which successful foreign-based terrorist attacks on the U.S. homeland simply did not happen.

Whether one regards the war ultimately as a success or a failure, it is important to tally its costs and benefits accurately. As people currently seem to be tallying only its costs, we offer this post to remind people of the complexity of assessing the Afghanistan war.

The Afghanistan Sanctuary

With two decades of water under the bridge, people often treat the Sept. 11 attacks as a bolt out of the blue to which the country responded by reorganizing and militarizing its entire foreign policy and domestic politics. There’s some truth in this story, but lost in it is just how active and menacing al-Qaeda had become in the years leading up to Sept. 11. Jihadists with ties to Afghanistan had bombed the World Trade Center in 1993, killing six people and injuring over 1,000. In 1996, al-Qaeda moved to Afghanistan and, in 1998, attacked two U.S. embassies in East Africa—killing hundreds and wounding thousands. Two years later, it pulled off a bombing of a U.S. warship, the USS Cole. Sept. 11 was really a culmination of a mounting and increasingly deadly terrorism campaign that no reasonable government would have continued to tolerate.

It was a campaign run chiefly from Afghanistan, and it was possible because the Taliban allowed al-Qaeda a haven from which it could build a mini-army and launch attack after attack on its enemies.

So while the 20-year military intervention in Afghanistan may have been a mistake, it was important, indeed essential, that the United States remove the Taliban from power in 2001 and destroy al-Qaeda bases in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the years that followed.

Indeed, Afghanistan became an important base for al-Qaeda well before Sept. 11, and high-profile terrorist attacks were only one element of the danger posed as a result. As long as al-Qaeda enjoyed a base in Afghanistan, it could convene planning sessions and generate new plots: The United States was always playing defense.

To get a sense of how important Afghanistan, and nearby facilities in Pakistan, were to al-Qaeda, and the many facets that the Afghanistan base played in al-Qaeda’s overall operations and successes, it’s useful to examine the Sept. 11 plot in more detail:

  • Plotting began in earnest in late 1998 or early 1999, more than two years before the attack occurred. The plot’s mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, met with al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan to pitch his novel idea for an attack. He received approval, and, crucially from his point of view, gained the money and recruits that bin Laden had available. These leaders and others enjoyed a sanctuary in Afghanistan to oversee the operation with little interference. From there, they could confer with one another, communicate with operatives, and otherwise organize a broad movement even as they launched individual attacks.
  • The cell leader, Mohammed Atta, had originally sought to fight in Chechnya, and he ended up going to Afghanistan to train, along with three friends who also went on to play important roles in the plot. Once he arrived in Afghanistan, al-Qaeda leaders spotted Atta’s leadership abilities, discipline and fluency in English, redirecting him to the Sept. 11 operation. As Atta’s experience suggests, in Afghanistan al-Qaeda was able to screen and vet would-be members, choosing the most committed and skilled to join its own ranks while enabling others to become more capable.
  • Indoctrination and control were important parts of what made the camps so dangerous. Al-Qaeda was able to knit together a disparate array of groups and causes—anti-Israel, anti-Egypt, anti-Russia, pro-Taliban and so on—and make them a more unified movement. This was a tremendous achievement for a movement that often fought (and would fight) more within its ranks than against outsiders. In addition, it could take committed activists like Atta and redirect them against the leadership’s preferred targets.
  • Al-Qaeda leaders later selected other plot members, the so-called muscle, primarily from Saudi volunteers who had come to Afghanistan to join the jihad.
  • The hijackers were not alone: Other jihadists, between 10,000 and 20,000, according to CIA estimates, received a wide array of training in Afghanistan. Most volunteers learned basic weapons skills and had a boot-camp-like experience to weed out the uncommitted, enabling them to become more effective insurgents in various struggles around the Muslim world. These al-Qaeda recruits would also help the Taliban in its campaign to conquer all of Afghanistan. Indeed, during the invasion after Sept. 11, U.S. soldiers found that the Arab jihadists, not the Taliban, were the most ferocious and skilled fighters. A select few went to camps that offered more advanced training, such as counterintelligence, bomb-making and other skills useful for terrorism. The muscle hijackers, for example, received the basic training to determine their fitness and dedication and then received more advanced training on how to hijack airplanes, disarm air marshals and use explosives.
  • The training camps and Afghan experience proved instrumental for insurgencies around the Muslim world. Figures like Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who later founded al-Qaeda in Iraq, the forerunner of ISIS, went to Afghanistan in the late 1990s and ran a training camp there.

