Photos by Megan Williams
Suddenly, everyone was talking about it.
Google Search trends spiked to all-time highs: “Afghanistan,” “Taliban,” “Kabul.” A general understanding swept the nation that something had gone terribly awry in Afghanistan, where the United States military had served since the initial invasion to fight terrorism in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.
For those unaware of Afghan-U.S. relations prior to the country’s fall — those searching for the answer to “What happened in Afghanistan?” — a general timeline began to assemble.
Feb. 29, 2020: the United States — under the Trump administration — signed the Doha agreement with the Taliban, agreeing to withdraw the U.S. military from Afghanistan by May 2021 in exchange for a Taliban commitment to not harbor terrorism.
April 14: President Joe Biden announced a modified timeline for the complete withdrawal of troops in Afghanistan, adjusting the completion date to Sept. 11.
Aug. 15: The Afghan government collapsed.
The withdrawal of the final U.S. soldiers from Kabul in August triggered a rapid series of events: Afghan President Ashraf Ghani fled, the Taliban took over the capital and Americans were inundated with stories of Afghan allies unable to evacuate. They watched news of a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport that resulted in over 100 casualties. They saw horrific images of three men falling from the sky, after they clung to the wings of a U.S. military plane in hopes of evacuation. By Sept. 11, as the United States commemorated the 20th anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Taliban sat in control over Afghanistan.
The world watched in anguish, wrestling with the complexities of how 20 years in Afghanistan could have unraveled into the scenes unfolding on their television screens.
Meanwhile, as civilians wrestled with “why,” Dan Caldwell, professor emeritus of Political Science, was receiving messages — emails and calls from veterans of Afghanistan haunted by a personal connection and a far more personal question, “Was it worth it?”
After conversations with Caldwell, International Studies Professor Felicity Vabulas and students with roots in countries where the United States intervened, it is clear each person must answer that question on their own: Was “it,” that is the cost of the intervention and successive war in Afghanistan, worth it?
And are any wars or state-building initiatives ever worth it?
What is state-building?
The RAND Corporation, a global policy think tank, defines nation-building as involving “the use of armed force as part of a broader effort to promote political and economic reforms, with the objective of transforming a society emerging from conflict into one at peace with itself and its neighbors.”
Caldwell said he prefers the term “state-building” over “nation-building.” Though media outlets and scholars use the terms interchangeably, Caldwell said a nation is a group of people who identify around a shared history, culture and language, whereas a state is an organization of people in a territory with a government, military and economic system.
The United States’ aim is not to build a shared national identity in countries; the U.S. is in the business of building governments.
But the U.S. rarely enters into conflict against foreign actors with the planned intention of rebuilding a country’s structure. Instead, state-building is a byproduct of intervention, Vabulas said.
“There’s some sort of military intervention that is trying to either topple a regime or change some sort of major policy direction of that particular country,” Vabulas said. “And usually, that results in some sort of overthrow of a government or some kind of massive decimation of the political institutions that are there.”
Vabulas said the intervener — a role the U.S. has predominantly filled — is faced with a pressing question.
“What happens when you’ve decimated those institutions, toppled the regime?” Vabulas said. “I think oftentimes it’s an afterthought.”
“You break it, you own it”: A perceived moral obligation
Colin Powell, who died in October 2021 and was the U.S. secretary of State from 2001 to 2005, had an answer, coined the Pottery Barn Rule: “You break it, you own it.”
The phrase introduces the concept of moral obligation, that the intervener bears responsibility in rebuilding what it has broken.
“I do think we have an obligation to not just walk away when we have decimated things,” Vabulas said.
The challenge, however, is determining how that moral obligation should be fulfilled.
“And that’s where a lot of people are like, ‘Hey, if we hadn’t have done that in the first place, we wouldn’t have had to be asking this state-building question,’” Vabulas said. “But sometimes that’s unfair too; we have hindsight bias. We have the Monday morning quarterbacking of, ‘Oh, no, we definitely shouldn’t have done it,’ but we have 20 years’ worth of data now to tell us that. In the heat of the moment, when U.S. security is at stake, it’s not necessarily as clear.”
In state-building, Vabulas said the U.S. can better partner with local organizations and pay more attention to fundamentals like food, shelter and infrastructure.
“And so where a lot of tension lies is trying to find out the sort of grassroots of what the local population wants and needs, aligning new institutions with local environments and not coming in as sort of the white savior,” Vabulas said. “And not doing it in a sort of imperialistic, ‘The U.S. wants to put their own stamp on the world’ and build everybody else in our own likeness.”
Additionally, Vabulas said the United States frequently adopts a mindset of authority in state-building, that because of America’s functioning democracy, the government is thus equipped to teach others how to best govern their people. Because of this, therein lies a risk of self-righteousness that “can really lead us astray.”
