Overestimating What We Can Fix

       U.S. Troops on Patrol in Helmand Province, 2009

We cannot shape other states with dazzling armaments. And we were never going to have enough forces to change millions of Afghan hearts and minds.

The rapid triumph of the Taliban in all of the provinces of Afghanistan is an important reminder of the limits of American power.  If there was ever a case of national hubris, Afghanistan was it, not just for the United States, but Britain, the Soviet Union and America’s NATO allies as well. We surely did more to improve services like banking and education, helping to further enfranchise the nation’s women. Some of those gains may survive, but measuring success or failure in terms of money spent to prepare the Afghan military–President Biden’s recent measure of expected success– always seemed to be a non-starter.

What is clear is that assisting a nation to modernize in the western mold must be based more on the soft-power of building bonds predicated on civil society values than on military might. I once suggested half seriously that the Taliban might lose their woeful fundamentalism if we swamped their society with our cable television technologies and programming. Bombing Taliban staging areas has always seemed counterproductive. But who might have the time and will to fight if communication devices had more systematically bought them off with mindless distractions?  Soft power engages rather than attacks. And, yes, exporting somnambulistic media is clearly a form of cultural imperialism. But we are the unchallenged leaders in perfecting this kind of export. Just ask our Canadian neighbors.

The story that is yet to be told is how much modernization in the form of cell phones, news reporting and social media is now baked into the lives of residents in or near urban areas. These will not be easy to suppress.  The young around the capital will surely expect more than what the mostly rural and backward Taliban troops can deliver.


We are in charge less often than we think.

Notwithstanding the valiant members of the American military and their contractors who served and sometimes died in the region, the nation’s long-term failure in Afghanistan is a reminding that we often presume a greater sense of agency than conditions on the ground can justify. We cannot change others by outgunning them with dazzling armaments. In truth, we haven’t really haven’t been in charge in the last decade or so.

As the Vietnam experience should have taught us, we are in control of events less often than we think. That was as true as well for the British when they sought to subdue American revolutionists in the colonies. Exporting a temporary force to transform a distant population is usually a fool’s errand. George Washington’s troops that successfully attacked Hessian mercenaries in Trenton in 1776 had the greater will to succeed. They were fighting for a way of life that increasingly diverged from their counterparts living an ocean away.

Every nation wants a competent and strong military.  But they are seriously over-rated as change agents. Sadly, in most societies such as Russia, they usually function more to cow their own citizens, not insurgents somewhere else.