How to Fail at Regime Change

Since 2001, the United States has led three military inventions with the explicit goal of toppling foreign governments. In October 2001, less than one month after the September 11 terrorist attacks, the United States invaded Afghanistan to overthrow the Taliban government, which was sheltering and refusing to extradite leaders of Al-Qaeda. In March 2003, the United States invaded Iraq to overthrow Sadam Hussein’s regime, which President Bush accused of building weapons of mass destruction. In March 2011, with heavy American involvement, NATO attacked the military forces of Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi in order to prevent an impending massacre of anti-government protesters. The United States justified its military interventions by arguing that removing the political leaders of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya would improve prospects for stability and security in each country. However, looking back on each of these conflicts, it is difficult to conclude that these American-led interventions actually improved the situation on the ground. 

The War in Afghanistan 

In Afghanistan, the Taliban government retreated after two months of heavy fighting with American and American-allied forces. After the fall of the Taliban regime, American soldiers remained in the country to continue fighting Taliban and Al-Qaeda insurgents, but their continued presence did not lead to an enduring peace. In 2006, the violence of the Taliban insurgency increased dramatically and the number of suicide bombings quadrupled. This pattern of sporadic violence and terrorism continues today. In 2018, the Taliban killed more than 115 people in Kabul in a series of terror attacks. According to the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University, at least 147,000 people have died due to the War in Afghanistan. With the Taliban controlling more Afghan territory today than it has at any point since losing power in December 2001, this immense loss of human life makes it difficult to view the United States’ military operations in Afghanistan as successful.

Failed State Building in Afghanistan

While the United States succeeded in overthrowing the Taliban government in Afghanistan, it failed in its efforts to create a stable and united Afghan state due to a series of strategic errors. Jack Segal, who served as the chief political adviser to NATO’s operational commander from 2002 to 2010, discussed the successes and failures of the war in Afghanistan with the HPR. Segal noted that the United States achieved its goal of deposing the Taliban regime relatively quickly. However, he also emphasized that American efforts to transform Afghan society following the fall of the Taliban were unrealistic. Segal said that the American “objective was to create a democratic, gender-sensitive, unified national government in Afghanistan. And I would say none of those were possible, but it took us a long time to figure that out.” He emphasized the difficulty of imposing American values on a foreign population with a blunt allusion to the atomic bombing of Imperial Japan during World War II: “[Many Afghan villagers] are suspicious of any outsiders, not just Americans … We’re trying to impose a system that is alien and unwanted. And so if that’s your goal, you can do something like we did in World War II. We imposed a government on Japan and turned them into democratic people who love democracy. But it took awhile. And it took two atomic bombs.” According to Segal, the United States cannot transform Afghan society without an overwhelming military effort and long-term commitment, the scale of which would likely be politically unacceptable. 

Segal discussed two other mistakes that doomed the state-building effort in Afghanistan. He noted that “less than 6 percent of our investment was nonmilitary,” which he criticized as “a very important deficiency.” Drawing on his State Department background, Segal argued that “political development was neglected” in Afghanistan, largely because the United States “undervalue[d] diplomatic efforts when they probably were the solution.” Segal also labeled the effort to transform the Afghan security forces into a high-tech military as misguided. He described how the United States worked to replace the Afghan military’s aging Russian jeeps with Humvees. However, while the Russian jeeps were relatively simple to maintain, the United States Army admits that a “12th grade education” is necessary to service a Humvee. According to Segal, “this [eliminated] 99 percent of all Afghan officers, not just enlisted men.” Rather than strengthening the Afghan army, the United States created a technologically advanced military force that the Afghan soldiers themselves could not plausibly maintain. Overall, a combination of unrealistic goals and misguided strategy led to the failure to transform Afghanistan into a stable, united, democratic country. 

The Iraq War 

Like the war in Afghanistan, the invasion of Iraq has had grim, long-term consequences. American forces achieved a quick military victory against Saddam Hussein’s army. In April 2003, one month into the invasion, the United States seized Baghdad. In May, President Bush gave his infamous “Mission Accomplished” speech. As in Afghanistan, United States forces remained in Iraq to continue fighting insurgents loyal to Saddam’s regime. However, the violence did not abate. In 2004, Al-Qaeda committed a series of deadly suicide bombings accross Iraq. In 2006, sectarian tensions between Sunnis and Shiites erupted into violence. And in 2011, with the country still plagued by terrorism and sectarian violence, American forces withdrew from Iraq. According to a 2006 Lancet study, 2.4 million Iraqis died during the course of the American invasion and occupation of Iraq. And shortly after the United States withdrew from Iraq, the terrorist group ISIS began to gain power and support, winning a string of battles against the Iraqi security forces. By 2014, ISIS controlled over 100,000 square kilometers of territory in Iraq and Syria in which nearly 12 million people lived. The American intervention succeeded in deposing Saddam’s regime, but it led to a massive loss of life and set the stage for the country to devolve into violence and chaos. 

