The Afghanistan retreat: We may soon be recalling why we went there in the first place.

Dec 8, 2021 | Tzvi Fleischer

A US soldier patrols with Afghan soldiers in the village of Yawez in Wardak province, Afghanistan, 17 February 2010 (credit: U.S. Army, Flickr).
A US soldier patrols with Afghan soldiers in the village of Yawez in Wardak province, Afghanistan, 17 February 2010 (credit: U.S. Army, Flickr).

Fathom Journal – December 2021 


Tzvi Fleischer argues the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal does not mark the end of the global conflict launched on 11 September 2001. Islamist extremists and their state sponsors also get a vote – and they view the withdrawal not as an ending, but as one victory on their road to total triumph. Fleischer also assesses the long-term implications of the withdrawal for Israeli security.



There’s a reason everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard about the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon. These were not just shocking acts of terrorism costing almost 3,000 lives, but, at the time, seemed to represent the beginning of a new era, requiring a new way of thinking about the world. With no comparable attack in the West in the 20 years since – despite numerous smaller yet still appalling terrorist atrocities – many commentators today seem unable to recall either that mood or the circumstances leading to it.

Conventional wisdom among many pundits today, in countries like the US, UK and Australia, is that the war in Afghanistan was a futile and foolish attempt at ‘nation-building’ – which in turn was part of a costly, bloody and stupid ‘forever war’ prompted by the attacks of 11 September. Yet this ‘wisdom’ may be as blinkered, parochial and short-sighted as anything that occurred in the shocked, emotional aftermath of the 2001 attacks.

Indeed, after the debacle of the US pullout from Afghanistan, and the rapid Taliban reconquest of the country, there is a pretty good chance we will soon be recalling those post-September 11 feelings – and the strategic conclusions Western leaders and analysts drew from them – all too clearly.


In the post-Cold War 1990s, liberal democracy appeared unchallenged as the preferred model for nations globally until, on 11 September 2001, a threat emerged from a completely unexpected quarter – Islamist extremists almost no one had taken seriously as a major danger to Western societies. Moreover, these extremists had demonstrated they could use the infrastructure and technology of modern Western societies against them to create unprecedented carnage, in a way which looked almost impossible to stop. As will be discussed in more detail below, fear of more attacks – including especially attacks with weapons of mass destruction (WMD) – were widespread, even among sophisticated scholars and analysts.

In this context, an invasion of Afghanistan – where the September 11 plot was hatched and prepared, and the perpetrators recruited and trained – was both inevitable, and widely supported, both in the US and internationally. There was no partisan split on the issue in the US – and few in other Western countries. That is why the vote for US Congressional authorisation for the Afghanistan War was 420–1 in the House of Representatives and 98–0 in the Senate. And yet, as Daniel Byman and Benjamin Wittes of the Brookings Institution have noted, ‘the Afghanistan war … ended as it began – with broad bipartisan majorities in a rough kind of consensus’ but today’s consensus, is to oppose not only the continuation of the war in 2021, but its very initiation in 2001.


But was the fear of Islamist terrorism in the wake of September 11 really a drastic over-reaction? The ‘war on terrorism’ was of course always a misnomer. It was never a war in the conventional sense, more a multi-dimensional struggle involving numerous tactics and policy tools. Moreover, terrorism is simply a tactic, not something you can fight directly – the real target of the struggle was a dangerously violent ideological belief system and its adherents who used it as a justification for mass violence.

It is worth recalling how things looked in the weeks following September 11 – and whether the judgements reached were largely reasonable, despite the inevitably emotional elements associated with that enormity. As noted above, an attack had come from a direction very few had expected, revealing an enemy few had considered a serious threat, using unanticipated means that looked very difficult to stop. What’s more, the attacks had a huge impact, not only psychologically, but also in hard economic terms. They created the largest insurance liability in history at US$40 billion, and caused a temporary stock market crash. They created permanent changes to the insurance, financial services, tourism and especially aviation industries. US government estimates are that the attacks cost the US 0.5 per cent growth in GDP in 2001, as well as some permanent employment losses.

