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"A war that was impossible to win"

6 Sep 2021

Professor Michael Hochgeschwender is a specialist in American Studies. In this interview he discusses Afghanistan and the after-effects of 9/11 on America’s foreign policy.

Herr Professor Hochgeschwender, where were you when you first learned of the attacks on 11 September 2001?

I remember exactly where I was when I heard the news. I was in the canteen in the Institute of Contemporary History at Tübingen University. Udo Sauter, who was my supervisor at the time, came in and said that I should turn on the TV. In his typically ironic fashion, he then added: “The US is about to collapse.” So I fetched the television set, switched it on, and from then on we followed what was happening live, in the Institute.

On the 13th of September, for the first and – so far – only time, NATO invoked its mutual defense clause. What were the grounds for this decision?

It was the first time – apart from the American Civil War and the attack on Pearl Harbor – that such an event had taken place on the territory of the continental United States. That was the reason why the US, quite reasonably, expected solidarity from its allies. In addition, it was clear that the allies were equally shocked. They realized that this was a completely new situation. The attacks represented a significant escalation relative to previous acts of terror, and they underlined the global reach of groups such as Al-Qaeda.

So the time had come to signal to the Americans that their alliance partners were behind them all the way. But it soon became apparent, in the context of the subsequent war in Iraq, that this solidarity was not as unreserved as it had first appeared.

President George W. Bush

On 20 September 2001, President George W. Bush announced that the "war on terror" began with Al-Qaeda but would not end with them.

© IMAGO / Everett Collection

Would you agree that President Bush had no other choice but to embark on a war with Afghanistan?

He certainly didn’t have very many options. After such an attack, which was often compared to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he had to react, and initiating a hunt for Bin Laden would not have sufficed. The big difference relative to Pearl Harbor was that the attack was launched by a non-state actor – a terrorist network.

So the crucial question is whether it was wise to engage in a full-scale war in Afghanistan. Commando operations would also have been possible. In their later attacks on Baghdad during the war in Iraq, the American side obviously felt the need to create the same kind of visual impressions as Al-Qaeda had done. What was at stake was propaganda – a type of cultural warfare that would make the iconography unforgettable.

Were these images designed to act as a deterrent?

Certainly! But the actions themselves were intended as deterrents. The message was “no matter where you hide, we will find you – even in the places where you feel most secure”. This however raises the question whether it is actually possible to deter terrorists. Their central goal is to escalate their acts of terrorism, which are their primary form of communication. Their aim is to strip the mask of civilization from the States that they target.

So the USA was at risk of falling into the trap that the terrorists had set – in particular when the conduct of the wars in Afghanistan and later in Iraq failed to meet the self-proclaimed aspirations, and tended to alienate and terrorize the local population instead.

What impact has 9/11 had on America’s foreign policy?

It has become more militarized than before – not that it had become particularly pacifist in the period after the war in Vietnam. A degree of remilitarization was already apparent under Reagan.

But Reagan was canny enough to attack targets that were no match for the US, such as Grenada and Panama. These were conflicts that were over within a week, and victory was never in doubt. That changed completely with Afghanistan and Iraq. In both cases, America engaged in a war that was impossible to win

Why impossible?

The first problem relates to the objective. How was victory in Afghanistan or Iraq to be defined? The Americans won the military battle, but they were never able to achieve complete control. This lesson could have been drawn from the example of the asymmetric campaign in Vietnam. In both Afghanistan and Iraq, the Americans had no real allies. In the case of World War II, the defeated societies had possessed more or less functional parliamentary systems, to which their populations were accustomed, and on which the victors could build.

President Joe Biden

In August 2021, President Biden launched the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan. However, an end to the "war on terror" is not yet in sight.

© IMAGO / ZUMA Wire / Michael Reynolds

Following the withdrawal, what responsibilities does America have with the respect to Afghanistan?

In this context, ‘responsibility’ may not be the right word. Above all, the USA needs to formulate a new approach to the Islamic world. At the moment, I see no sign of one in Biden’s policy and I couldn’t discern any in Trump’s either. The plan to turn Iraq into a beacon of democracy was never a realistic one.

In the long term, America’s support for the Arab Spring in 2011 and 2012 has also failed. Democracy has become fragile even in Tunisia. The Americans did not anticipate that, in Egypt and other countries, Islamists would come to power in free elections.

Why has the USA failed to develop such a concept?

Mechanisms are at work in these societies which the West fails, or refuses to understand, because that would entail recognition of the aggressive character of its own system and values – liberalism, capitalism and democracy. These values are aggressive insofar as they cannot regard traditional societies as equals.

This is a feature that one can find even in popular culture – the adventures of the starship Enterprise, for instance. The famous Prime Directive prohibits interference with other societies, a classically liberal impulse. But whenever the freedom of individuals is threatened, intervention is the default option. – And it is done with the best will in the world, at the price of the destruction of indigenous societies. It’s a scenario that is consistently repeated throughout the series, and it is the basic problem of a universalist approach to values.

Does this mean that the export of Western values is doomed to fail?

Vietnam has demonstrated that, in a certain sense, the war can be won after the conflict is over. Fifteen years after the end of the war, Vietnam is a decidedly capitalist society. It’s not very democratic, but it’s far less brutal than it was in the 1970s.

A more promising strategy would be to employ the sort of techniques that political scientists refer to as systemic penetration – in other words, soft power. The West still has a highly attractive popular culture to offer. It has an economic system that is very attractive to people who are upwardly mobile and would like to get rich. These are resources that one could make use of, instead of intervening militarily all the time.

During the evacuation from Afghanistan, 13 American soldiers were killed. Is that a harbinger of future escalations?

It’s quite probable that we will see such escalations in the future, partly because that is in the interests of ISIS, who were responsible for the rocket attacks on the airport in Kabul. In contrast to the Taliban, who are focused on Afghanistan, ISIS regards itself as a global operation. This implies that ISIS will continue to provoke the Americans, and the Americans will feel compelled to respond. The question is what level of response will they regard as adequate?

To get an idea of how that might work out, it’s helpful to consider the case of Israel. Israel keeps the conflict in its neighborhood simmering. In response to provocations, it escalates the level of violence for a while, and then it turns the heat down again. I assume that the Americans will develop a similar system. In the process, they will have to define pretty quickly what red lines it cannot allow to be crossed, and which defensive perimeters must be held at all costs – for example, Pakistan. Just imagine what could happen if Pakistan and its atomic bombs were to fall into the hands of Islamists. That’s a possibility that presumably – and justifiably – worries the Americans.

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Read the interview with Christof Mauch

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Michael Hochgeschwender is Professor of North American Cultural History, Empirical Cultural Research and Cultural Anthropology at LMU. His research interests include the history of the USA during the epoch of the Civil War and in the period following the Second World War.

"America realized that it was vulnerable" : See also the interview with Professor Christof Mauch, who discusses how the US reacted to the attacks on 11 September, and how the latter altered American society.

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