Why American Elites Failed to Build a Nation in Afghanistan | Opinion

In April 2002, President George W. Bush spoke to cadets at Virginia Military Institute about the Afghanistan war, then in its first year. The president described the history of imperial military involvement in Afghanistan as "one of initial success, followed by long years of floundering and ultimate failure.

"We're not going to repeat that mistake," the president said. But of course, we did.

In that same speech, Bush said that America would work "in the best traditions of George Marshall" by pouring money and resources into rebuilding war-torn Afghanistan as we did postwar Europe.

Twenty years and two trillion dollars later, our nation-building folly is ending in a catastrophe that could repeat 1979's Iran hostage crisis on a massive scale. The barbaric Taliban once again rule most of the country, and America's humiliation plays out daily on screens around the globe.

What happened? We know from the Washington Post's 2019 publication of secret government documents that the United States had been bungling Afghanistan for many years. When the Afghan war is autopsied, the failure will belong to elites in the military, in the intelligence agencies, in the diplomatic corps, in academia and in think tanks and to politicians of both parties.

This disaster doesn't belong to one president or one party. It belongs to an entire leadership class. The core of its corruption emerged in a 2002 meeting between journalist Ron Suskind and an unidentified "senior White House adviser"—assumed by many to be Karl Rove—who told the writer, "We're an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality."

Suskind reported that anecdote in an article about what he considered the Bush administration's dangerous "faith-based" approach to foreign policy—that is, policy based in Bush's unquestioned faith in himself. That anonymous quote indicated that Bush's inner circle of advisers shared a hubristic confidence in the power of the American hyperpower to bend reality to its will.

Suskind found a Washington wise man who offered a counterpoint to Bush. He quoted the prudent empiricist cautioning the president not to let policy get ahead of the facts. "Mr. President," the wise man quoted himself saying, "your instincts aren't good enough!"

That man—Joe Biden—was wise enough to go forward with the U.S. withdrawal from the hopeless conflict. But he ignored ample evidence that the Afghan military and government were paper tigers. That is how we ended up with the ongoing agony at Kabul airport, a debacle that dwarfs Jimmy Carter's failed Iran hostage rescue mission.

The belief that we can "create our own reality" is a vice that infects not only the U.S. leadership elite, but modern man—Americans most of all, because ours is the most modern of nations. The idea that sufficient application of money, force, intelligence and technique can transform the world to fit humanity's desires is at the core of modern thought.

The Bolsheviks thought they could create the New Soviet Man by radically changing the conditions of material life. Mao Zedong lived by the same lie, as did all communist regimes of the 20th century, which attempted to subjugate reality to theory. It took the blood of tens of millions and the ruin of nations to prove them wrong.

In the United States, ours has been a less ambitious materialism, but a materialism all the same. We have assumed that all peoples want individual freedom and share our vision of prosperity—and that if we give them the conditions under which they can realize it, they will naturally do so. Both crusading liberalism and crusading conservatism operate from this same flawed anthropology.

U.S. soldiers at Kabul airport
US soldiers stand guard behind barbed wire as Afghans sit on a roadside near the military part of the airport in Kabul on August 20, 2021, hoping to flee from the country after the Taliban's military takeover of Afghanistan. Wakil KOHSAR / AFP/Getty Images

At the outset of our crusades in the Middle East, some commentators expressed doubts about nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Supporters of the effort quickly (and cheaply) accused doubters of racism, along the lines of, "So you're saying that Iraqis and Afghans don't deserve democracy?"

That's not at all what critics were saying. The point was that liberal democracy is not the natural state of humankind, but is rather a mindset that emerges under certain conditions—conditions that cannot always be replicated by fiat. Societies are not machines, but gardens, ecosystems that are sensitive to particular histories and local conditions.

Afghanistan's religious and tribal traditions are wholly incompatible with liberal democracy. It was folly to believe that by flooding that woebegone country with soldiers, cash, expertise and goodwill, America could remake it in our own image.

Our elites failed to build nations in Iraq and Afghanistan while, at the same time, their own nation is falling apart on their watch.

Look at what a generation of policies built on free-market dogmas, beloved of Republicans and Clinton Democrats alike, has done to America. Under the rule of elites who believed that what was good for the market was good for Americans, a hollowed-out middle class saw jobs go abroad, communities collapse and the superrich accumulate a greater proportion of national wealth than at any time since the Gilded Age.

Or look at the failed Lyndon Johnson-era War on Poverty, the principles of which still motivate disproportionate government attempts to ameliorate with money and moral ardor the effects of a failed culture. The current "antiracism" and transgender crusades are an all-too-American attempt by elites to create ideologically congenial realities by force in the face of implacable facts and human nature.

Liberal Democratic elites incentivize Americans to be hostile to each other on the basis of race. Their woke ideology is destroying law, medicine and academia, and they treat those who disagree with them as thought criminals. Rather than teaching the young resilience, our elites instruct them to weaponize victimhood to gain power.

Conservative Republican elites satisfy themselves with MAGA bromides while radicals march through American institutions. In his Alabama rally earlier this month, Donald Trump gloated unpatriotically about Biden's Afghanistan failure, and gassed on absurdly about how great our generals are—even as the generals' strategies were self-destructing in real time in Kabul.

The leadership class failed to build nations in Iraq and Afghanistan because its members thought they had the intelligence and the power to force peoples to be what they could not yet be, and perhaps did not want to be. They are presiding over the decline of America because they are more interested in preserving their own power and partisan convictions than in holding together this demoralized nation. If Americans come to regard these people with contempt, it is because they have behaved contemptibly.

When leaders lose authority, their power may follow. In her 1951 classic The Origins of Totalitarianism, Hannah Arendt explored the conditions that could lead a country to embrace totalitarianism. One of them is the widespread loss of faith in institutional authority.

Indeed, looking back to the roots of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, we see that the Tsarist regime's failure to respond competently to the 1891-92 famine dealt a severe blow to the autocratic system. For decades, Russian society's stakeholders had been deaf to Marxist critiques of Tsarism, but the incompetence and arrogance of government officials caused many to wonder whether the revolutionaries had a point.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said that the revolution in Russia could happen anywhere on Earth, under the right conditions. We Americans may tell ourselves that we won't repeat the Tsar's mistake. How can we be so sure?

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative and author of Live Not By Lies (Sentinel, 2020)

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.