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American Hubris and The Fall of Afghanistan

Erwin Tan(Associate Professor, Hankuk University of Foreign Studies)

  The spectacle of the chaotic United States withdrawal from Afghanistan and the collapse of a client state that so much had been invested in is evocative of an earlier instance that similarly saw the most powerful military on earth being humiliated by an ill-equipped adversary with a mere fraction of the firepower and resources available to the US– namely, the collapse of South Vietnam in 1975. Both instances were characterised by White House Administrations that took it upon themselves to spearhead what they imagined to be moral crusades to promote the apparently ‘self-evident truths’ of American democracy and freedom to the world’s ‘huddled masses yearning to breathe free’.  

  The lofty rhetoric and idealism behind such endeavours reflect the underlying problem that has long dogged America’s overseas moral crusades – the problem of hubris. The origins of the latter can be traced back to the mid-19th century notion of  Manifest Destiny that envisaged the people and institutions of the United States as embodying special virtues in carrying the ‘White Man’s Burden’ of spreading ‘civilization’ to the primitive Native American tribes. Yet, the very image of the young United States as a civilizing force was belied by its own chequered history of race relations and socio-economic injustice.

  Nonetheless, the appeal of the America’s manifest destiny continued to hold significant appeal as the US abandoned its hitherto position of isolationism to enter the Second World War. The notion of America exceptionalism was further consolidated by wartime propaganda that cast the US as the ‘Arsenal of Democracy’ in a Manichean, ‘good-versus-bad’ moral crusade against Nazi fascism and Japanese militarism. US abandonment of isolationism to take the reins of superpower status in the post-1945 world, coupled with Cold War propaganda that elevated the status of the US as the ‘Shining City on the Hill’ that the peoples of the decolonising, non-Communist world were supposed look to for leadership and support [1], effectively posited the post-1945 US foreign policy and security establishment for the global projection of moral crusades to promote the ‘self-evident truths’ of American democracy and freedom. 

  Such a grandiose narrative of American paternalism in viewing itself as carrying the Cold War-era equivalent of the ‘White Man’s Burden’ of safeguarding the non-Caucasian world from Communism was evident in the stages leading to the involvement in Vietnam. During his 1961 visit to Southeast Asia, Vice President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s personal conduct was illustrative of the hubristic US view of its global anti-communist crusade. As Robert Dallek wrote, ‘entering a store full of Chinese customers, Johnson lectured the non-English-speaking crowd on the virtues of democracy and the dangers of Chinese Communism’[2].  Any serious scholar of the study of war is fully aware that such a blend of ignorance and hubris is ill-advised – in ancient times, Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War that 

    one who knows the enemy and knows himself will not be endangered in a hundred engagements.
    One who does not know the enemy but knows himself will sometimes be victorious, sometimes meet
    with defeat. One who knows neither the enemy nor himself will invariably be defeatedt
    in every engagement.[3]  

  This was understood by Viet Cong, which, faced with the US military’s overwhelming superiority in firepower, avoided pitched battle in favour of a guerrilla strategy to erode US willpower. As General Nguyen Vo Giap, mastermind of Vietnam’s military strategy during the First and Second Indo-China Wars, noted, ‘we were not strong enough to drive out a half million American troops, but that wasn't our aim. Our intention was to break the will of the American government to continue the war’.  [4]

  Such a critique of the hubris behind America’s view of the use of military power proved no less relevant in the context of Afghanistan. Even before 9/11, the US failed to acknowledge that whilst its supply of weapons to the Afghan Mujahidin had helped evict the USSR from Afghanistan, the US was nowhere to be found in the post-conflict reconstruction process, creating a power vacuum for the Taliban to fill in 1996[5].  The extent of US hubris was so deeply embedded that repeated White House Administrations convinced themselves that the date for their withdrawal from Afghanistan was ‘just around the corner’ – only to find yet another round of long-running efforts to juggle the tasks of combat operations against the Taliban, post-conflict socio-economic reconstruction, the promotion of norms and institutions of good governance, and seeking reconciliation between the various rival Afghan clans and tribes.[6]  Rather, multiple sections of US society have failed to appreciate the subtle nature of the tribal and clan rivalry between differing Afghan factions, most notably the mutual hatred between the majority Pashtun community and the various minority tribal groups in the country. Just as glaring was the failure of the US-led NATO International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) to clearly distinguish between Afghan Taliban insurgents fighting what they perceived to be a foreign occupation of the country on the one hand, and international terrorists in the mould of Al Qaeda on the other. [7]

  In the aftermath of 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Bush Administration’s declaration of a ‘War on Terror’ as an attractive soundbite failed to communicate to the public and the military a clear, feasibly attainable objective for its operations in Afghanistan – a particularly glaring omission for a military adventure into a country reputed to be ‘The Graveyard of Empires’. Commencing such a large-scale military operation whilst failing to clearly define its objectives meant that, in the aftermath of the US military’s toppling of the Taliban regime, the Bush Administration had little idea of what next set of steps were to be taken insofar as the future of post-Taliban Afghanistan was concerned. The fact that Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, remained at large even as the Taliban collapsed, found the Bush Administration grasping for a new target in the Islamic world to vent its post 9/11 trauma and desire for vengeance on. So deeply embedded was American hubris that scant attention was paid to the challenging, long-term process of nation-building in a war-torn, largely rural country that had little conception of the socio-economic structures of the outside world. Within such a setting, such abstract notions as democracy and women’s education carried little traction for a people long accustomed to regarding foreign occupiers with hostility and suspicion. 

