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25 August 2021

Last of the forever wars: Afghanistan and the limits of liberal intervention

Until the campaigns launched under the “war on terror”, interventionism had some notable successes. But the Afghan conflict has exposed the delusions of Western power. 

By Lawrence Freedman

The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan is being described not only as an undoubted blow to the US’s pride and prestige but also a repudiation of the approach to foreign policy known as “liberal interventionism”. This approach is far more ambitious than simply looking after the nation’s security in a hazardous world. It seeks to create a more congenial security environment by leading distressed countries to stability and prosperity by defeating illiberal elements and introducing democratic forms of government.

According to critics on the left, this was always a neo-imperialist project, seeking to impose alien norms on countries without regard for their cultural fit. It was a product of the post-Cold War globalist hubris, as if the triumph over communism permitted Western countries to reshape the world along their own ideological lines and to suit their economic interests. A different critique was developed by realist theorists of international relations, who warned against a misplaced idealism that led to meddling in places where Westerners were not wanted and which they could not properly understand, while distracting policymakers from their responsibilities to look after core national interests.

Amid the “good riddance” and “I told you so” contingents there are those who point to the achievements of Western interventions and defend the motives behind them. The alarm at the return of the misogynist and remorseless Taliban, and the desperation of so many Afghans to leave, is a reminder that for all that has gone wrong there is much to be said for making even modest progress towards a tolerant, liberal society. Others worry that if the lesson of Afghanistan is for the West to stick to the narrowest definition of self-interest, then that will mean the richest and most powerful nations sit and watch as terrible things happen around the world without them lifting a finger to help.

The competing claims about the meaning of liberal interventionism and its application need to be scrutinised with care. It was never as coherent or consistent an approach as is now being suggested. Western governments began to limit their expectations for interventions a decade ago, preferring to confine their contributions to special forces, drones and air power, and avoiding keeping substantial land forces in countries where they could appear as armies of occupation. The reason Kabul fell so swiftly was that the US had already wound down its military commitment. Moreover, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan were the exception rather than the rule. Until the campaigns launched under the heading of the “war on terror”, interventionism had some notable successes.


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The chronology of interventionism can be neatly divided into three separate decades – 1991 to 2001, 2001-2011, and 2011 to now. The first of these began in April 1991 with support for the Iraqi Kurds. The rebellious Kurds had regularly been persecuted by Saddam Hussein’s regime. After Iraqi forces had been pushed out of Kuwait, the Kurds rose again and faced a merciless repression. This time, however, the region was still full of Western media and troops. The Kurds’ plight could not easily be ignored. After some hesitation, the US, UK and France established protected “safe havens” to allow them to return to their homes.

Within months this was followed by the start of wars in the former Yugoslavia, as Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia broke away from the Serbian-led government, fomenting vicious civil wars marked by ethnic cleansing. Western interventions here were supported by UN Security Council resolutions and were presented as humanitarian in motive. By following the restrained approach of UN peacekeeping forces, they were also initially tentative and ineffectual. It was only after the massacre of some 8,000 Muslims in the Bosnian city of Srebrenica in July 1995 by Serb paramilitaries, with Dutch peacekeepers being pushed aside, that a more robust approach was adopted, taking on Serb forces directly. This led the next year to the Dayton peace accords which kept Bosnia as a unitary state, although with a Serb part.

The last of this series of wars was in Kosovo. This was part of Serbia, although only a minority of the population was Serbian. Nato, anxious to avoid another Srebrenica, warned the Serb leader Slobodan Miloševic that suppression of the Kosovars would invite a harsh response. When the suppression resumed in March 1999 this triggered an air campaign, initially on a small scale but eventually turning into something more substantial, with direct strikes on targets in Belgrade. It lasted until June when Miloševic agreed to withdraw his forces from the province. In this case there was no unanimity on the Security Council, as Russia opposed Nato’s action.