Taken together, these factors made the pre-Sept. 11 haven in Afghanistan devastatingly dangerous. Al-Qaeda could knit together a divided and far-flung movement, train operatives to a lethal degree of proficiency, and plan elaborate operations with little interference.

The Taliban sheltered al-Qaeda. Although the Taliban did not approve of al-Qaeda’s terrorism operations against the West, it did not stop them either. Nor would the Taliban surrender bin Laden or other terrorists, doubting the veracity of U.S. charges and being unwilling to lose face with Taliban members and supporters by handing over to the infidels a man they considered a good Muslim. Even today, Taliban officials deny bin Laden’s responsibility for Sept. 11.

The U.S. invasion quickly toppled the Taliban and proved devastating for al-Qaeda. Some of those captured included leaders or others in the movement who revealed ongoing plots, such as a plot to conduct multiple terrorist attacks in Israel that was well along in its planning. The movement lost its archipelago of training camps and with it the ability to provide a wide array of training to thousands of recruits. Nor could it indoctrinate as effectively, although advances in information technology would pose new challenges. The movement also lost much of its cadre fighting the U.S. invasion. Its leaders who survived found themselves under constant pressure. Finally, the apparent overthrow of the Taliban, which many jihadists deemed the one true Islamic government, made many jihadists question the wisdom of al-Qaeda’s strategy.

Post-Sept. 11 Operations

Despite these many advances, al-Qaeda’s terrorism threat didn’t end with the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001 and the establishment of a new government in Afghanistan. Key leaders, including bin Laden, dispersed to Pakistan, and from there, they directed numerous operations against the West and in the broader Middle East. Many of these involved individuals who were recruited and trained before Sept. 11, but the plans and operations continued in its aftermath with direction from Pakistan. Notable attacks and plots included the 2002 Bali bombing and 2004 Madrid and 2005 London transportation bombings, which killed 202, 193 and 52 people, respectively. Bin Laden financed the Bali bombing, and terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman noted in 2007 that “almost all major incidents” in Europe had ties to al-Qaeda, with key operatives being trained or based in Pakistan. In 2006, security officials disrupted a plan to smuggle liquid explosives aboard airplanes flying from Europe to the United States and Canada and detonate them midair, which would have killed around 1,500 people according to prosecutors—a plot that also had many of its origins in Pakistan.

Although the Pakistani government arrested many important al-Qaeda leaders, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Afghanistan proved an important base for the U.S. in going after the al-Qaeda haven in remote parts of Pakistan, removing senior figures that Pakistan could not, or would not, take out. The United States conducted numerous strikes on al-Qaeda in the remote Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) along Pakistan’s border with Afghanistan. According to analyses from the New America Foundation, the first drone strike in Pakistan was conducted in 2004, and the dozens that occurred during the Bush administration would grow to hundreds under President Obama, peaking in 2010 before declining rapidly as the decade went on. The United States killed almost 100 leaders, as well as numerous lower-level cadre.

Many of these strikes were launched from bases in Afghanistan. To do persistent surveillance and regular strikes, as was being done a decade ago, bases in Afghanistan close to the FATA proved essential. In addition, the most famous counterterrorism operation in U.S. history, the killing of bin Laden, also depended on access to Afghanistan, the base from which operatives launched their cross-border operation.

Over time, the strikes hollowed out al-Qaeda. As New America’s David Sterman contends, “[T]hese drone strikes have knocked out the ability of Al Qaeda to plot from Pakistan.” In addition to the death of experienced commanders, if its leaders communicated in real time by phone or by using the internet, they risked being located and killed. Forced into hiding, the core was no longer able to orchestrate attacks in the West. And although the drone strikes caused significant civilian casualties, an analysis by Aqil Shah found that—contrary to common mythology—they did not increase terrorist recruitment.