There was every reason to believe that many attacks on a similar or larger scale were likely to follow, with potentially similar impacts. Harvard academic Graham Allison – hardly a sensationalist or an alarmist – wrote in 2018 that in the post-September 11 period he would have been willing to offer 1000 to 1 odds on there not being another terrorist attack that killed more than 100 people for the next 16 years.


Allison is one of the foremost analysts of that other great fear, today largely forgotten, of the post-September 11 period – terrorism employing weapons of mass destruction. In his 2004 book, Nuclear Terrorism: The Ultimate Preventable Catastrophe, Allison gave his assessment that the odds were that it was ‘more likely than not’ that terrorists would explode a nuclear bomb somewhere in the world over the next ten years (that is by 2014).

There was good reason to fear the deployment of other WMD – the use of chemical, biological or radiological materials – in perpetrating terrorism. There is ample evidence al-Qaeda made extensive efforts to get its hands on WMD – nuclear especially, but all the other types as well – as another Harvard academic and former CIA analyst, Rolf Mowatt-Larssen, documented in a 2010 article. This includes a 1998 declaration by al-Qaeda head Osama Bin Laden that acquiring and using WMD was his duty as a Muslim, the training of hundreds of al-Qaeda fighters in basic chemical, biological, and radiological weapons use in Afghanistan from 1999-2001, and al-Qaeda’s extensive contacts about building WMD with scientists from Umma Tameer e Nau (UTN), a Pakistani NGO founded by nuclear scientists with extremist sympathies. Allison notes that if the al-Qaeda base in Afghanistan had not been disrupted by the US-led attack on the country, it is very hard to imagine that the group would have failed to carry out WMD attacks in the ensuing months and years.

Of course, Allison’s prediction of a nuclear terrorist attack did not eventuate and today the possibility of terrorism involving WMD is rarely in the headlines. So was the danger an illusion all along? Allison does not think so – in his 2018 article, he argues, ‘I believe the odds of a successful nuclear terrorist attack somewhere in the world before the end of 2024 are 51 per cent or higher.’ He also lists a number of factors which have made such a frightening eventuality more likely since 2004, as well as others reducing the possibility. And terror plans involving WMD have hardly been rare. The University of Maryland’s POICN database (Profiles of Incidents Involving chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear [CBRN] and Non-state Actors), which details attacks, failed agent-use attempts, and plots and proto-plots involving CBRN weapons, details 517 such incidents between 1996 and 2016. Of these, a large majority, 400, involved chemical agents, with biological the next most common at 107.

Moreover, in another 2018 assessment of the overall WMD terror threat, scholars Gary Ackerman and Michelle Jacome concluded that there is a race between measures to defend against such attacks and the capabilities of attackers, and the overall effects of technological change ‘favor the adversary’ (meaning the attacker). ‘It appears that the [non-state actor] offense in future will be playing with a stronger hand than the international security defense’ against such attacks using WMD, they write.


So what explains today’s reversal of opinion about the war? War weariness, certainly. The rise of populist political movements – both from the left and right – accompanied by calls to keep and spend money in the US, are also part of the story, as is the spillover from the intense controversy over the war in Iraq – the justification for which was less clearly linked to the strategic implications of 11 September.

But much of the reversal is the result of a systematic misremembering on our part: we misremember why we went in, and what we did when we were there, and we forget there was no viable alternative. In recent years a key part of our misremembering – particularly in broadsheet newspapers and think tanks – has been the claim that the intervention in Afghanistan was prompted by a hubristic belief in ‘nation building’ that was always doomed to fail. To give just a couple of typical examples, the Washington Post quoted the opinion of retired US officer Lt. Col. Jason Dempsey that the core problem of the Afghanistan war was that ‘we believed that we could shape the world in our image using our guns and our money.’ Columnist Paul Waldman claimed, ‘In a jingoistic frenzy we invaded Afghanistan almost gleefully, ostensibly to find Osama Bin Laden and destroy al-Qaeda. But bin Laden disappeared and we quickly settled in, thinking that in short order we’d create a thriving liberal democracy.’ Waldman claimed the whole episode is rooted in the US ideology that ‘we can accomplish anything, including remolding other countries in our image.’

