After having conquered Persia, Alexander of Macedonia reached the mountains that make up present-day Afghanistan in 325 BC. The Greek historian Flavius Arrianus reported this saga four centuries after the fact, but with the benefit of works written by Alexander’s companions. So, here we find Alexander and his army on the borders of Afghanistan. The evidence shows that he is better informed on the tribes that inhabit this land than will be British colonizers, Soviet invaders, and American liberators centuries later. Alexander knows that the tribes of Afghanistan are fearsome warriors, rendered invincible by their mountains. He chooses to negotiate and explains to the Afghan emissaries—probably Pashtun tribesmen—that he wishes only to cross their country, not to conquer it, in order to reach India, his true objective. (In that day, everyone seems to have believed that India was at the end of the world.) He reaches an agreement with the Pashtun: the Macedonians pass without a fight, no doubt having paid a ransom to the Afghans.
Twenty-three centuries later, the landscape is unchanged: dry and rugged. The long roads that I have been able to take from Khyber Pass, on the Pakistani border, are flanked by high fortresses of red earth. Behind these walls, we imagine a world that is tribal, tightly ruled, and warlike. These fortresses must have existed in Alexander’s day, the same ones known by the British in the nineteenth century and then by the Russians and Americans. What we call Afghanistan was neither a state nor a nation; rather, it was a confederation of tribes, often at war with one another but typically united in the face of the foreigner. In 2003, I asked a chieftain of one of these tribes, near Jalalabad, to identify himself. He replied: “I have been a Pashtun for 2,500 years, Muslim for a thousand, and Afghan since the Russians and British tried to colonize us in the nineteenth century.”
What did the British, the Russians, and then the Americans know of this history? Had they read Arrianus? Did the Americans now withdrawing in disarray know the difference between a Pashtun and a Tajik? They are all Afghans, but also irreconcilable enemies. I have no doubt that certain experts at the State Department understood this, but this knowledge must not have risen very high in the hierarchy, and certainly not as far as the White House. The same was the case in Iraq. General David Petraeus, who conquered Basra in 2003, admitted to me a few years later that the Americans were largely ignorant of the distinction between Sunni and Shiite, who had been fighting over Iraq for 1,000 years.
We have almost forgotten why Americans went to Afghanistan 20 years ago. In the beginning, in collaboration with NATO, including Britain, Spain, and France, the mission was clear, and the outcome ultimately victorious: to dismantle the interior bases of al-Qaida and to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, the man responsible for the attacks of September 11, 2001. Having achieved these two goals by 2011, why did the Americans believe it necessary to stay? In 1991, George H. W. Bush, in similar circumstances, had liberated Kuwait, which had been colonized by Saddam Hussein’s troops, and then, having attained this goal, had withdrawn. Bush was a statesman of the old school of realism. In Washington, this school gave way to democratic idealism, according to which it was up to the United States, according to its spokesmen, not only to defeat its enemies but to establish liberal democracy and create nation-states where they had never existed. This was a noble contribution, which had motivated Bill Clinton to save Bosnia and Kosovo from the Serbs and to return to power a Haitian president who had been the victim of a coup d’état. But it was left to George W. Bush after 9/11 totally to embrace these ideals and apply them wholesale in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What lesson can we draw today? Iraq is in chaos—certainly not a nation-state, since the Kurds have in effect seceded—but the people, especially the Shiites, no longer live under Saddam Hussein’s terror. The Americans lost about 4,500 troops, and the number of civilian Iraqi victims is estimated to be 200,000. The reality is very far from the liberal democracy that, according to Bush, was supposed to become a model for the Arab world.
Afghanistan is still more chaotic. Half of the rural population has taken refuge in the cities to escape violence, leaving the field open to the Taliban, who are more attached to Pashtun ways than to Islam. The great success of the Western intervention has been the liberation of women, but only a small number of them in urban areas. Now that the Americans have left, their choice is going back to their former oppressed condition or, if they can manage it, exile. As for democracy, it was just beginning to be visible under American domination but will now return to the dust.
Should we conclude from these examples that democracy cannot be exported? Japan, India, South Korea, Taiwan, and Tunisia demonstrate the contrary. But everything depends on circumstances and local culture. In India, local traditions of election and deliberation antedated British colonization. Japan had the rule of law and national feeling. Tunisia is as much Roman as Arab-Muslim. Since Afghanistan has never been a nation, the project of imposing a single central state and national elections was utopian; at most, one might have hoped for a confederation of tribes. We should therefore condemn not so much the American intervention itself as the way in which it was carried out, and certainly the way it ended. Liberal democracy is not a doctrine the West should renounce, but we must adapt the message of civilization to its recipients, and choose the messengers well.
Photo by Haroon Sabawoon/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images