The lessons of Afghanistan

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The end of America’s war in Afghanistan has prompted an enormous amount of finger-pointing and second-guessing among U.S. officials seeking to make sense of how a 20-year campaign to build up a stable Afghan government could be all but erased in a matter of weeks by the Taliban.

U.S. involvement in the country — from the initial choice to invade to the swift withdrawal, and everything in between — will surely be debated for a long time. There are also questions about what the end of the war means for the people of Afghanistan, U.S. interests in the region and the long list of other countries affected by the Taliban’s resumption of power.

The invasion of Afghanistan was the first marker of a new era in America’s relationship with the world that emerged in response to the Sept. 11 attacks, after which the U.S. was much more willing to intervene militarily in the name of global counterterrorism efforts. As the conflict comes to an end, foreign policy experts are debating what lessons the U.S. should take from its longest war and how those lessons should inform leaders’ actions when they’re inevitably confronted with future crises abroad.

Why there’s debate

In the eyes of many experts, the most important thing the U.S. should take from its struggles in Afghanistan is a sense of humility. The core mistake of the war, they argue, was the assumption that American values could be imposed on a country as complex and divided as Afghanistan. These experts say too many members of the foreign policy establishment see the U.S. as an unequivocal force for good, blinding them to the harm that its presence can cause in countries it occupies.

A common belief, especially among former President Donald Trump’s allies, is that the war has shown that the U.S. should focus on its own domestic problems and avoid interventionism and nation building abroad. They argue that the U.S. has consistently come up short of its goals while causing substantial suffering along the way, with other examples including the Iraq War and more limited engagements in Syria and Libya.

Others worry that the U.S. will become too isolationist in response to Afghanistan. Many left-leaning foreign policy voices in particular argue that America can, and should, be a force for good in the world — if it abandons its reliance on military force and instead invests in humanitarian strategies designed to materially improve the lives of vulnerable people around the globe. Meanwhile, foreign policy hawks want the U.S. to remain committed to its global counterterrorism mission despite this obvious setback.


Leaders must be willing to accept the limits of American power

“The lesson of Afghanistan is thus not that the United States is uniquely maladroit, much less malevolent. Rather, it is that the United States keeps insisting that it must do that which it cannot do. Because Americans say that they must do it, they persuade themselves that they can do it.” — James Traub, Foreign Policy

The failures of Afghanistan shouldn’t mean the U.S. sits idly by as people suffer

“​​The response to evil abroad cannot be to throw up our hands. Failure is not inevitable, and what is currently unfolding is infuriating precisely because our attempts, although they failed, were worthwhile. The teaching of Kabul is not that we never should have tried: it is that pain is greater when the effort means so much.” — Ari Hoffman, Forward

The U.S. must focus on its challenges at home and avoid intervention abroad

“We need a prudent, hard-headed, national-interest-oriented foreign policy that secures the American way of life without falling prey to delusions of grandeur. It’s time for a late-stage empire to sober up a bit and refocus on building a functioning nation-state here on the home front.” — Josh Hammer, New York Post

Humanitarian aid can succeed where military intervention has failed

“Insofar as America does engage with the world, let it be with diplomacy, humanitarian aid, free coronavirus vaccines, bed nets, AIDS drugs, and other measures that are cheap, simple, and tend to work a lot better compared to fighter jets and carrier battle groups.” — Ryan Cooper, The Week

U.S. leaders must be willing to acknowledge their own mistakes

“Politicians use the blame game to appeal to voters and protect their legacy. … But when the U.S. blames others, it doesn’t recognize its mistakes, so it repeats them. When the U.S. blames others, it lives in denial, so it doesn’t take responsibility for the consequences of its own military actions.” — Sherry Buchanan, USA Today

The U.S. must realize that military force isn’t the answer to every problem

“In every other realm of human endeavor, we recognize brute coercion to be the antithesis of engagement among people; the resort to force, in the household or on the street, marks the breakdown of sociable interaction. Yet in U.S. foreign policy, when the call sounds to ‘do something,’ the outcry is unlikely to stop until the bombs drop.” — Stephen Wertheim, New York

The public needs to understand that foreign policy is rarely black and white

“We Americans like to deceive ourselves. We want to believe there is good war and bad war. ... Similarly, we like our winners and our losers well defined. But those on the field of battle are seldom Captain America and his nemesis Hydra.” — Danielle Pletka, Wall Street Journal

The harms that U.S. intervention causes can no longer be swept aside

“The American foreign policy establishment obsesses over the harms caused by our absence or withdrawal. But there’s no similar culpability for the harms we commit or that our presence creates. We are much quicker to blame ourselves for what we don’t do than what we do.” — Ezra Klein, New York Times

Changing U.S. foreign policy starts with changing the people who lead it

“President Biden and his team insist [that] U.S. foreign policy should reflect the interests and concerns of the middle class. But there is a more urgent task, which is to democratize U.S. foreign policy and make it more inclusive, as opposed to being dominated by a narrow and a homogenous elite, which, time and again, has entangled the nation in military ventures in distant lands.” — Fawaz A. Gerges, Washington Post

American foreign policy is too broken for any lessons to be learned

“Nothing has been resolved, no lessons have been learned, no meaningful assessment of the war on terror has been passed.” — Nesrine Malik, Guardian

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Nicolas Asfouri/AFP via Getty Images