In other words, Afghanistan was essential to al-Qaeda in the years before Sept. 11, and depriving al-Qaeda of the use of it was, consequently, a post-Sept. 11 necessity. Less well understood, Afghanistan became an important base of operations for ongoing U.S. counterterrorism activity in the decades that followed, particularly in the critical period in which U.S. forces were able to reduce the once-menacing organization to a husk of itself. These are both major successes of the Afghanistan operation. Few people imagined in the period immediately after Sept. 11 that the United States would go two decades without a second major homeland attack emanating from abroad. That accomplishment simply cannot be separated from the decision to go into Afghanistan and stay there a good long while. Whether it can be sustained in the absence of U.S. forces on the ground there remains to be seen.

The Edifice of American Counterterrorism

There’s a legal aspect to this point as well: The entire legal edifice of post-Sept. 11 U.S. counterterrorism policy was bound up with the war in Afghanistan. That is, because the enemy was in Afghanistan, U.S. administrations needed a legal framework that allowed U.S. forces to operate in Afghanistan. Because suspects were not reachable by traditional law enforcement means, the Bush, Obama and Trump administrations required an operating framework that engaged military authorities. That framework was the war in Afghanistan. And it’s a bit difficult to imagine, even in retrospect, what that framework might have looked like without the war.

It is, to be sure, perverse to suggest that the Afghanistan war was necessary so that the United States could have the 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) and the rules and authorities that flowed from it. Laws authorize wars, after all, not the other way around. It is also not quite accurate. The AUMF did not, after all, require the invasion of Afghanistan; it merely authorized it. The statute’s broad operative language, which does not mention Afghanistan and operated worldwide, could have supported—and did, in fact, support—other military activity, or it could have supported no military activity at all, as some AUMFs historically have done. Yet it is safe to say that the AUMF, passed in the immediate wake of Sept. 11 with policymakers eyeing the Afghan sanctuary, presumed that the coming military action would take place in Afghanistan. It seems unlikely it would have been passed had the Bush administration not envisioned an attack on that country imminently on its passage.

So try to imagine, for a moment, that the Bush administration had not headed in that direction—as so many analysts, with the hindsight of two decades, now think would have been wiser. What would the combined strategic and legal framework for counterterrorism have looked like?

One possibility is that it might have looked very much as it did. Congress might have passed an AUMF like the one it did, in fact, pass; it just would have been used more sparingly, less ambitiously—for the occasional spree of air strikes, or special operations forces raids. American forces still would have the statutory authority to do all the things they did that were so effective in counterterrorism. They just would have done them without a long-term presence in Afghanistan. But this scenario raises a significant obstacle to the lethal force and detention aspects of post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism operations. Without the bona fide armed conflict in Afghanistan and elsewhere, the American invocation of law of armed conflict authorities would have depended (as they now, in fact, depend) solely on the claim that episodic violent engagements between the United States and al-Qaeda suffice to create a real armed conflict. That has always been a hotly disputed claim, even in the U.S. court system. So the no-invasion scenario would have made it significantly harder, in practice, to legally justify detention, military commissions and possibly even air strikes.

But there’s another possibility too. The rejection of “forever war” in Afghanistan is not, after all, an argument for more limited forever wars. It is an argument against protracted military commitments at all. If we project that Congress and the Bush administration in 2001 shared that skepticism, so in vogue today, we are left with the probability that there would have been no reason for them to pass a broad AUMF in the first place. If America was not going to invade Afghanistan to deal with the entrenched al-Qaeda presence there, it probably wouldn’t have bothered to deal with lesser presences such as jihadists in Somalia, Yemen or other countries. It therefore would have needed the legal architecture policymakers put in place—on either the military or covert sides of the ledger.