Caldwell said he believes the United States must balance the idea of moral obligation with the potential consequences of intervention.
“It depends on the threat that is posed and what cost the United States is willing to pay,” Caldwell said.
Wars of necessity versus wars of choice
The United States must think critically before engaging in international affairs, Vabulas said.
“To ask, ‘Should we be state-building or not?’ is not really the question, because usually that happens after we’ve intervened,” Vabulas said. “And so you kind of have to peel back the layer of an onion and say, ‘Should the U.S. be addressing this in the front?’ You know, ‘Should the U.S. be going into Afghanistan in the first place?'”
Caldwell said the deciding factor for intervention is necessity; there are certain world events the United States has a moral obligation to address.
“World War II, in my view, was a war of necessity,” Caldwell said. “Imagine the type of world we would have if there were concentration camps all over the world to kill Jews, to kill Roma, to kill gays, on down the list, because those were the targets of the Nazis in World War II. Imagine if we had a world like that; it would be a world I wouldn’t want to live in. And so World War II was a clear war of necessity.”
Since 1900, the United States has led state-building initiatives in the countries of Afghanistan, Haiti, Panama, Grenada, Cambodia, South Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Japan, West Germany, Cuba, Nicaragua, Panama and Iraq.
Caldwell said the 1948 Marshall Plan is one of the most clear successes in U.S. state-building because of the motives for rebuilding and the end results. This involved rebuilding Japan and Germany after World War II.
“Rather than imposing a vindictive peace on the countries that had been responsible for the war, the United States actually helped to rebuild those countries,” Caldwell said.
In addition to World War II, Caldwell said he classifies the Korean War, which occurred from 1950 to 1953, as justifiable.
“If you look at the contrast between North and South Korea today in terms of economic development, in terms of democratic freedoms and so on there’s absolutely no comparison,” Caldwell said. “So those, that seems to me, are really the best examples of intervention on the part of the United States for good purposes that achieved spectacular ends — democratic governments, the defeat of fascism, the defeat of the obscenity of the Holocaust and the concentration camps that Germany set up and operated.”
In contrast to those successes, Caldwell said the Second Iraq War is a case study for state-building gone wrong. The issue was not the intervention; the issues began with the process of rebuilding the Iraqi state.
The George W. Bush administration decided to intervene in Iraq in March 2003 to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime. In that endeavor, they saw success.
“But then the United States took on the more onerous, more difficult task of rebuilding the Iraqi state, since it had gotten rid of the old government under Saddam Hussein, and that proved to be very difficult,” Caldwell said.
While intervention can lead to state-building out of moral obligation, it doesn’t always. State-building, adversely, cannot occur without a prior intervention, Vabulas said.
Within Afghanistan, Caldwell categorized the initial intervention as successful and necessary. The United States acted on intelligence that Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden planned the 9/11 attacks from Afghanistan. Caldwell said an estimated 60,000 terrorists from 60 different countries trained there in terrorist camps.
“They were given sanctuary by the Taliban government,” Caldwell said. “And so, Afghanistan posed a very clear and present danger to the United States.”
After the Taliban rejected an ultimatum Bush delivered to hand over Osama bin Laden, the United States intervened, destroying the terrorist training camps and overthrowing the Taliban.
“It then took on the objective of state-building in Afghanistan and attempted to build a new state in Afghanistan over the past 20 years,” Caldwell said. “We saw how difficult that was and ultimately how unsuccessful it was when the Taliban government was established following the withdrawal of American forces from Afghanistan.”
Both Vabulas and Caldwell agreed that the failures in Afghanistan related to an American inability to connect with the Afghan people.
“As an outside intervening force, one of the things that we’re up against, in addition to all the challenges I just said, is trying to win over hearts and minds of the local population,” Vabulas said. “Convince them that what they had was not that great, but then that what we’re trying to establish, that we did through the use of force and destruction, is a better solution.”
Caldwell said key considerations must be made before intervention — including whether building a democracy is feasible and whether the people will accept U.S. interference.
Yet it’s not enough to have local support, Vabulas said.
“The other tension that exists is we don’t necessarily have a group that is trained to do this really well,” Vabulas said. “In the United States, we have a military that is trained to fight, that is trained to win against enemies. And usually that group, the different branches of the military, are the ones that stay and try to rebuild. And yet, that’s not necessarily what the U.S. military is trained to do.”
This isn’t a controversial statement, she said.
“I think if you ask the military, ‘Are we good at state-building?’” Vabulas said, “many of them would probably say, ‘No, but it is necessary and who else is going to do it?’”
Lasting influences: The human side to state-building
First-year Natsuko Ichikawa didn’t have a say when choosing a second language to study. Growing up in Tokyo, Japan, the decision was made for her: English.
“English always comes first,” Ichikawa said. “And then not French or Spanish, always English.”
