As America’s longest war inches closer to an end — pending coronavirus — as a result of Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban in March, commentators are furnishing autopsies of how the so-called “good war” in Afghanistan hasn’t lived up to its moniker after nearly two decades of stalemate. The problem with these narratives isn’t so much their content, but their premise. Not one challenges the conflict’s “good war” status — a label developed by public relations experts in the Pentagon to shore up the US war state’s legitimacy at a time when the war’s counterpart in Iraq was turning into chaos.
Carter Malkasian, a Pashto-speaking historian who served as a State Department representative in Helmand Province and special assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, devotes five thousand words in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs to laying out a familiar case for “how the good war went bad”: Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul was too corrupt, Pakistan meddled too much, US officials took their eyes off the ball by going to war in Iraq, and the Taliban shouldn’t have been excluded from the political process.
These are valid critiques. But what Malkasian doesn’t address is far more revealing than what he does. The crux of his argument is not that the United States could have avoided war in the first place, but rather that the war could have been won if only Washington had done X, Y, and Z. This missed opportunities analysis — so popular with proponents of counterinsurgency theory, Malkasian among them — criticizes a war’s tactics and procedures but stops short of questioning its initial premise or conception.
But we should be crystal clear: the war in Afghanistan wasn’t a good war waged poorly. It was a war that never should have been waged in the first place.
Alternatives to War
In the weeks after September 11, the George W. Bush administration had a genuine opportunity to enact justice for al-Qaeda’s attacks without resorting to war. Under pressure from senior clergy and its leadership, the Taliban offered to try Osama bin Laden in an Islamic court and extradite him to another Islamic country, making clear that its only requirement was that the United States provide evidence of his involvement in the attacks — a condition it apparently dropped two days before the first bombs fell. Bin Laden’s abuse of the Taliban’s hospitality year after year opened a door for the Bush administration to walk through.
Instead, the Bush administration refused to negotiate with the Taliban — both before and after the war began — under the bombastic banner of making “no distinction between the terrorists who committed these acts and those who harbor them,” as Bush proclaimed. This framework proved to be the critical mistake. Under it, war — a military campaign that bin Laden easily evaded — was inevitable, and so too its intractability.
The “Good War” Was Never Good
Neglected amid the dense fog of the establishment’s war autopsies is a simple proposition: Although al-Qaeda’s attacks on September 11 constituted nothing short of a horrendous crime, Bush’s war was the wrong response — on moral, strategic, and legal grounds.
To be clear, the advantage of nearly two decades of hindsight isn’t required to make such a determination. Despite demands that “even pacifists must support this war,” countless people spoke out against the war as it began: parents who lost children in the World Trade Center, women’s rights activists in Afghanistan, Soviet veterans of the 1980s war, one brave member of Congress, and tens of thousands of anti-war protesters in the US and UK.
Although pitched as a “bull’s-eye war” defined by “unprecedented precision,” the war’s first few months killed thousands of civilians amid waves of carpet bombing, displaced hundreds of thousands more, disrupted the flow of aid to millions of vulnerable Afghans, and destroyed much the country’s already fragile infrastructure. “The country was on a lifeline and we just cut the line,” Noam Chomsky said at the time.
Rather than a necessary step to protect national security or a noble response to a horrific crime, the war is better understood as a zealous act of vengeance. In the weeks after the September 11 attacks, Bush made revenge the rallying cry for an apocalyptic crusade. “This is the world’s fight. This is civilization’s fight. … The advance of human freedom now depends on us,” he told Congress, declaring war on “every terrorist group of global reach.”
The Bush administration exploited the September 11 crisis to exercise American dominance in a geostrategically important region, turning Afghanistan into an imperial outpost with Iran to the west, a nuclear-armed Pakistan to the east, and, most importantly, China and Russia nearby. With some four hundred US and allied military bases, Afghanistan has become to the historically Russian-dominated, resource-heavy region of Central and South Asia what Saudi Arabia has been to the oil-rich Middle East. No wonder then that former general and CIA director David Petraeus recently urged the United States not to withdraw its troops because “Afghanistan is the platform from which we run counterterrorism operations throughout the region.”
From a purely strategic perspective, average Americans haven’t gained anything from the war. In fact, one could argue that the war and its spinoffs in Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and Libya have made the United States more vulnerable to attack at home, as endless war has exacerbated the conditions that give rise to terrorism and radicalized many who’ve suffered under its destruction. Instead of “denying safe havens” to al-Qaeda and its affiliates, the war fueled a 1,900 percent increase in terrorist attacks in the seven countries bombed by Washington since 2001, as well as the proliferation of global terrorist organizations.
On an international legal basis, scholars have questioned whether the use of force in Afghanistan was lawful. Critics proffer that the war against al-Qaeda was not waged as a last resort or as a legitimate exercise of self-defense, that overthrowing the Taliban was not a lawfully proportional and necessary response to al-Qaeda’s attacks, and that the U.N. Security Council’s two resolutions did not constitute authorization for the use of force.
Unmaking the “Good War” Narrative
Politicians and pundits of all stripes have gradually accepted the decision to wage war in Iraq as a disaster — if not criminally aggressive, at least an “overreach.” By contrast, the initial decision to intervene in Afghanistan has not faced the same scrutiny, despite inaugurating the “global war on terror.”
The notion of the war as a just response to a heinous crime is likely to blame — not unreasonably so — for its evasion of criticism. But to truly end endless war, we must reckon not only with easier cases like Iraq, but also thornier ones like Afghanistan.
As US troops finally begin to come home, the foreign policy establishment’s deployment of the “good war” narrative amounts to damage control for a war that few of its members can say will end in victory. In this context, the time is ripe to shed the “good war” label, once and for all.