The Kosovo War was the backdrop to Tony Blair’s Chicago speech, which the prime minister delivered in April 1999, just before a Nato summit in Washington where the faltering campaign in Kosovo was high on the agenda. It is now taken as a seminal statement of the interventionist doctrine. It is worth noting that, contrary to what this speech is assumed to have said, Blair was explicit that “one state should not feel it has the right to change the political system of another or foment subversion or seize pieces of territory to which it feels it should have some claim”. He described the “most pressing foreign policy problem we face” as identifying “the circumstances in which we should get actively involved in other people’s conflicts”. This accepted that not all situations that appeared to demand a response would get one.

Heroes’ welcome: ethnic Albanians greet US Nato troops in Gnjilane, Kosovo, June 1999. Credit:  Ami Vitale/Getty Images

Five considerations were suggested, which I drafted. Are we sure of our case? Have we exhausted diplomatic alternatives? Are there feasible military options? Are we prepared for the long haul? And is the action in the national interest? It is perhaps worth noting that, at least in my mind, they were meant to be restrictive, answering the accusation that Nato was giving itself carte blanche to intervene anywhere at will. These are still questions worth asking when a new intervention is proposed.

Whatever the importance attached to Blair’s speech, in retrospect more controversial at the time was his lobbying of President Bill Clinton to get him to reverse his opposition to putting ground forces into Kosovo. It is important to recall how wary the US was of these operations. Past experience was hardly encouraging. In addition to the painful memories of Vietnam there were also those of the 241 American marines engaged in a peacekeeping mission who were blown up in Beirut in October 1983 (along with 58 French paratroopers in a separate attack). As the wars in Croatia and Bosnia intensified the Americans sought to stay clear.

To demonstrate its humanitarian credentials, in 1992 the US agreed to help get food and medical supplies to beleaguered parts of Somalia, then succumbing to a civil war. This effort got caught up in a wider war, leading to the “Black Hawk down” incident in Mogadishu in October 1993, when 19 US Rangers were killed. This made Clinton even more anxious to avoid similar commitments, especially in Africa, which is why he took no action to stop the Rwandan genocide of April 1994, something he later bitterly regretted. Rwanda, where an estimated 800,000 people were killed by Hutu extremists, came to be cited as “Exhibit A” in the case for interventionism, an example of what can happen if the West decides to do nothing to prevent or halt a developing tragedy.

Clinton was persuaded that he could not ignore developments in Bosnia and Kosovo, but he remained a reluctant intervener, confining the US contribution largely to air power. His reluctance was more than shared by the American military, also scarred by Vietnam. Its commanders wanted to stick to proper soldiering and preparations for big wars against major powers without being diverted into what they saw as constabulary duties and social work. This was also the view of President George W Bush’s administration when it came to power in 2001. Condoleezza Rice, his national security adviser, derided Blair’s Chicago speech.

In Europe, however, there was a contrasting view. The interventionism of the previous decade was judged to have been on balance successful. Although he had not been toppled directly by Nato, Miloševic had been unable to hold on to power in Serbia. Meanwhile Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo were starting to recover from their past traumas and beginning to be integrated into European institutions. An opportunistic British action in Sierra Leone in 2000, which brought some stability to the country, was added to the list of successes. A new norm highlighting the “responsibility to protect” was being developed. In all of this Bush showed little interest.

With al-Qaeda’s attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 11 September 2001, the next decade of interventionism began. A cautious approach to international engagement was jettisoned in favour of an expansive one. Instead of focusing on the specific threat posed by al-Qaeda and other Islamist organisations, Bush decided to declare a global war on all terrorist groups. Out of fears that somehow terrorists might get hold of chemical or even nuclear weapons, he concluded that this campaign required taking out Iraq’s leader Saddam Hussein, who was undoubtedly a continuing nuisance but had no role in 9/11. Elsewhere Islamist groups began to commit their own outrages in support of al-Qaeda, leading to numerous separate counterterrorist operations, including within Western countries. Only in Afghanistan and Iraq, however, did the US and allies commit forces to substantial land campaigns.