So one possibility when analysts retrospectively reject the war in Afghanistan is that they are actually proposing to throw out a large portion of the legal edifice of post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism policy. That has implications well beyond Afghanistan itself. Under the AUMF, remember, the United States conducted drone strikes in Yemen, crushed ISIS, and killed hundreds of al-Qaeda operatives in Pakistan. It detained operatives around the world. It’s fair to ask those who casually now assert that the war was a mistake: Is the rejection of the war in Afghanistan a rejection of that entire military approach to counterterrorism, or is it merely a rejection of that approach coupled with an invasion and long-term presence in Afghanistan? The answer to this question is surely different from analyst to analyst. But those who mean the former should answer the question of what combined strategic-legal approach they imagine the Bush administration should have adopted in the war’s place. And those who mean the latter would do well to specify what kind of conflict they imagine having taken place in the absence of the underlying war in Afghanistan.

We are not suggesting there are no possible answers to these questions. One might imagine a more purely law-enforcement-based post-Sept. 11 response with limited uses of force under, say, a narrower AUMF. One could also imagine a legal approach similar to the one the U.S. took, only used less aggressively—or with a briefer stay in Afghanistan. Moreover, as is true today, alternatives to basing and access in Afghanistan did exist. The United States has launched drone attacks from bases in Pakistan in the past, but as relations soured the United States was expelled from these bases. As the United States left Kabul, it launched a drone strike from the United Arab Emirates against the ISIS branch in Afghanistan.

But these questions do require answers. It will not do to pocket the gains of the Afghanistan war as though they were given and tally only the costs. Giving up the war means giving up the gains as well.

And those gains were not all military, and they are not all counted in enemy fighters captured or killed. It has become an empty talking point to mention that millions of Afghan girls attended school after the Taliban’s ouster, and thousands of women went on to university and to jobs outside the home, that religious minorities like the Shiite Hazara population enjoyed greater rights, and that soccer stadiums were not used for public executions. It is certainly true that human rights gains in Afghanistan, however real, were not the purpose of the mission—and that they cannot ultimately be the metric by which the mission gets evaluated. Yet if one is counting the yardage of gains and loss, these human rights improvements are not negligible either. Such collateral improvements to the human rights and lives of millions of people are no more to be ignored than the collateral damage to individuals in errant military operations. It is simply a fact that over 20 years, the United States made itself safer by improving life for millions of Afghans.

Many Mistakes

Yes, as everyone is quick to point out in the aftermath of withdrawal, the United States made many mistakes in Afghanistan. The purpose here is not to go into detail on these points, but they are an important part of the story and are essential to acknowledge even when laying out some of the benefits of the war in Afghanistan. Most U.S. mistakes involved efforts to build a democratic state in Afghanistan after Sept. 11 and eradicating the Taliban, rather than a U.S. focus on the narrower counterterrorism effort against al-Qaeda.

As Carter Malkasian details in his superb history, The American War in Afghanistan, the United States went into Afghanistan without a clear plan beyond toppling the Taliban and extirpating al-Qaeda from Afghanistan. U.S. officials quickly conflated the Taliban and al-Qaeda, ignored Taliban surrender overtures, purged the Taliban from the government in a manner that foreshadowed the disastrous debaathification of Iraq, and otherwise shifted the war from one focused on al-Qaeda to one focused on the Taliban—this happened in part because most of what remained of al-Qaeda had fled to Pakistan and other countries, so the Taliban was all that was left to target. None of this seemed reckless at the time, as the Taliban had collapsed and, with the World Trade Center buildings still being excavated, the Bush administration had little inclination to parse differences between al-Qaeda and its willing host. Yet to fight the Taliban, the United States often empowered warlords, leading many Afghans to see the Taliban as preferable to their brutal and corrupt new leaders. On top of all this, Pakistan was helping the Taliban rebuild: at first below the U.S. radar screen, and then in open defiance of U.S. officials. Pakistan would prove to have incompatible interests to the United States, a problem U.S. policy never solved.

