In the mid-2000s, I was in a teaching methods class with an Army vet who had recently come back from Afghanistan and had been at the Battle of Tora Bora in December 2001. His story about the battle matched what was later released anonymously as “Fury’s Account,” that Bin Laden had been effectively isolated but the higher-ups decided that allied Afghan forces rather than U.S. troops should be the ones to capture or kill Bin Laden, and that the Afghans deliberately or accidentally let him escape into Pakistan.
Who made that call? Putting aside whether Afghanistan is such a tribal society and alien culture that the prospects for it as a stable democracy in the long-term are minimal, the Taliban had only fallen a few weeks before. Why would you entrust the main objective of the whole Afghanistan invasion to ostensibly allied forces of a government that didn’t even exist yet, having overthrown the previous government less than a month before?
The U.S. has been a reasonably successful steward of world peace along some dimensions, no doubt, but we seem to be particularly bad at colonialism for reasons the Battle of Tora Bora perhaps highlights- once a government (or even loosely affiliated military group) is in theory our ally, under our tutelage and cooperating with our military machine, we seem to have no ability to view its actions or abilities objectively. Maybe the reason Britain was, all-in-all more successful as a colonial power despite never exerting the kind of world military dominance the U.S. has since World War II is that, as representatives of a class-based and explicitly hierarchical society, the Eton boys running things for Britain never felt tempted to the kinds of faux egalitarianism that often guides American colonial ventures astray. In his excellent if self-indulgent account of walking across Afghanistan immediately after the Taliban’s fall, The Places in Between, Rory Stewart (an Eton boy turned world traveler and, later, an Iraq War provincial administrator and Tory MP) describes the policy wonks eager to take the reins of the new Central Asian Switzerland in 2001:
For the last three months, whenever I reached an internet cafe, I had received an email from someone who had gone to govern Afghanistan. They started passing the UN application forms around in 2001 and then the circulars appeared: “Please don’t expect to write to this email – there is no internet connection in Kabul. ” Finally, there were messages from new addresses “@pak.id” “@afghangov.org” “‘@worldbank.org” “@un.org,” talking about the sun in the mountains. I now had half a dozen friends working in embassies, thinktanks, international development agencies, the UN and the Afghan government, controlling projects worth millions of dollars. A year before they had been in Kosovo or East Timor and in a year’s time they would have been moved to Iraq or Washington or New York.
Their objective was (to quote the United Nations Assistance Mission for Afghanistan) “The creation of a centralised, broad-based, multi-ethnic government committed to democracy, human rights and the rule of law”. They worked twelve- or fourteen- hour days, drafting documents for heavily-funded initiatives on “democratisation”, “enhancing capacity”, “gender”, “sustainable development,” “skills training” or “protection issues”. They were mostly in their late twenties or early thirties, with at least two degrees – often in international law, economics or development. They came from middle class backgrounds in Western countries and in the evenings they dined with each other and swapped anecdotes about corruption in the Government and the incompetence of the United Nations. They rarely drove their 4WDs outside Kabul because they were forbidden to do so by their security advisers. There were people who were experienced and well informed about conditions in rural areas of Afghanistan. But such people were barely fifty individuals out of many thousands. Most of the policy makers knew next to nothing about the villages where 90% 0f the population of Afghanistan lived. They came from post-modern, secular, globalised states with liberal traditions in law and government. It was natural for them to initiate projects on urban design, women’s rights and fibre-optic cable networks, to talk about transparent, clean and accountable processes, tolerance and civil society and to speak of a people “who desire peace at any cost and understand the need for a centralised multi-ethnic government”.
The main lesson the modern US has always held onto is the one William Tecumseh Sherman taught it– that if you shoot the other side until they stop shooting, and you have more bullets, you’re probably going to win. Our ability to remake the world in our own image, after the other side stops shooting, has always been dubious, and assuming that everyone shooting the same direction as us is on our side is more dubious still.