Yet, as distinguished American foreign policy analyst Robert Kagan noted in a 26 August Washington Post essay, it is simply untrue that the US and its allies invaded Afghanistan out of a hubristic belief they could ‘nation-build’ it into a liberal democracy. Moreover, a belief in ‘nation-building’ has almost nothing to do with why the US, together with numerous allies, ending up remaining militarily involved in the country for the next 20 years. The reality is that the invasion of Afghanistan was a product of a reasonable fear – in Kagan’s words, ‘fear of another attack by al-Qaeda, which was then firmly ensconced in the Taliban-controlled country; fear of possible attacks by other groups using chemical, biological or even nuclear weapons.’

The extensive al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan in 2001, which had the full support of the Taliban which ruled most of the country, was described by Byman and Wittes as ‘devastatingly dangerous’. They argued that ‘Al-Qaeda could knit together a divided and far-flung movement, train operatives to a lethal degree of proficiency, and plan elaborate operations with little interference.’

Kagan documents how the Bush Administration was simply hoping for any stable government in Afghanistan capable of preventing the return of the Taliban and their al-Qaeda allies. Later accounts of White House deliberations at the time cite almost no discussion of creating ‘democracy’ in Afghanistan. ‘Nation-building’ only slowly, and very temporarily, became one US tactic as it became clear there was no short-term way to achieve the war’s actual aims. However, despite this slogan, every US president since then has simply sought to achieve enough stability to withdraw.

As the bipartisan 9/11 Commission recommended in its 2004 final report:

The United States and the international community should make a long-term commitment to a secure and stable Afghanistan, in order to give the government a reasonable opportunity to improve the life of the Afghan people. Afghanistan must not again become a sanctuary for international crime and terrorism. The United States and the international community should help the Afghan government extend its authority over the country.’ Note that democracy and human rights are not mentioned, but stability and a government able to extend its authority over the whole country are.

And this was indeed the US policy, both before and since, across three successive US administrations. As Carter Malkasian, author of the best book on the war, The American War in Afghanistan, put it last year, ‘Every US president since 2001 … sought to reach a point in Afghanistan when the violence would be sufficiently low or the Afghan government strong enough to allow U.S. military forces to withdraw without significantly increasing the risk of a resurgent terrorist threat.’


Michael O’Hanlon, the Director of Research of the Foreign Policy Program at The Brookings Institution, recently noted that the real history of the Afghanistan War can be divided into several distinct phases.

The initial overthrow of the Taliban between October and December 2001

This involved using no more than several hundred special forces, CIA teams and a few hundred marines, alongside airpower, to support the native Northern Alliance opponents of the Taliban. O’Hanlon describes this campaign as ‘a flawed masterpiece.’

‘Light Footprint’ strategy, 2002-2008

While US President Bush evoked the Marshall plan in calling for a program of re-building Afghanistan in April 2002, US commitments were a modest US$38 billion over seven years from 2002-2009. Troop presence was also kept modest – averaging around 8,000 US troops and a few thousand allied forces. Iraq was the main focus of both the US and the world, and while there was some talk about ‘nation-building’, O’Hanlon notes, ‘much of the reason we chose not to try to do too much in Afghanistan then is because, as many are saying today, it was not a promising place to attempt nation-building, given all its problems.’ Yet the country was relatively peaceful up until 2005.