  Concurrently, failing to warn the US public about the need for a lengthy involvement to consolidate post-Taliban Afghanistan, the Bush Administration, convinced of its own moral righteousness, set its eyes on the promotion of democracy, with the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The Bush Administration’s hubris was evident in both conflicts. Afghanistan, composed of numerous rival tribes and clans, was effectively a feudal society, within which the any nation-building process would have required decades to bear any fruit. Likewise, following the Bush Administration’s toppling of Saddam Hussein, the US was quick to dismantle the Iraqi military in the name of establishing democracy as quickly as possible. Such an action meant that the country now lacked an effective security apparatus to maintain order in a country composed of Kurds, Sunni and Shia Muslims, effectively creating a communal tinderbox that escalated into a full-fledged insurgency. [8] Moreover, the extent of Islamophobia in US society in the aftermath of 9/11 created a slippery slope that led to multiple instances of US military personnel inflicting various war crimes against civilian populations in Afghanistan. Such outrages as the Abu Ghraib Prison Scandal and the Haditha Massacre fed the image for many in the Islamic world of a US so hell-bent on seeking vengeance over the 9/11 terrorist attacks that it cared little about the plight of Muslim civilians caught up in the crossfire of Washington’s wars across the globe. In so doing, the Bush Administration’s hubris in waging its War on Terror had multiple effects: first, the image of the US military presence as a foreign occupying army generated multiple more recruits for the long-running insurgencies in both Afghanistan and Iraq; [9] second, the image of Western indifference to the plight of Muslim civilian victims of the ‘War on Terror’ spurred increased numbers of ‘Lone Wolf’ terrorist attacks by disaffected Muslim youth living in the West, who saw their actions as payback on behalf of the Islamic world; [10] third, media coverage of the casualties and war crimes conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan led to increasing disillusionment within the public and the military in the Western world.

  The subsequent Obama Administration, for its part, recognised (and was reluctant to respond to) the need for a protracted period of nation-building in Afghanistan, but was simultaneously wary of the collapse of Afghanistan exploding on its watch. In seeking a compromise, in 2009, the Obama Administration ordered the deployment of reinforcements to Afghanistan in the belief that this would degrade the Taliban to a level that would allow the US to withdraw. Such an expectation is unrealistic given the extensive experience of the Taliban in conducting protracted guerrilla warfare. Moreover, the Obama Administration’s concurrent announcement of a deadline of July 2011 to begin withdrawal of US forces[11]  inadvertently signalled increasing US war-weariness to the Taliban. Reflecting on the rapid collapse of Afghanistan, Elliot Ackerman, a veteran of the war, compared the Afghan National Army to a plywood army – a military force that, with sufficient US support, was capable of fighting the Taliban, but one whose lack of experience portended the likelihood that it would collapse in the absence of any such support or effective leadership. The notion that US strategy in Afghanistan resembled the use of plywood reflected the fact that the US had little patience in seeking to consolidate its position, but was more interested in rushing through the nation-building process in Afghanistan, as reflected in the Afghan saying that ‘the Americans have the watches, but the Taliban have the time.’[12]  Even after such tangible successes against terrorism as the killing of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 – an operation which took place on Pakistani, not Afghani soil – the US found itself compelled to retain its military presence in Afghanistan as part of its long-term efforts to consolidate the Afghan Government, a goal so abstract and demanding of a protracted US military involvement that the Obama Administration repeatedly sought to avoid mobilising US public opinion to support the Afghan Government. Under such circumstances, all the Taliban had to do was take a leaf from the Viet Cong’s playbook – a guerrilla strategy based on hit-and-run attacks and area-denial weapons to inflict a steady stream of US casualties, thence wearing out the willingness of the US public to support such an endeavour, whilst simultaneously hampering the attempts by the Afghan Government to consolidate the nation-building process. 

  To his credit, in 2016, Obama postponed the withdrawal from Afghanistan due to his recognition that the country would collapse without US military support.[13]  Nonetheless, the continued US military presence that accompanied the transition from Obama to Trump merely kicked the can down the road, thence increasing the US public’s war-weariness. Having inherited the war in Afghanistan from Obama, Trump presumably calculated that his best shot of winning re-election in 2020 would come from being able to extricate the US from the long-running wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan. This calculation was evident in Trump’s abandonment of the US’s Kurdish allies in Syria, in the belief that leaving the quagmire of the Syrian Civil War would boost his poll numbers. [14]  Likewise, over the course of the negotiations in Doha with the Taliban, Trump made multiple concessions to the Taliban, including calling on the Pakistani Government to release the Taliban cleric, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, as well as unilaterally ordering the withdrawal of US combat troops from Afghanistan to begin, even as the Taliban continued the insurgency against the Afghan Government. Most glaring of all, the fact that Trump was so focussed on prioritising his own re-election over the fate of Afghanistan saw his deliberate sidelining of the Afghan Government from talks with the Taliban. [15] The fact that Trump’s advisors went along in defending these actions are illustrative of the height of American hubris[16] : although the US’s toppling of the Taliban regime in 2001 had provided the potential beginnings of hope for the people of Afghanistan in rebuilding their country, Trump had no moral qualms about abandoning the people of Afghanistan in order to pursue his own interest in re-election.

