Postmortems on the war in Afghanistan stress errors of execution during the two decades of occupation. However, the greatest error may have been to invade at all.
Rather than launching a war that proved to be disastrous, an alternative reaction to 9/11 might have been to expand police and intelligence operations and to work with sympathetic allies to pressure the Taliban, which had little or nothing to do with 9/11, to dismember al-Qaida and to turn over its top members.
Several conditions were favorable to such an approach.
First, Taliban rule in Afghanistan was quite unpopular and far from secure. After its takeover in 1996, it had afforded peace and a degree of coherent government to Afghanistan after a horrific civil war. However, by 2001 its popularity had declined due to its chaotic and sometimes brutal rule — and perhaps due to its successful effort to crush the lucrative opium trade in the year previous. The depth of the unpopularity is suggested perhaps by the fact that its poorly trained forces, which a few years earlier had united the country by conquering or bribing the warlord bands that had been tearing the country apart, now mostly disintegrated. Some foreign fighters did resist the American invasion, but few Afghans joined them except under duress. The rather ironic parallels with the precipitous collapse in 2021 of the corrupt and incompetent U.S.-sponsored Afghan regime are striking.
Second, the relationship between the Taliban and al-Qaida was often very uncomfortable. In 1996, Osama bin Laden, an exile from Saudi Arabia, showed up with his entourage. Although quite willing to extend hospitality to its well-heeled visitor, the Taliban insisted on guarantees that he refrain from issuing incendiary messages or even from holding press conferences as well as from engaging in terrorist activities.
Bin Laden repeatedly agreed but frequently broke his pledge. At times, the Taliban had their troublesome “guest” under house arrest, and veteran correspondent Arnaud de Borchgrave was stunned by the hostility expressed for bin Laden when he interviewed top Taliban leaders in mid-2001. As analyst Vadim Brown puts it , relations were “deeply contentious, and threatened by mutual distrust and divergent ambitions.”
Third, the Taliban did not generate much support abroad due to its extreme Islamist fundamentalism. Specialist Fawaz Gerges points out that when Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in 1979, there were calls for jihad from almost everywhere in Arab and Muslim lands, and tens of thousands of Muslim men flooded to the country to fight in the resistance.
In stark contrast, when the Americans invaded in 2001 bent on toppling an Islamic regime, there was a “deafening silence” from these same corners and mosques, and only a trickle of jihadis went to fight. This was in part a counterproductive consequence of the 9/11 attack. The terrorists’ hope was that the dramatic confrontation with the United States would galvanize and unify, but instead other jihadists publicly blamed al‑Qaida for their post‑9/11 problems and held the attacks to be shortsighted and hugely miscalculated.
And fourth, almost all countries in the world were eager to cooperate with the United States after the 9/11 shock, and this included two of the very few that had supported the Taliban previously: Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. Moreover, the Saudis had tried for years to get bin Laden, a Saudi renegade, extradited. They appear to have been close in 1998, but the deal fell through after the Americans bombed Afghanistan in response to al-Qaida attacks on two of its embassies in Africa. However, the Saudis kept up the effort, and two weeks before 9/11 the chief Saudi negotiator had been sacked by the Crown prince because he had failed thus far to get bin Laden.
Given these conditions, the insecure regime in Afghanistan might have been susceptible to international pressure, perhaps even to the point of turning Osama bin Laden and his top associates over to international justice, which is more than the invasion accomplished.
If necessary, selective bombing and commando raids might have been used, rather that outright invasion, to emphasize the message. But, as international law specialist Mary Ellen O’Connell pointed out at the time, there have long been legal procedures to deal with lawless substate entities like pirates and slave dealers, and these could readily be applied to the authors of 9/11. Rather than give themselves up, al-Qaida might have fled Afghanistan, but that happened anyway after the U.S.-led invasion.
The Taliban said it wanted proof that 9/11 was an al-Qaeda operation, but that could have been gathered perhaps to its satisfaction. It also suggested that bin Laden might be handed over to an organization of 56 Muslim states which would include, of course, many close to the United States. However, as the bombing began, the Taliban reportedly offered to give bin Laden up to any country other than the United States without seeing evidence of guilt.
But none of that was good enough for President George W. Bush, who eschewed any “negotiations” whatever and demanded that bin Laden and friends be handed over directly to the United States.
The Bush administration’s reaction to the 9/11 attacks, as Robert Kagan has recently recalled, was a mixture of panic, confusion, fear, and guilt. Moreover, “Bush personally wanted vengeance,” and he cites an on-the-record reflection by Secretary of State Colin Powell as published in early 2002: Bush “wanted to kill somebody.”
The American public was similarly moved, so there was perhaps some political risk in adopting a less militarized approach. However, the public was content with the fact that the invasion did not destroy al-Qaida, but instead sent it into flight and disarray. If “negotiations” had had a similar result — and certainly if they had included in addition the capture of bin Laden — the effort would likely be deemed a success. Of course, in the alternative approach the Taliban would have remained in power in Afghanistan. However, this concern could likely have been alleviated by pointing out, correctly, that the Taliban, while reprehensible in some respects, was not really complicit in the 9/11 attacks.
America’s longest war might have been avoided, then, if Bush had shown some flexibility on the “negotiation” issue, but that was not in the cards. Instead, the Taliban had to win the country back after years of warfare in which trillions of dollars were expended and well over a hundred thousand people killed. And after 20 years, the United States seems now to be ready to reconcile itself to this result.