Reading the news media, it’s easy to get the impression that America’s 20-year adventure in Afghanistan is ending in Vietnam-style ignominy, with reports of provincial capitals falling to the Taliban and ominous predictions that women’s rights are headed back to the dark ages.  I’d like to suggest the opposite, that the war was a smashing success for the US.

Let’s start with the justification for war.  As far as I know, there have only been two major attacks on the US in the past 200 years, Pearl Harbor and 9/11.  These two attacks were similar in terms of both the number of American fatalities and the extensive property damage.  You might argue that Pearl Harbor was an act of war by a foreign state, whereas 9/11 was a criminal assault by a non-governmental actor.  But Al Qaeda was not operating in isolation, as the Taliban government provided then with sanctuary within Afghanistan.

This is from the US intelligence report on 9/11:

The transition to the new Bush administration in late 2000 and early 2001 took place with the Cole issue still pending. President George W. Bush and his chief advisers accepted that al Qaeda was responsible for the attack on the Cole, but did not like the options available for a response.

Bin Ladin’s inference may well have been that attacks, at least at the level of the Cole, were risk free.

The Bush administration began developing a new strategy with the stated goal of eliminating the al Qaeda threat within three to five years.

Notice the importance of deterrence.  Bin Ladin launched 9/11 because he (wrongly) inferred from our previous responses to terrorist attacks that he could get away with it.  (Note that 9/11 actually caused more damage than Bin Ladin anticipated.) Thus one can argue that even a Taliban that was cooperative post-9/11 should have been attacked, as a deterrent to future governments in other countries harboring Al Qaeda-like enemies of the US.

But in the end this was a moot point, as the Taliban did not cooperate and thus we were forced to invade.  And the war was a major success:

1.  The Taliban government was quickly toppled.

2.  Al Qaeda was put on the run, weakening its capability.

3.  Later on, a successful attack on Al Qaeda was launched from Afghanistan, killing Bin Ladin at his hideout in Pakistan.

4.  For the next 20 years, the Taliban was denied power in Afghanistan.

If the Taliban takes power again next week, does that mean the war was a failure?  Of course not.  Consider the analogy of someone who serves 20 years in prison for 2nd degree murder.  One critic might carp that the last 15 years was a waste of taxpayer money, as even 5 years in prison is plenty of deterrence.  Another critic might claim that the sentence was ineffective, as the murderer is now out and free to murder again.  Both views are wrong—as 20 years is a reasonable deterrence for 2nd degree murder.  Any specific figure is arbitrary, but you must choose some sort of sentence.

The war was a success, as Al Qaeda was badly damaged and the Taliban was severely punished.  But that’s not all, the broader goals of the war were also achieved.

Younger readers might not understand how pessimistic Americans were back in late 2001.  There were mysterious attacks with anthrax powder sent through the mail.  Another major airliner crashed in NYC a few months later (non-terrorist as it turned out). I recall talking to highly intelligent people who told me that we’d now have to just live with frequent terrorist attacks, as our society is too exposed to prevent them.  And it is true that we’d have no way of stopping terrorists from killing huge crowds of Americans.  Our “security theatre” is mostly an annoying joke.  We are very exposed.

But my friends were wrong.  We’ve been almost free of terrorism since 2001.  It’s not just that flying didn’t become more dangerous; it became far safer than before 9/11. The war in Afghanistan deterred future terrorist organizations (such as ISIS) from directly attacking the US homeland.  Those groups may use suicide attackers, but the organizations themselves are not suicidal.

Why is the war not viewed as a smashing success?

1. The world is messy, and most news is bad news.

2.  The war was not carried out in a 100% optimal manner (which is always true of wars.)

3. Average people mix it up with the Iraq War, which was truly disastrous.

4.  A mix of elite liberal internationalists and neoconservatives had fantasies of turning Afghanistan into a central Asian Switzerland, where women could walk around in miniskirts.  But this was never a realistic objective.

Because of the so-called “time inconsistency problem“, it is hard to maintain effective policies of deterrence over a period of decades.  The public gets tired of fighting.  So perhaps you need need some sort of fantasy of a higher objective than just beating up on the Taliban for 20 years, denying them power for 20 years, and then walking away.  Just as our punishment of criminals is often linked to imaginary concepts like “rehabilitation”, or “giving them what the deserve”. (What does “deserve” even mean?  To utilitarians like me it’s a meaningless concept.)

Nonetheless, if these fantasies of rehabilitation and just deserts help us to do things to deter murder (such as long prison sentences), then perhaps they have some value.