The initial U.S. response to all this was lackluster. Distracted by the ease of victory and then, as the 2003 war in Iraq approached, focused on a new war, the United States deployed too few troops and made only weak efforts to develop the Afghan police and army.

By 2005, signs of policy failure were starting to appear, and these became clearer as the years went on. Multiple administrations—first Bush, then Obama, and then Trump—all tried to train a large Afghan army, ensure a democratic government, and otherwise construct a nation that never seemed to get built. Obama surged U.S. troops to Afghanistan but, clearly conflicted about the mission, made sure they would leave quickly—a recipe for failure.

Not all of this failed immediately: The Afghan regime had peaks as well as valleys. The U.S.-backed government made progress against the Taliban after the United States put more troops in and otherwise increased support, but that was a heavy cost, and the Taliban never seemed close to breaking. Malkasian contends the Karzai regime was at its zenith in 2013, but over time, the Taliban grew stronger. Meanwhile, the civil war between the Taliban and the governement worsened, and tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers, police and civilians died. Nevertheless, as a host of critics have pointed out, the United States stumbled on, with the mission at times appearing to be on autopilot despite many private criticisms by senior officials that it was failing.

The disastrous final exit highlighted America’s problems in Afghanistan, refocusing the attention of the American people, and the world, on a country they had long ignored. The failure to prepare for the rapid collapse of the Afghan army, the fleeing of senior leaders like President Ashraf Ghani, and the desperate rush to flee of tens of thousands of foreigners and Afghans who had helped Americans—and to be allowed to undertake the rescue mission only with the permission of the Taliban—all were a bitter punctuation point on a war that, in a rare moment of bipartisan agreement, Americans of both political parties now oppose.

The Afghanistan war in that sense too, ended as it began—with broad bipartisan majorities in a rough kind of consensus.

It’s important to recognize how broad the foreign policy elite’s consensus over Afghanistan was: It spanned multiple administrations, with numerous intelligent and competent leaders nevertheless making what in hindsight appear as striking mistakes. Afghanistan was a country the United States did not understand, and, especially in the early years of the occupation, serious mistakes were inevitable as a result.

So What Lessons Should We Learn?

Despite regular admonitions to avoid “forever wars” in the name of counterterrorism, it is possible, though we hope unlikely, that the United States might again need to invade another country and topple its government. Allowing a massive terrorist haven like pre-9/11 Afghanistan to flourish, especially after a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil, is foolish and dangerous.

Beyond avoiding future efforts at nation-building in Afghanistan and similar countries, how should policymakers think about what to do if, again, there is a massive terrorist attack on the U.S. homeland from an overseas haven and if U.S. laws and institutions are not structured to respond?

Should an invasion prove necessary, the United States can rarely just topple the offending government, pack up its bags and return home. Eradicating terrorist networks and otherwise reducing the problems that brought the U.S. to invade in the first place cannot usually be done quickly: It may take years to set things right. In addition, the United States should not replace even a tyrannical government with chaos. Civil war, crime, disease, narcotics trafficking and other evils would flourish, and the offending regime may simply return to power once U.S. forces have left.

Should the United States again decide to invade, it will make mistakes—at times grave ones. Part of this is because U.S. leaders, even the best ones, are human. In addition, the intelligence demands for informed decision-making are high, but such intelligence is likely to be lacking and may take years to develop. Indeed, if intelligence on the country in question had been strong, it is likely that the catastrophic terrorist attack would have been disrupted. Finally, many potential terrorist havens are in countries with authoritarian governments or weak governments, and changing the political system, economy, and society is difficult.

Constant evaluation is necessary. Part of the Afghanistan problem was that after the initial success, policy went on autopilot, with the Iraq war as one distraction but also little willingness to evaluate whether the Afghanistan occupation was still necessary once al-Qaeda had been devastated. Such self-examination is difficult, both bureaucratically and politically, but the forever war risk is real, and the stakes are immense.

Daniel Byman is a professor at Georgetown University, Lawfare's Foreign Policy Essay editor, and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.
Benjamin Wittes is editor in chief of Lawfare and a Senior Fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution. He is the author of several books.

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