The NATO Intervention in Libya 

In March 2011, after Muammar Gaddafi refused to step down and escalated violence against citizens protesting his dictatorial regime, NATO declared a no-fly zone over Libya, enforcing it with air strikes. In October 2011, anti-government rebels captured and killed Gaddafi. However, Libya failed to stabilize even after Gaddafi’s death. The rebel groups that had united against Gaddafi remained deeply divided by ideology, religion, and ethnicity, and began to fight each other for sole control over Libya. President Barack Obama said in 2016 that the worst mistake of his presidency was “failing to plan for the day after” the intervention in Libya. Today, the violence in Libya shows no sign of abating; between April and July 2019, over 1,000 people died in Tripoli as two rival rebel groups fought for control of the city. The 2011 NATO intervention in Libya may have facilitated Gaddafi’s removal from power, preventing him from committing future massacres, but it left a power vacuum in which Libya has become a failed state. 

Parallel Problems: False Intelligence and Failed State Building

In an interview with the HPR, Alan Kuperman, a professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin, emphasized that the American interventions in both Iraq and Libya “were based on incorrect information.” He explained that in Iraq, “the people who wanted to overthrow Saddam put out false information that Saddam was pursuing nuclear weapons,” when he in fact “had halted his nuclear weapons program.” Similarly, Kuperman stated that in Libya, “the people … who wanted us to intervene against Gaddafi put out false information that he … was using planes to bomb civilians areas and was threatening to kill all the civilians.” In reality, “there was no threat by the regime to civilians … beyond a few dozen people … and there was no looming targeting of civilians of the regime.” Because the United States invoked demonstrably false information to justify its interventions in Iraq and Libya, Kuperman maintained that the military operations should have never been approved in the first place.  

Additionally, due to a series of major strategic errors, the United States failed to build viable states in Iraq and Libya after deposing Saddam and Gaddafi, respectively. According to Kuperman, the Bush Administration’s decision to disband the Iraqi army “motivated an insurgency and ignited people who had been thrown out of their jobs with other folks who were religious insurgents.” While the United States succeeded in quickly toppling Saddam’s regime, the suspension of the Iraqi military directly led to the deadly insurgency that brought instability and violence to the country. Kuperman claimed that strategic errors also account for the failure to bring safety and security to Libya following the 2011 NATO intervention. He explained that “it would have been very hard to stabilize Libya without a large occupation force because the country was so atomized among hundreds of militias.” Since “no countries had [the] political will” to support a large-scale military occupation, Kuperman suggested that the Obama Administration made a critical mistake in supporting intervention in Libya. By overthrowing the Gaddafi government without committing to a long-term peacebuilding plan, the United States created a power vacuum, in which rebel groups and terrorist organizations continue to fight for power. 

No Peacebuilding, No Peace 

In an interview with the HPR, Stephen Gent, a professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, emphasized the importance of peacebuilding after military interventions. He drew a distinction between “overthrowing a regime,” which “can be done through military action,” and fostering stability, which “is a political process that must involve several domestic actors.” Gent highlighted that while the United States succeeded in toppling the governments of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, it was “less successful” in its goal of stabilizing the countries. As Segal explained, the United States critically underfunded diplomacy and political development in Afghanistan after toppling the Taliban government. In Iraq, meanwhile, the deadly insurgency was a direct consequence of the Bush Administration’s decision to disband the Iraqi army. And in Libya, the refusal of the American-led coalition to commit to a peacebuilding effort after intervening against Gaddafi’s regime created a power vacuum that allowed the country to spiral into chaos. 

To avoid repeating the mistakes that led to instability and violence in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the United States should only pursue regime change if it is willing to embrace the challenges of peacebuilding. According to Gent, for the peacebuilding process to succeed, “domestic actors need to build institutions that allow all societal groups to meaningfully participate in political life.” In any future interventions, the United States must strongly and consistently support these efforts after the guns fall silent. If it fails to do so, as it did in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, future regime-change wars will similarly fail to produce meaningful peace and stability. The United States must understand that victory on the battlefield by no means guarantees the success of an intervention. 

Anti-Interventionism: A False Panacea

The United States military interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya are three examples of regime-change wars that failed to lead to greater stability. Given this, it is tempting — but ultimately incorrect — to draw the conclusion that pursuing regime change is inherently wrong. Today, anti-interventionism is ascendent in both the Republican and Democratic parties. During the 2016 presidential election, Donald Trump campaigned sharply against regime-change wars. Throughout the 2020 Democratic primaries, Tulsi Gabbard has built her candidacy around her opposition to military interventions resulting in regime change. Given the costly debacles in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, the appeal of pursuing an anti-interventionist foreign policy is understandable. While it may be both tempting and politically advantageous to do so, politicians should not completely disavow military interventions abroad. Nuance, not blanket statements, should characterize American foreign policy. 

Kuperman, for instance, cited World War II as an example of a successful regime-change war because the Allies replaced the tyrranical regimes of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan with stable, democratic governments. In this vein, Kuperman claimed that “with a longer historical outlook, one sees that regime change may sometimes be the best of one’s options.” At the same time, the United States must learn from the mistakes it made in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya. Before pursuing regime change in the future, Kupman argued that the United States must ensure that it “gets [its] intelligence right” and “[has] the stomach for the peacebuilding phase.” Unless these conditions are met, future interventions will likely lead to more violence and instability, just as the military operations in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya did. Ultimately, these interventions did significant harm and little help; it seems their only contribution was to offer the United States examples of how not to pursue regime change.

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