Twenty years ago, reeling from the shock of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the United States and its NATO allies led the international community in proclaiming a doctrine of global responsibility based on democratic values and human rights in the face of international terrorism.
U.S. military forces subsequently liberated Afghanistan from Taliban rule and eliminated the al-Qaeda sanctuary there, established under the Taliban, in which the 9/11 attacks were planned. Not quite a decade later, American Special Operations Forces brought Osama bin Laden to justice during a raid in Abbottabad, Pakistan, launched from eastern Afghanistan.
Nearly two decades after the 9/11 attacks, having negotiated an agreement with the same Taliban that harbored al-Qaeda—an agreement that is unlikely to prove durable or desirable—the United States is preparing to withdraw the last of its troops from Afghanistan. Without a U.S. presence, the remaining coalition forces will depart as well. This leaves Afghanistan to a very uncertain future. Tragically, the most likely outcome, depending on the degree to which the United States continues to provide drone and close air support, is a spiral downward into a civil war between resurgent Taliban elements, Afghan security forces, and militias of various ethnic and sectarian groups. We then would see a return of the terrible period that followed the collapse of the post-Soviet government in Kabul.
Under the provisions of the peace agreement, U.S. forces and their coalition counterparts will pack up and return home. To be sure, the details of American plans for a presence in the region and for levels of continued funding and material assistance for Afghanistan and its security forces are still being developed. But regardless of the level of over-the- horizon support provided by the United States, it is unlikely that the Taliban will embrace a compromise with the elected Afghan government; indeed, as a senior Taliban commander told The Washington Post in March 2021, “This fight is not to share power.”
I fear, therefore, that the Taliban and its Haqqani network partners, as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, al-Qaeda, the Islamic State, and other insurgent and extremist elements, will seek to capitalize on the withdrawal of U.S. and coalition forces by going on the offensive against Afghan forces. And, if past is prologue, the Taliban will take its revenge on those Afghan forces, institutions, and people who resist the reimposition of the brutal, medieval, theocratic rule of the Taliban. If the previous period of Taliban rule is a guide, women will be among the first to suffer, as they are forced once again into the veiled invisibility of the chadaree (the Afghan burqa), consigned largely to the equivalent of house arrest, and prohibited from attending school. Lipstick and nail polish will again be punishable by flogging and stoning.
Twenty years ago, when the world rescued the tortured people of Afghanistan and eliminated the terrorist base where the 9/11 attacks were planned, France tasked a philosopher, human rights activist, and personal friend of Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud of the Afghan resistance to visit the country and interview Afghans from all walks of life to help France determine its contribution to the reconstruction of the country. That philosopher was Bernard-Henri Lévy.
His report, only recently translated into English, is worth reading, even 20 years later. Over a period of months, Lévy visited every corner of the country, meeting with notables and ordinary people alike, gathering information from all quarters, brilliantly analyzing people and situations, and putting his finger on ancestral issues, past errors, and new possibilities. Throughout, he emphasized the extraordinary opportunity offered by international aid and protection to a country so long forgotten and so often martyred, an opportunity for Afghanistan to open itself to the world while continuing to celebrate its own history and traditions. With realism—that is, without ever losing sight of the material and financial means required or the challenging realities of Afghanistan—Lévy proposed a series of actions to be undertaken without delay.
At the core of his report were recommendations to neutralize local warlords by building a state, an army, a police force, and public agencies, as well as a proposal to circumvent stubborn mullahs by forming a corps of “black hussars of democracy”— teachers, primary-care doctors, local administrators, civil engineers, and agronomists—to be sent into the most distant provinces.
Narrower recommendations dealt specifically with France, recommending various initiatives to support hospitals, archaeological research, and museums, as well as training in France for Afghan military and civil leaders, cultural exchanges, and political support. The report was full of enthusiasm about the future of Afghanistan.
Working together, Lévy argued, Afghans, Americans, Europeans, and representatives of Muslim countries could move mountains. (That is not a trivial observation, given that the Hindu Kush Mountains define the spine of Afghanistan.)
One delicious passage from Levy’s report would have delighted Machiavelli or Talleyrand, as it describes Afghan President Hamid Karzai dominating by his presence alone a hotel ballroom full of warlords who had hoped they could make short work of Karzai, an Afghan émigré newly returned from the West who had never seen combat. He more than held his own.
I do not know to what extent France implemented the measures Lévy put forward. By the time I was privileged to assume command of the International Security Force in 2010, France was an important member of the coalition effort, but the U.S. contributions in funding, forces, development assistance, and diplomacy dwarfed those of all the other contributing nations put together. Beyond that, it is, of course, the fate of many well- intentioned academic reports to be buried, once the author has been praised and thanked. But reading Levy’s report 20 years later tells us a great deal about what might have been done—not just by France, but by the U.S.-led coalition. There were, to be sure, innumerable accomplishments over the years, not just in the fight against al-Qaeda and its allies in the Taliban. But the price has been high: so many Afghan lives lost, so many American and coalition-country soldiers killed, so many billions spent, only to end up on the threshold of a seemingly ignominious withdrawal of the last of the U.S. and coalition forces that helped Afghan forces protect their country and the Afghan people’s daily resistance against their former oppressors.
Now, after four years of diplomatic meandering, isolationist pronouncements, and unpredictable policy decisions—including on Afghanistan—a new U.S. administration is proclaiming that America is back and seeking to resume its true place in the world. This includes recommitting to American leadership of the free world in the defense of peoples struggling against tyranny, foreign occupation, and obscurantism. What is not clear is whether there is recognition in Washington that endless wars do not end with a drawdown of American involvement. In the case of Afghanistan, for example, it appears that the endless war will continue and, quite likely, get worse. And that may result in the return of a brutal, medieval regime in which extremists once again find safe haven.
Bernard-HenriLévy’s report and the lofty aspirations in it, while far from fully realized, nonetheless did point to many of the accomplishments of the past 20 years. Needless to say, the return of Taliban rule would, at best, undermine or, at worst, reverse much of the progress achieved during that time. As that prospect looms, perhaps it is time to review what once was hoped and envisioned by revisiting Lévy’s report of nearly two decades ago—and to reflect on the missteps, mistakes, and other factors that prevented the realization of the vision of someone broadly recognized as a true visionary.
—General (ret.) David H. Petraeus