The Surge, 2008-2012

With Taliban attacks growing in the face of a dysfunctional and corrupt government in Kabul, and given the limited success in training Afghan security forces – with much of these efforts farmed out to the Germans, who accomplished little – President Bush began moving more troops into the country in 2008. He was building on the relative success of a similar ‘surge’ in Iraq. Both candidates to succeed him, John McCain and Barak Obama, supported sending more troops to stabilise Afghanistan and Obama took US troop levels to more than 50,000, accompanied by more than 30,000 NATO troops, in February 2009. Gen. Stanley McCrystal was put in command of a new ‘counter-insurgency strategy’ based on protecting the population from militants (He was later replaced by Gen. David Petraeus, who largely continued his strategy). After McCrystal determined he did not have enough troops to succeed, troop levels reached a peak of more than 100,000 US troops in 2011 with 30,000 allied troops.

The Drawdown, 2012-2014

Following the killing of Osama Bin Laden in Pakistan in 2011, Obama announced a plan to withdraw 33,000 US troops by summer 2012, and all troops by 2014.

Post-‘Combat operations’, 2014-2021

The United States and NATO continued to provide airpower, intelligence, training, equipment, logistics and some limited on-the-ground assistance with special forces to the Afghan army, but were only rarely involved in combat. Troop numbers during this period were consistently less than 10 per cent of the surge number. President Trump carried out further withdrawals until there were only 2,500 US troops left in Afghanistan by 2021.

It’s certainly true that US presidents – especially Bush who spoke of ‘helping to build an Afghanistan that is free from this evil and is a better place in which to live’ – employed some rhetoric of ‘nation-building’ to bolster support for the war. And the US certainly built schools and hospitals and other infrastructure, as well as trying to ensure some political stability – but, as Kagan notes, this is what the US military has always done when it finds itself attempting to control foreign territory, a tactic dating back not only to Vietnam, Cuba and the Philippines in the 20th century, but even the defeated US southern states after the American civil war. In Afghanistan, the greatest efforts in this respect – as well as the largest casualties – took place during the Obama Administration’s ‘surge’, which was always conceived as intended to gain enough stability to get out, rather than in the wake of the Bush Administration’s limited commitments to a supposed Afghanistan ‘Marshall Plan’ in 2002.

There are numerous tactical and strategic mistakes that can be attributed to each of the above phases – but none was strongly focused on ‘nation-building’ as a goal. And there is no coherent argument to be made that the limited attempts at ‘nation-building’ were responsible for the failure of the war overall, or any phase of it. At most, they involved money wasted that could have been better allocated and which arguably may have contributed to domestic war-weariness in the US.


Those who today condemn the Afghanistan war as a failure resulting from a hubristic effort at ‘nation-building’ offer no serious alternative strategy to the approach that was taken (though as noted, there are many legitimate critiques that can be made of the way the war was promulgated). Not acting against Afghanistan at all was politically impossible and strategically foolish. As Byman and Wittes noted, the al-Qaeda network there was ‘devastatingly dangerous’, while the claim that the Taliban could have been induced to turn over Bin Laden for trial, and shut down the al-Qaeda bases in the country, thus avoiding war, was always a fantasy. The two groups were, and are, closely intermeshed. Even today the Taliban insist there is no evidence that al-Qaeda was behind the 11 September 11 attacks, despite the fact that al-Qaeda itself openly takes credit for them.

Just overthrowing the Taliban and leaving was not a serious option – the result would very likely have been the country returning to being a haven for al-Qaeda or other radical groups within a short period of time. And while some have argued that there should have been a withdrawal after the killing of Bin Laden in 2011, this is effectively what happened by 2014. In the post-‘Combat operations’ phase, troop numbers plummeted, along with casualties, and foreign forces ceased almost all combat operations.

In short, many current claims about the Afghanistan war – why we went in, how the war was conducted, whether there was a viable alternative – are not really about Afghanistan at all. Rather, they appear to be rooted in a larger critique of US foreign policy in the wake of the September 11 attacks.


It is reasonable to ask if the misnamed ‘war on terror’ is a victim of its own success. Kagan makes the important point that, if you told the average American in late 2001 that the result of the Afghanistan war would be that there were no additional attacks of the September 11 kind for a period of 20 years, at a cost of 4,000 American soldiers’ lives and US$1 trillion+, they would likely have considered that a successful outcome.

