Most members of Generation Z were not old enough to remember the September 11th attacks or Operation Enduring Freedom that followed. Those scenes are set aside with tube televisions and Blockbuster Video stores in our history books now. After 20 years of fighting, twenty-somethings have encountered a very different picture of Afghanistan from what their parents and grandparents saw two decades earlier. They have seen more details, more personal narratives, and events unfolding in real-time in the palms of their hands.
Instead of watching broadcast and cable news, young adults this month watched their peers participate in the heroic but ill-planned and disastrous scramble to evacuate Americans and their allies from Afghanistan through Twitter and Tik Tok on their smartphones. They saw raw video and listened to uncensored sounds. The world has changed.
America’s struggle and seemingly inevitable military failure in Afghanistan is—or now, was—an example of using martial means to solve an ideological conflict that we were always destined to win. Although the events of 9/11 were horrifying, they did not constitute an existential threat to the United States and need not have been met with invasion and occupation.
The root cause of the 9/11 attack was an ideologically oppositional group in a far-off land who became convinced that the people of the United States were their enemies. In a state of understandable panic, we acquiesced, naming the Taliban as our foes for hosting the planners and perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks, Al Qaeda. The United States unleashed overwhelming military might on both Al Qaeda and the much larger Taliban, both of which expressed a desire to eradicate western influence in their region. Al Qaeda was quickly contained and greatly diminished as a worldwide terrorist threat, but soon the American (and Western) mission morphed from destroying Al Qaeda to preventing Afghanistan from ever becoming a haven for further terrorist activity.
Over time, the U.S. mission in both Iraq and Afghanistan became the construction of western-style democracies on those lands. Our military took on the task of nation-building, instead of national defense.
As pervasive as the threat of radical Islamic terrorism was in the early 2000s, the freedoms that make America so economically and culturally dominant were not necessarily at stake. American dominance, even military dominance, is rooted in our innovative and free economy which much of the rest of the world seeks to emulate. This is how we change the world for the better—through innovation, not occupation.
The American military is the most ferociously effective fighting force that the world has ever known. As bungled as our withdrawal from the graveyard of empires has been, our military might remains unquestionable. So why did we fail?
War, typically followed by effective occupation, is the function of any military, but our voluntary force is the most powerful and expensive there is. As a result, extended deployments are extremely costly both monetarily and in terms of national emotional investment. By their nature, the armed forces of the United States should be reserved for dealing with existentially threatening circumstances, the type of danger for which they are best trained and equipped.
Democratic republics are not set up to project military force abroad in the way that the empires of antiquity did. Under our model, it is important to distinguish between ideological conflicts and true existential crises because they require very different toolsets.
For twenty years we occupied a famously unoccupiable territory and thereby under-valued our most powerful advantage: the way American innovation shapes the world at large. During America’s longest war, the world changed. Smartphones and social media proliferation have rendered the Taliban’s objective of de-Westernization all but impossible. Although multinational ISIS militias would still fight to create a hermetic caliphate, the Taliban are on Twitter and Tik Tok.
That is not to say that social media and Western technology are entirely benign or harmless, but they do render intolerance of Western values less tenable.
There was a way to win in Afghanistan, but we forfeited the metaphorical field the moment we took it physically. That was two decades ago. In that time we proved that our military is capable of executing surgical strikes against groups that mean to harm innocent civilians and that we often are capable of discovering and foiling such plots before they happen.
Between the inevitable triumph of American technoculture and our overall strength of arms, the war in Afghanistan was ours to lose. But lose we did.
Of course, we are no longer alone in the domain of technological advancement, and obviously, tech can be used for both good and ill. Now, as Chinese-allied Taliban fighters with smartphones participate in clashes with hyper-extremist ISIS militias, posting their victories on social media, moderate Afghanis flee or go into hiding.
As President George W. Bush stated upon our retreat, as much as 60% of Afghanistan’s current population was born in the last 25 years. He theorized that American occupation may have left those Gen Z Afghanis with a fonder perception of the U.S. (and by extension, notions of personal freedom) than of the soul-crushing and liberty-fearing Taliban that last ruled the nation 20 years ago.
I am skeptical of that theory. Astroturfing progressive values onto Afghanis is no substitute for allowing young Afghanis to use their phones to engage with ideas themselves.
Hindsight is blurry, but it seems likely that Al Qaeda’s capacity to sustain a worldwide terror campaign could not have overwhelmed our intelligence and security services, even with the passive support of the Taliban regime. They did not have the manpower to topple the largest institution in the history of mankind even if the threat of random violence persisted.
Bombs don’t change hearts and minds. Perhaps the U.S. campaign in Afghanistan should have been limited to a series of precise strikes, to minimize local perceptions of the United States as a foreign conqueror. What we call “collateral damage” often means a generation of hate sown among the family of those inadvertently killed in Predator drone strikes.
The war for the hearts and minds of the Afghan population was not an unwinnable war, but war rarely wins people over, especially when large-scale bombing campaigns and extended occupations are involved. The surest path to victory in Afghanistan was to be no more physically involved than absolutely necessary while letting our economic power and the observable benefits of freedom do the rest. It was the path not taken.
Gavin Hanson is the Editor-in-Chief of Catalyst