  It was against such a backdrop of diminishing US support for the war that Biden assumed the Presidency. Herein, hubris had a different impact on the Biden Administration’s calculations. Since entering office, the Biden Administration’s primary foreign policy focus has been on containing the growing influence of China, an endeavour that requires substantive reinvestment in the US’s air and naval power projection capabilities, sectors neglected by his predecessors’ prioritisation of the US Army’s counter-insurgency capabilities in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Biden Administration’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan, regardless of the consequences for the country, are clearly intended to free up US diplomatic and military attention on shoring up US allies in the Indo-Pacific realm. In so doing, Biden’s willingness to ‘pull the rug’ from under the Afghan Government with little consultation with Kabul is strikingly illustrative of the hubris with which the US is willing to view its security partners – those perceived to be unable to fend for themselves should be prepared to be proverbially ‘thrown to the wolves’ if war-weariness in the US public is considered too much of a political liability for Washington policymakers.  [17]

  Could such a disastrous end to the war in Afghanistan been averted? Possibly – but only within the context of a US that is willing to acknowledge its own shortcomings and appreciate that, for many countries around the world, the abstract notion of American norms of democracy and liberty are not as ‘self-evident’ as many Americans believe. Rather, and within the context of Afghanistan, much more attention and energy had to be focussed on seeking reconciliation between the rival clans and tribes, whilst underpinning the post-conflict reconstruction effort with a focus on ensuring stability and security for the people – no mean feat, given that such an effort would have required multiple generations to bear fruit, and which was nonetheless dismissed by American hubris that assumed that democracy could be ‘manufactured’ in a country with no democratic traditions overnight. [18]

[1] Abram Van Engen, “How America Became ‘A City Upon a Hill’: The rise and fall of Perry Miller”, Humanities, Volume 41, Number 1, Winter 2020,; David Frum, “Is America Still the ‘Shining City on a Hill’?”, The Atlantic, 1 January 2021,

[2] Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant: Lyndon Johnson and His Times 1961-1973 (Oxford University Press, 1998), p.14.

[3]Sun Tzu, cited in Ralph D. Sawyer, The Art of the Warrior: Leadership and Strategy from the Chinese Military Classics (Boston: Shambala, 1996), p.106.

[4]Giap, cited in Chris Brummitt, ‘The Only General Ever To Defeat Both France And The US Just Died’, Associated Press, 5 October 2013,

[5]Chalmers Johnson, ‘Blowback: US actions abroad have repeatedly led to unintended, indefensible consequences’, The Nation, 27 September 2001,

[6]Andrew Salmon, ‘America’s longest war was a short-sighted affair’, Asia Times, 17 August 2021,

[7]Robert D Lamb and Brooke Shawn, ‘Political Governance and Strategy in Afghanistan’, Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 2012,; Ganesh Sitaraman, ‘Counterinsurgency, the War on Terror, and the Laws of War’, Virginia Law Review, Vol. 95, No. 7 (November 2009).

[8]Mark Thompson, ‘How Disbanding the Iraqi Army Fueled ISIS’, Time, 28 May 2015,

[9]What America Didn’t Understand About Its Longest War’, Politico, 6 July 2021,

[10]Jan Leenaars and Alastair Reed, ‘Understanding Lone Wolves: Towards a Theoretical Framework for Comparative Analysis’, International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague, April 2016,

[11]Rathnam Indurthy, ‘The Obama Administration’s Strategy in Afghanistan’, International Journal on World Peace, Vol. 28, No. 3, pp.16-17.

[12]Ackerman, ‘The Plywood Army’, The Atlantic, 17 August 2021,

[13]Carol E. Lee and Felicia Schwartz, ‘Obama to Slow Troop Withdrawal From Afghanistan’, Wall Street Journal, 

[14]‘The Latest: Classified briefing on Syria set for Hill staff October 9, 2019’, Associated Press, 9 October 2019,

[15]Frida Ghitis, ‘The buck stops with Biden -- but Trump's role in Afghanistan debacle is a doozy’, CNN, 18 August 2021,

[16]Catherine Kim, ‘Pompeo dismisses Biden's blaming of Trump for Taliban takeover’, Politico, 15 August 2021,

[17]“Biden promised allies 'America is back.' Chaotic Afghanistan withdrawal is making them fear it's still 'America First.'”, CNN, 19 August 2021,

[18]James Stavridis, ‘I Was Deeply Involved in War in Afghanistan for More Than a Decade. Here's What We Must Learn’, Time, 16 August 2021,