The military disruption of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and later of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the vastly increased security in air travel and other aspects of Western lives, the increased power and funding of security agencies in numerous countries, the increased diplomatic and intelligence attention to WMD and their potential use – are these not the main reasons for the fact that there has been not one attack comparable to 9/11 in the West in the 20 years since that day?

This seems a much more plausible explanation than the frequently heard current belief that the fears that followed the September 11 attacks were vastly overblown and any threat could easily have been dealt with by minor tweaks to intelligence and law enforcement capabilities. This is Allison’s view in his 2018 paper reviewing his 2004 book on nuclear terrorism. He answers the question whether ‘we have just beaten the odds, or whether actions we have taken have changed the odds for the better’ by saying, ‘Preventive actions taken since 2004, both in counterterrorism and in counter-proliferation, have been extraordinary’. Of course, he also cites numerous mistakes, missteps, and negative trends. That such criticism – including of the war in Iraq – can be valid does not mean the reaction to September 11 can be reasonably dismissed as needless alarmism.

No one looking realistically at the state of the world today can seriously argue that Islamist extremist terrorism, often state-sponsored, does not remain an extremely serious international problem. As Allison wrote in 2018: ‘The battle against Islamic extremist ideologies and their adherents will be a generational challenge. This is less a problem to be “fixed” than a condition that will have to be managed. It will require constant vigilance for as far as any eye can see.’


It is worth recalling that a premature US withdrawal from Iraq in 2011 allowed the rise of Islamic State – which caused huge carnage both in the Middle East and internationally even without significant state sponsorship. The Trump administration’s decision to effectively withdraw unilaterally from Afghanistan, carried out in a chaotic and poorly managed way by the Biden administration, may well lead to far worse consequences. Not only is the image of steadfast, courageous and patient Jihadists, with God on their side, able to defeat a superpower already a huge recruitment tool and an inspiration for Islamist terrorists everywhere, but the Taliban, still intimately working with al-Qaeda, captured unprecedented amounts of US military equipment. Unlike IS, they are backed by both the state of Afghanistan and major elements of Pakistan’s security forces, with some support from Iran. Moreover, the West has lost essential intelligence assets inside Afghanistan crucial to monitoring the Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the rival Islamic State-Khorasan (IS-K), also based in Afghanistan. Without these assets, the Biden administration’s promise to manage this threat primarily through ‘over the horizon’ military capabilities appears hollow.

Colin Kahl, the Biden administration’s Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, told a Senate committee in late October that the US intelligence assessment is that both IS-K and al-Qaeda continue to have the intention to attack the US and other Western targets from Afghanistan, and are likely to have the capability to do so in ‘six or twelve months’ for IS-K and ‘a year or two’ for al-Qaeda. In short, there is no reason to believe the global conflict launched on 11 September 2001 is now over. Islamist extremists and their state sponsors also get a vote – and they view the allied withdrawal not as an ending, but as one victory on their road to total triumph. And despite the widespread cynicism about that conflict today, residents of Western nations may soon discover that the worst case scenarios we all feared in the wake of September 11 remain very plausible today.


From an Israeli perspective, the retreat from Afghanistan has two major strategic implications.

Jihadism and the Palestinian Front

Firstly, as noted above, Afghanistan is likely to lead to a surge in international jihadist recruitment and violent activity. A resurgence of regional Islamist recruitment and terrorism is obviously a strongly negative development for Israel – though one offering some potential strategic opportunities and upsides.

On the Palestinian front, any momentum which might accrue toward the Islamist Hamas in its ongoing competition with the secularist Fatah, which dominates the Palestinian Authority (PA), is a very worrying development. Hamas is certainly keen to capitalise on the Sunni Islamist momentum the Taliban victory appears to represent, with its leadership putting out numerous statements hailing the Taliban’s achievements in August and holding these up as exemplars of what Hamas hopes to achieve in its campaign against Israel. It would also later publicise a congratulatory phone conversation between Hamas political chief Ismail Haniyeh and the Taliban government’s acting Foreign Minister Amir Muttaqi in early October.