In both cases the rationales for intervention related to national security. In Afghanistan the objective of the invasion in October 2001 was to eliminate al-Qaeda. As the Taliban government refused to unconditionally hand over Osama bin Laden it became the target. At first the allies were anxious to avoid sending a large army, so CIA agents and special forces worked with the Afghan Northern Alliance to defeat the Taliban, calling in American air power to assist. It was well into the campaign before it dawned on Washington that a new government was needed for Afghanistan.

In Iraq in 2003 the US hoped to follow the same formula, until it realised that the anti-Saddam forces were too small to cope with the Iraqi army. In this case the explicit American objective was regime change, yet here too they had only thought through the toppling part of the process. The plans for forming a new government and administering Iraq were woefully underdeveloped.

[see also: Afghanistan’s plight and its contested future are a reassertion of the brutal realities of geography]

Neither of these campaigns therefore began as liberal interventions. With both, the Bush administration’s original intention was to find local leaders to take over the government and let them get on with it. Eventually, it realised that any new government would need help building up its own armed forces to deal with the resurgence of hostile groups. As the security situations deteriorated, the new governments struggled to function and to establish their legitimacy. Their weakness meant that the Americans and their allies, especially the British, could not walk away. They found themselves stuck, fighting determined adversaries and taking significant casualties, with economic recovery faltering and corruption rampant. The gains in human rights were often at best modest. Public opinion at home became disenchanted, yet there seemed to be no way of bringing these wars to a satisfactory conclusion.

By the end of this second decade Iraq was showing signs of stability. The insurgents had overreached themselves and more US troops in 2007 had helped improve the security situation, at least temporarily. After a torrid spell in Basra the British were able to withdraw in 2009. That year President Barack Obama (with vice-president Joe Biden opposed) was persuaded that a surge in American troops might achieve comparable results in Afghanistan, but he put a time limit on the effort and it eventually petered out. The only strategy left was to attempt to build up the capacity of the Afghan government, including its armed forces. Obama also declared the Iraq War over and pulled out the bulk of American troops.


This was the West’s position in early 2011 when the Arab Spring was gathering momentum. The wave of protests, which began in Tunisia, was initially a hopeful development, in which local dictators came under pressure from popular movements campaigning for more democracy. Sadly, the results did not match the hopes of the crowds. In Egypt the revolution got Hosni Mubarak out of government. After he was replaced by a figure from the Muslim Brotherhood, the army mounted a coup and put its own man in power. In Yemen the turmoil led to an intensification of an ongoing and bloody civil war. But the most important cases, in terms of the history of Western interventionism, were those of Libya and Syria.

President Gaddafi of Libya responded to popular protests by violent means. In March 2011, when it appeared that rebels in Benghazi were about to be massacred, France’s President Sarkozy and the British prime minister David Cameron, with a doubtful Obama coming in behind, agreed on emergency air strikes to provide a degree of protection. The strikes continued under Nato auspices and with UN backing (the Russians believed they were misled by the resolution’s wording) as the emboldened rebels moved against Gaddafi. He was eventually killed in October. Whatever the hopes that a relatively small and oil-rich country might get a competent government in place quickly, the aftermath was disappointingly chaotic. A nasty regime was toppled without the insertion of Western armies, but with no presence on the ground they could do little to stop armed militias fighting each other.

The situation in Syria was even worse. President Bashar al-Assad defended his regime with extreme violence. While Western countries willed his departure they would not will the means to make this happen. They gave arms and assistance to some of the many rebel groups fighting him, but were hampered because a number were Islamist extremists. In 2012 Obama said that if he saw chemical weapons being used against civilians that would be a “red line”, but when the evidence came the next summer he held back. In this he was influenced by Cameron’s loss of a parliamentary vote that would have authorised UK participation in any strikes against Syrian targets.

In 2014 Islamic State stormed into Iraq. The group was based on the Iraqi branch of al-Qaeda which had gained strength in Syria. The larger and better-equipped Iraqi security forces fled just as the Afghan forces would run from the Taliban in 2021. Isis, however, did not get as far as Baghdad. This time the Americans moved to stop the group, first with the Kurds as allies. Eventually the Iraqi security forces regrouped. Supported by American air power they pushed Isis back, culminating in 2017 in a destructive but eventually successful battle for the city of Mosul. This confirmed what had become a preferred model for interventions: indigenous ground forces, supported by special forces, drones and air strikes.