At 15, Ichikawa moved to Massachusetts to attend boarding school in Boston. At 19, she attends Pepperdine as a first-year student.
Ichikawa said she sees the lasting influence of the United States on Japanese culture through technology, news coverage and history.
Having learned history in Tokyo and Boston, Ichikawa said she searches to understand past events, specifically the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. She reasons that the participants in World War II were all desperate to win.
“So maybe dropping a bomb was expressing how desperate the United States was,” Ichikawa said.
Ichikawa said she still feels sadness and anger when thinking of the people killed in those nuclear attacks. But when she thinks of foreign influence on Japan, she does not think of America. She immediately thinks of North Korea and China.
They, Ichikawa said, are the biggest threats, and she sees the United States as trying to protect Japan from them. But Ichikawa said she doesn’t always know how to perceive the past and present, because of the American and Japanese influences on her education.
“It’s really hard to see the truth of what happened from those perspectives,” Ichikawa said.
Junior Kyle Hacek grew up in a town 50 miles south of Chicago. A Filipino American, Hacek was raised in Manteno, Illinois, by his white father — a native Illinoisan — and his mother — an immigrant from Iloilo in the Philippines.
Hacek’s mother immigrated to the U.S. at 20 to start her nursing career and start a family. Hacek said her appreciation for the United States started in high school.
“Where my mom was in high school,” Hacek said, “it was actually required where every Filipino citizen, man and woman in high school, would have to do a year of military training, where they’re kind of taught the basics sort of like a boot camp, if you will.”
Hacek said his mother holds a positive view of the U.S. as her interactions with the U.S. military in Iloilo fostered a lot of respect.
“She really looks highly upon the U.S.,” Hacek said. “Because after ffacing harsh imprisonment by the Japanese and with some harsh Spanish influence in the Philippines, America was sort of the first country to put its arms out and welcome the Philippines as a nation of its people deserving to be treated how they should be.”
The U.S. took over the Philippines as a colony after winning the Spanish-American War in 1898, leading to a two-year battle between the Filipino people and the U.S. military. The country became independent in 1946.
Even though the U.S. intervention positively impacted his mother, Hacek said he doesn’t encourage further state-building initiatives in other countries. To him, past success does not necessitate future action.
“I’m not sure there’s a right answer, but my personal opinion would be overall that we should take more of a hands-off approach,” Hacek said. “I understand the United States has surfaced a lot of its money towards its military-industrial complex, and we take pride in being one of the strongest military forces in the world, but it doesn’t necessarily mean we need to exercise and police that power, and it doesn’t mean we need to extend a hand necessarily over countries that may otherwise need it, because it’s not always our job to intervene, or at least it shouldn’t be.”
“Were they worth it?”
In 1970, Caldwell had just gotten married and graduated with a bachelor’s degree in History from Stanford University. Having participated in the naval ROTC throughout college, he knew he would be serving his country soon, but he also knew he didn’t want to immediately say goodbye to his wife. So Caldwell hatched a plan — he would go to graduate school.
Caldwell attended the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University where he earned a master’s degree in International Relations. When he went on active duty in the Navy, he was tasked with teaching international relations to Navy pilots, Seals and returned prisoners of war from Vietnam.
“It was a tough teaching assignment, but after the first year I figured out how to turn lemons into lemonade,” Caldwell said. “And if I said ‘Singapore,’ nobody thought it was in Africa or Latin America and probably more than half the class had been there.”
Caldwell spent the majority of his three years in the Navy teaching. Today, as he speaks with veterans on the idea of “worth,” he redirects the question away from the field of action and to their soldiers in arms. From “Was it worth it” to “Were they worth it?”
“And I think if that question is posed, I think there’s close to unanimous agreement that it was worth it, or they were worth it,” Caldwell said. “The war in Afghanistan, or the war in Iraq, might not have been worth it, but the people with whom members of the military served were worth it, and worth trying to save.”
Vabulas also refuses to approach the idea of “worth” in the traditional sense. In analyzing the unraveling of Afghanistan, Vabulas wrestles with the duality of the consequences of state-building.
“If the Taliban can take that stuff away really quickly, did we set up long-term institutions?” Vabulas said. “On the one hand, yes, we’ve empowered girls and women to want this and to maybe fight for it themselves. On the other hand, we’ve got a pretty bleak future for many of them for years to come, where they had school for a couple years, and now they’re not going to.”
Vabulas wears an academic lens to view state-building, but she is also influenced by her family background. Vabulas has three military siblings — a member of the 82nd Airborne, another currently active in the Air Force, and a surgeon with the Navy. She said each of them has served multiple tours in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“I would never tell you that what they did and sacrificed was worth nothing,” Vabulas said. “But the question of, ‘Did it have to be that way if we’d made some different choices earlier on?’ Maybe. It’s really hard to roll back the clock.”
Email Annabelle Childers: firstname.lastname@example.org