Meanwhile, the PA has never looked weaker as it faces off with a Hamas leadership hoping that the Taliban victory will also provide Hamas with momentum and a sense that Islamist victory is ultimately inevitable. The PA’s public standing among Palestinians has reached historic lows following the cancellation of planned elections earlier this year, and the murder of prominent West Bank dissident Nizar Banat in May by PA security forces – and it is dealing with ongoing civil unrest. On top of this, the PA is also in desperate financial straits, shorter on money than it has ever been since its establishment in 1994.

For Israel, a Hamas takeover of the West Bank from the PA would be strategically disastrous, leaving all of the Israeli heartland vulnerable to attack from Hamas or similar extremist groups. Chaos in the Palestinian cities of the West Bank occasioned by Hamas-PA strife would not be much better.

More broadly across the region, a wave of popular Islamist insurgency would threaten the survival of various regimes on which Israel has built its defence strategy – both long-standing peace partners Egypt and Jordan, and the new friends associated with the Abraham Accords: the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, and also unofficial partner Saudi Arabia.

Both the Palestinian Authority and Israel’s Arab state partners are even more threatened by an Islamist resurgence inspired by the Taliban’s success than Israel is – potentially providing Israel with opportunities to tighten and further expand relationships with both. The recent explosion of military cooperation between Israel and various Arab states may be evidence this is already occurring.

Meanwhile, on the Palestinian front, Israel recently sent a Minister to a diplomatic conference to urge more funding for the PA, while new Defence Minister Benny Gantz has reportedly set out to implement a series of measures designed to strengthen the PA. Whether these measures will be effective in changing the mutually dependent, yet always highly fraught, relationship between Israel and the PA remains to be seen.

Iran, Israel and US Retreat

The second strategic implication for Israel concerns the likely effect on the reality and perception of the US role in the region. Both the retreat and the poor way it was handled are likely to accelerate and exacerbate growing regional perceptions that the US is both in headlong flight from the Middle East, and in any case, showing signs its overseas involvements are becoming increasingly inept and lacking in forethought.

It cannot help Israel’s deterrent posture to have both the commitment and the competence of its major great power ally, the US, called into increasing question. This is all the more true since it is clear that Israel’s most important geopolitical foe, Iran, has clearly been emboldened in its campaign of regional aggression, much of it directed at seeking to encircle Israel, by the apparent US retreat. Its leadership under new hardline President Ebrahim Raisi has painted the Afghanistan outcome as ‘a lesson for all countries’ about US weakness and the inevitability of its defeat.

This aggression also once again threatens the survival of Arab regimes which Israel is relying on as security partners. This is especially true of Arab governments which had relied on a US security umbrella that is now looking increasingly tattered and ragged. Israel is the only regional power likely to be strong enough to be able to offer security assistance without posing a direct threat to the survival of the regimes themselves, as Iran or Sunni Islamist Turkey might.

In the face of Iranian aggression and power, and a loss of faith in any American security umbrella, one option for at least some Arab regimes is to ‘bandwagon’ with Iran – i.e. accepting a ‘Finlandised’ position in an Iranian-led regional order in exchange, hopefully, for regime survival. Unless Israel can offer these states a large degree of confidence in both its backing and capabilities, which will likely require at least some degree of US diplomatic and military assistance, in the face of the increasing level of threat from Iran and its proxies, such ‘bandwagoning’ becomes a real possibility – and a real source of danger to Jerusalem.

The Afghanistan retreat will be viewed in Israel as a serious and significant strategic setback that is likely to make the Jewish state less secure. Nonetheless, there is some hope that with the prudent policies and a bit of luck, at least some of the strategic lemons coming out of Afghanistan may be turned into lemonade in the form of an acceleration, consolidation and expansion of a burgeoning Israel-Sunni Arab regional security alliance.


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