Why military interventions are usually doomed to fail
The lonely walk by US army commander Maj. Gen. Chris Donahue toward the last US transport plane to depart Kabul airport summed up the tragic end to the longest war in American history — tragic especially for the Afghan people left behind to face once again a menacingly uncertain life under the rule of the Taliban.
These past 20 years since Afghanistan was invaded in the wake of the atrocities of 9/11 will go down in history as another spectacular gravestone in the cemetery of military interventions. Given the long list of such exploits that have failed with extremely dire consequences for the invading forces and considerably worse outcomes for the invaded, it suggests the question: Are all such interventions inevitably doomed to failure?
History supplies few examples of either successful or justified military interventions, let alone both. A prime reason for this is that there is a common thread of confusion over the objectives of these operations, whether it be regime change, or the responsibility to protect, or a matter of security, or even peace keeping. President Biden insisted recently that the US went into Afghanistan “for two reasons … one, to get Bin Laden, and two, to wipe out as best we could, and we did, Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan.” And when those aims were accomplished, only then did the US transform its objective into one of nation building. George W. Bush, president at the time of the invasion, was later to claim in his memoirs that “Afghanistan was the ultimate nation-building mission. We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better.” At the time, Senator Biden supported this vision on more than one occasion, when soon after the allies took over the country he called for the world to join forces in — guess what? Correct, nation building.
In the face of the chaotic scenes at Kabul airport it would be too easy to blame the military for the fiasco in Afghanistan, but as is always the case, such disasters are chiefly political failures, and they start with muddled and unclear aims. Is the goal to create stability? To install democratic-liberal style accountable governance? Or just root out enemies? Without clear objectives and a coherent exit strategy, hasty departures such as those from Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan, Lebanon and the Sahel become inevitable as involvement in foreign countries with fragile governments and hostile insurgents is bound to fail.
One commonality of all foreign interventions is a tendency, almost a compulsion, by policymakers in the West to paint the narrative of intervention in ideological colors, almost in terms of a conflict between good and evil. That was so during the Cold War, when the US was involved in both overt and covert operations to bring down governments, whether in Southeast Asia or Latin America, depicting itself as making an existential stand against communism, or since 9/11 as combating radical Islam and promoting democracy. In most cases ideology did play a part, but it was more about old-fashioned power struggles and ensuring security than promoting liberal democracy and human rights. Was Iraq about nuclear weapons, toppling a brutal and hostile regime, or about building democratic governance? Was Afghanistan about pushing out Al-Qaeda and punishing Osama bin Laden and his associates who were behind the mass killings of 9/11, or toppling the Taliban and freeing the Afghan people from their brutal and oppressive regime? Without being clear about priorities and differentiating between rhetoric and core intentions, those who execute such interventions on the ground are left uncertain about the nature of their mission, and with that the tools that are required for successfully completing it.
For a military-political intervention to stand any chance of success it must support the local population to develop its own model of governance through a painstaking national dialogue, one that combines universal international norms, but, crucially, one that also fits local conditions culturally and historically.
It’s not far from the truth to argue that in many cases “mission creep” is involved, whereby operations begin with one set of objectives, and subsequently others are tacked on, either by design or by the sheer dynamic of conflict and political pressures. Moreover, the ever-present tension among liberal democracies between a moral aspiration to spread their values in terms of a system of governance and human rights, and what are geopolitical interests, in a world where competition between international powers for influence dictates their behavior, interferes with the decision to intervene and the way in which the operation is conducted. There is a mixture of naivety and self-deception in the West, and especially the US, in the assumption that their model liberal-democratic system is desired by everyone and so is bound to prevail. The myriad examples to the contrary don’t seem to have persuaded them to re-evaluate that paradigm.
Another ingrained example of wishful thinking is that Western-trained local security forces will be able to contain an insurgency and so allow the military aspect of an intervention to conclude. But in typically fragmented societies, loyalty is not necessarily to the central government, and members of the security forces are unlikely to want to risk their lives for a nation-building project that they hardly buy into.
Between the lack of capable, in most cases corrupt, domestic leadership, and impatience and lack of stamina on behalf of those conducting an intervention, its collapse is almost inevitable. The notion of fighting wars on the other side of the world and expecting to shape the future of countries with different histories, social and political structures and cultures, is questionable to begin with. But believing that this can be done instantly, or even over the course of 20 years in the case of Afghanistan (and Vietnam), may justifiably be regarded as delusional.
For a military-political intervention to stand any chance of success it must support the local population to develop its own model of governance through a painstaking national dialogue, one that combines universal international norms, but, crucially, one that also fits local conditions culturally and historically. It cannot be done by imposing a foreign way of life. This also requires the development of authentic local leadership, and not dealing with those who know how to manipulate Western decision makers and media because they have spent time studying and working in the West.
The experience of Afghanistan will reverberate for some time across the world, and for a while at least will deter the mere thought of overseas intervention. However, it remains to be seen whether the US and its allies are capable of learning the right lessons on how to ensure their security and to advocate and promote their values and norms, without messing with the lives of millions of people before abandoning them to their fate.
• Yossi Mekelberg is professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. Twitter: @YMekelberg