Pockets of resistance: anti-Taliban forces in Bazarak, Panjshir province on 19 August 2021. Credit: AHMAD SAHEL ARMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Although Isis was repelled, the speed with which it had emerged had demonstrated the potential consequences of removing the props with which the US had held up shaky regimes. Nonetheless, Western leaders continued to look for the exit. Despite the Taliban’s growing strength, President Trump made clear his desire to get out of Afghanistan. In early 2020 he authorised a deal with the Taliban, over the heads of the Afghan government, that effectively set up the group to take over the country as the Americans departed. Joe Biden’s presidential campaign was conducted on the basis that he would end this “forever war”.

In 2013 France had successfully acted against an Islamist insurgency in Mali, but now President Macron is trying to work out how to extract a large force in this part of Africa without the original problem returning. And Biden now has to decide whether to go ahead with the planned withdrawal of remaining US troops from Iraq at the end of the year.


The era of liberal interventionism did not therefore end suddenly in August 2021. It is not yet over, as some interventions are still under way, and there will be new ones in the future, albeit probably on more modest scales. There will always be some pressure for them to be liberal, as Western governments do not wish to be seen to be backing regimes that suppress human rights, though of course for their own strategic reasons at times they do. They can put pressure on those they are supporting to allow a free press, education for women, open elections and so on. But one of the lessons from the past three decades, including in Afghanistan, is how difficult it can be to install a friendly government; they might make liberal noises but often lack the necessary capacity and legitimacy to cope with hostile forces.

What has come to an end is the period when there would be a serious interest in committing a large army into another’s civil war, but that has been the case for more than a decade now. In overseeing such extensive military action twice, George W Bush was the aberration. Neither his predecessors nor his successors were keen on the idea.

Once external forces are put into a country to stabilise it there will always be concern that when they are removed instability will return, especially if the original security problem has not been resolved. Future interventions are therefore more likely to need a capable and authentic government in place and worth backing, and not one that has to be created from scratch.

Military action will consist largely of air power and drones. These unmanned vehicles, controlled from thousands of miles away, able to loiter above targets, providing intelligence but also capable of mounting strikes, have become the preferred weapons of counterterrorism campaigns. It is a salutary thought that if 9/11 had happened a few years later, the US might not have bothered about the Taliban but relied instead on drones to find and assassinate Osama bin Laden.

Without large armies in the field, interventions are less likely to attract opposition at home. But this will also impose limits on what they can achieve. Power comes from controlling territory, and a lack of presence on the ground will make it harder to shape local political institutions and develop local security forces. Regime change was never essential to the interventionist project and will become even less likely now, unless a regime has collapsed of its own accord and measures need to be taken to deal with the resulting anarchy.

A turn to more modest and occasional interventions will be welcomed by some, tired of long and apparently futile campaigns. Yet, that will leave many people around the world caught in cycles of insecurity, poverty and despair – with climate change adding to their number.

Many conflicts persist with only desultory attempts from the international community to bring them to a halt or address their causes. Even when local powers have stepped in, as has been the case in sub- Saharan Africa, the problems have often been compounded more than resolved. Western powers have had to be choosy – hence the Chicago criteria – and some of their choices have been better than others. Russia has managed a successful, although hardly liberal, intervention in Syria, but lacks the resources to rebuild the country. The Taliban will now struggle with a broken economy.

There will still be occasions when the application of Western military power can make a difference. There also remains, of course, plenty that can be done by non-military means, for example providing development assistance and investment in infrastructure. As we face a tragic reminder of the limits to military interventions, it might make sense to keep in mind what can be done without the use of force.

Lawrence Freedman is emeritus professor of war studies at King’s College London and author of “The Future of War: A History” (Penguin)

[see also: Rory Stewart interview: Why Afghanistan marks the end of liberal interventionism]

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This article appears in the 25 Aug 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The Retreat