What Was the War About?

by James A. Russell

The sight of Afghans lining up in droves on April 5 to cast their ballots braving threats of violence offers us some heartening images in a world that seems awash in bad news with Russia’s destructive behavior, continued anarchy and death in Syria, and other parts of the world teetering dangerously on the precipice between peace and war.

The pictures coming out of Afghanistan may partially salve the wounds of those that bore the brunt — and paid for — the 13-year war waged by the West against the Taliban. Those estimated 7 million Afghans that lined up to vote clearly deserve the sympathy, admiration, and respect of the international community.

Curiously, however, the images of those brave Afghans made me think of a famous quote attributed to Napoleon at some point in the early 19th century, in which he is said to have pointedly asked: “What’s the war about?”

We may draw comfort from the storyline being reported on the Afghan elections, but is that what the war was about?

The understandably favorable press coverage of the Afghan elections in some ways diverts our attention from the more troubling and largely unexamined aspects of America’s decade-plus of war in Iraq and Afghanistan that cost more than a trillion dollars, led to over a million refugees, and thousands dead and maimed civilians and soldiers.

How is it that what started out as a straightforward, punitive expedition to go after the perpetrators of the 9/11 attacks became the most ambitious experiment in social and political engineering and the longest war in American history? When did we decide to do this, exactly? Did we think about the potential costs of such an ambitious effort and, perhaps most important, did we ever ask ourselves whether the stakes in Afghanistan justified the magnitude of the effort?

To be sure, it is not unknown for policy goals in wars to become inflated and/or changed so fundamentally as to bear little relationship to the initial reasons for the war. What started out in August 1914 as a war of Serbian independence gradually morphed its way into a war to contain Germany and then became the war to end all wars. In Vietnam, what began as war against communism in southeast Asia evolved into yet another grand experiment in social engineering that then became joined at the hip with the idea of “peace with honor,” which needlessly extended the war’s carnage.

More recently, the US invasion of Iraq must be considered a poster board of this phenomenon, in which we cycled through at least a dozen post-invasion war objectives before settling on another grand and misguided social engineering project.

A disturbing feature of the Afghan and Iraq wars was that the enemy had little to do with the inflation of our policy goals over the course of our involvement. They resisted our presence simply because we were occupying their countries. In both of those wars, the enemy imposed no new or distinctive political requirements on us that forced us to inflate our policy goals beyond all recognition. The undeniable truth is that we imposed these inflated goals upon ourselves and did so with little apparent deliberation, debate, or thought.

How did this happen? Seeking an answer is certainly worthy of debate and discussion — even if we are forced to confront uncomfortable truths about ourselves. It’s hard not to point a finger at what has become the feckless nature of American politics, today dominated by rigid ideology on the right, money, and special interests, all of which have led to the disintegration of common sense across party lines in foreign and domestic policy.

This fractured domestic political landscape in some ways paralleled the broken decision-making process that governed strategy and foreign policy after 9/11, which produced decisions with catastrophic consequences to American interests and objectives around the world. In this environment, soldiers were sent off to war for made up reasons by ideologues that were never challenged in a democracy that is based on a system of checks and balances. We lacked political and military leaders and a public that paid close attention while demanding no answers to Napoleon’s timeless question.

As for the Afghan elections — we should all be glad that Afghans are voting, but we should be under no illusions that a successful election means that Afghanistan will develop into a pluralistic political system that solves internal differences peacefully at the ballot box. We can only hope that’s what will happen in a process that may take generations to unfold.

Perhaps more significantly, it is manifestly unclear whether any government in Afghanistan can survive given the malign intentions of Pakistan, which has aided and abetted the Taliban and other insurgent groups with arms, money, training and a safe haven from which to plan their attacks in Afghanistan. Pakistan shows no inclination to abandon its plans to destabilize the country despite America’s best efforts to buy it off with billions of dollars over the course of the war.

These are uncertainties that cloud Afghanistan’s future — whatever the outcome of the apparently successful elections. Our inability to address and answer Napoleon’s pointed question about the war in Afghanistan says more about us than those brave Afghans casting their votes for a better future, although we could surely use a little more of their courage in our own democracy.

Photo: Voters line up at a polling station on Jalalabad Road, Kabul city, on April 5, 2014. Credit: Casey Garret Johnson

James Russell

James A. Russell is an Associate Professor in the Department of National Security Affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA, where he is teaching courses on Middle East security affairs, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, and national security strategy. His articles and commentaries have appeared in a wide variety of media and scholarly outlets around the world. His latest book is titled Innovation, Transformation and War: US Counterinsurgency Operations in Anbar and Ninewa Provinces, Iraq, 2005-2007 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2011). He is currently working on a book about learning in irregular war, focusing on US military operations in Afghanistan. Prior to arriving at NPS from 1988-2001, Mr. Russell held a variety of positions in the Office of the Assistant Secretary Defense for International Security Affairs, Near East South Asia, Department of Defense. During this period he traveled extensively in the Persian Gulf and Middle East working on various aspects of US security policy. He holds a Masters in Public and International Affairs from the University of Pittsburgh and a Ph.D. in War Studies from the University of London. The views he expresses here are his own.



  1. The Iraq war was about Republican lies and hubris. Once we got bin-Laden there was no sense fighting on and spending billion

  2. Someone had to say it, though I think a more in-depth look is required. I wonder, has anyone thought about just who is behind the planning of these wars? The fact that they have been going on for so long, with the other skirmishes taking place at the same time, brings the question of how we got here? The costs are enormous, robbing the taxpayer/local Governments/infrastructure of needed revenue, producing a situation in the U.S. not to dissimilar to the war torn countries, be it in destruction or refugees. A grander plan to destroy democracy, instill an oligarchy, without firing a shot here at home, has been ingenious in both planning and implementation. This may read like a fiction novel, but what other alternative view is offered? Oh, as with what happened on 9-11, perhaps another episode but on a grander scale, might awaken the American people to what’s going on around them and take back their own country. Just where are the patriots of the U.S.A. today? Busy either counting the money, taking drugs to dull the pain, or just don’t give a s- – t, because it’s too late to change anything.

  3. Let’s go back to square one. Afghanistan is an artificial country created in 1948 by the British that lumped together different ethnic groups that had nothing in common with each other and were told they were a country.

    Maybe we should be looking at breaking up parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan so that the Pashtans can have their own country. One thing we do know is that the Pashtans (where the Taliban spring from) are not going to take orders from anybody else.

    If you want to understand the conflict in Afghanistan the past 20 years a good place to start is looking at the rivalry between Brandas, the Argentine-based pipeline company, and the Chicago-based Unocal, who were competing to build pipelines thru southern Afghanistan at one time.

    Hint: the Bush Administration was very active in its lobbying efforts on behalf of Unocal when it first took office in 2001 and was quite disappointed when the Taliban gov’t awarded the contract to the rival Brandas in August 2001.

  4. Thank you James for the much needed breath of fresh air. I don’t understand why more people like you aren’t getting this very important message to the major media outlets. I guess they don’t want to publish something that is negative towards the government. All I can say is, it’s a pity our nation has fallen so far morally. Thanks again.

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