Saturday, August 21, 2021

What the Afghanistan Fiasco Teaches Us about Religion, Legitimacy and Politics

      By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

The Afghanistan fiasco was another painful lesson in legitimacy that America should have learned after Viet Nam, but obviously did not.  Military power and idealistic illusions of democracy cannot overcome deeply ingrained cultural and religious values.  It should remind us that promoting American exceptionalism in a culturally hostile environment is destined to fail.  

Military legitimacy is a derivative of political legitimacy, and the military interventions in Viet Nam, Iraq and Afghanistan all shared a failure of legitimacy.  Political legitimacy requires public support, and despite overwhelming U.S. military superiority the American interventions in those nations failed.  Cultural norms prevailed, and libertarian democracy was stillborn.

Oppressive forms of Islam incompatible with libertarian democracy shaped the cultural norms in Afganistan.  Those norms, coupled with the pervasive presence of infidel American combat forces, prevented the public support needed for democracy and human rights in Afghanistan.  It should have reminded America that it cannot remake the world in its own image.


Political corruption in the Afghan government, like that in Vietnam, denied it the legitimacy it needed to govern and created a foreign policy fiasco.  It was also a domestic failure of legitimacy, since American officials made public misrepresentations that U.S. policies in Afghanistan were succeeding rather than failing--much as they had done in Vietnam.  

Dishonesty in politics should never be tolerated--especially when it relates to the use of military force.  The deplorable dishonesty of U.S. public officials prolonged the wars in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.  The invasion of Afghanistan after 9/11 was justified, but remaining there for 20 years to build a U.S. style democracy was not. That was a gross strategic error.   

Military interventions may be needed in the future to protect vital U.S. security interests.  If and when the U.S. invades a nation and prevents its government from functioning, it has an obligation under international law to provide essential public services until they can be resumed; but that does not justify remaining to shape a successor political regime in an ongoing civil war.

The U.S. military has a civil affairs capability that can provide essential public services until resumed by a local government, as it did in Europe after World War II.  In Afghanistan, U.S combat forces could have left before 2005 if they did not have the mission to build a libertarian democracy in a hostile cultural environment.  It was a misplaced mission of nation-building.

Promoting democracy and human rights are laudable foreign policy objectives, but they require public support in hostile cultural environments, and they never justify a military intervention.  America’s experiment in democracy began with overwhelming public support, but it soon gave way to division and a terrible Civil War.  Once again, divisive cultural and religious values threaten the fabric of American democracy, and the jury remains out on its future.


The Editors at Commonweal observed that over 20 years America’s mission in Afghanistan “morphed and expanded. First it was about uprooting Al Qaeda and capturing or killing the mastermind behind 9/11, Osama bin Laden; then it was also about removing the ruling Taliban that had harbored the terrorists; and finally it was about establishing a liberal democracy in Afghanistan and training the Afghan military to fight like ours. Meanwhile, the war in Afghanistan became the longest foreign war in U.S. history.  But our politicians whistled through the graveyard and let the war grind on. Only a few months ago, Biden insisted that the Afghan security forces, which have received twenty years of training and $88.3 billion in aid and materiel from the United States, would be able to defend themselves against the Taliban. As the analyst Andrew Watkins told Foreign Affairs, ‘“Many of the country’s drivers of conflict could never plausibly be resolved as long as American troops were present. Afghanistan’s war will not be over just because U.S. forces leave, but it was never going to end as long as they stayed.’” See

Fareed Zakaria summed up the Afghanistan fiasco, saying We lost the war in Afghanistan long ago.  See

The USA Today Editorial Board described Biden’s Afghanistan horror as a well intentioned miscalculation with disastrous, predictable results.  See

On how misrepresentations by American officials undermined the legitimacy of the Afghanistan war, see  See also, Biden said U.S. officials lied about Afghanistan. It’s not clear whether they’ll be held to account, at

Karen Tumulty holds the Biden administration accountable for the chaos in the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan: “The execution of the U.S. troop withdrawal is something for which Biden alone will be held responsible.  Figuring out the why behind his administration’s missteps is crucial to instilling confidence in its judgment going forward. Otherwise, why should Americans, or the United States’ international allies, accept the president’s assurances that he has “over-the-horizon capability that will allow us to keep our eyes firmly fixed on any direct threats to the United States in the region, and act quickly and decisively if needed”?  ...What is at question now and going forward is not Biden’s experience, but his judgment. ”  See


On America’s strategic blunder to promote democracy and human rights with massive military deployments in hostile cultural environments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, and a viable strategic alternative with Special Operations Forces, See Back to the Future: Human Rights and Legitimacy in the Training and Advisory Mission, Special Warfare, (March 2013), posted in Resources at Religion, Legitimacy and Politics at and at

On The Diplomat-Warrior: A Military Capability for Reconciliation and Peace (9/3/2016), see

On the relationship between Human Rights, Freedom and National Security (4/1/2017), see

On The Legitimacy of Engagement and Containment National Security Strategies (9/2/2017), see

Generally, on military legitimacy see Barnes, Military Legitimacy: Might and Right in the New Millennium.  (Frank Cass, 1996)  A revised transcript is posted in Resources at Religion, Legitimacy and Politics at and at  The original is available at Amazon in hardback or paperback. 


For related commentary on military legitimacy posted at Religion, Legitimacy and Politics, see 

(12/29/14): Religion, Violence and Military Legitimacy

(11/1/15): A Containment Strategy to Defeat Islamist Terrorism

(11/8/15): Tough Love and the Duty to Protect Life and Liberty

(11/15/15): American Exceptionalism: The Power of Persuasion or Coercion?

(8/27/16): A Containment Strategy and Military Legitimacy (see also #49, 11/1/15 above)

(11/5/16): Religion, Liberty and Justice at Home and Abroad

(3/25/17): National Security and Military Legitimacy: When Might must Be Right

(5/6/17): Loyalty and Duty in Politics, the Military and Religion

(4/14/18): Musings of a Maverick on Military Legitimacy

(4/21/18): The Legitimacy of an Authoritarian Military in a Libertarian Democracy

(6/1/19): Musings on Military Legitimacy and Murder in Wartime 

(10/19/19): Musings on the Meltdown of Military Legitimacy in the Middle East

(11/30/19): Musings on Trump’s Corruption of Military and Political Legitimacy

(1/18/20):: Musings on Military Legitimacy, and Why Military Might Must be Right

(4/4/20): Musings of a Maverick Methodist on the Resurrection of America’s Values

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