“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a proverb I’ve always taken to mean that impact is more important than intent, and that intentions can have unforeseen consequences that make the action less than good.

I spend a lot of time researching unintended consequences.  The whole thing gets even more complicated when you use the force of government to act on your good intentions of, say, ending communism and wind up creating numerous additional and potentially worse problems in the process.

So let’s back up 50 years, for some perspective and context: In 1964, women were given the right to vote in Kabul, Afghanistan. Women in Kabul in the 1970s actually dressed only slightly more conservatively than their American counterparts, and socially, the country was on an upswing of modernity and progress. During that time period, Soviet Russia began exerting a large amount of influence over various political parties within Afghanistan. In 1978, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan was formed, and it was very closely connected to the Soviet Union. Many advancements in women’s rights coincided with this period – bride prices were abolished and girls couldn’t be married off before the age of 16. Women were able to pursue higher education and became doctors and professionals.

However, USSR and communism were a threat to the United States. So, in 1979, the US Central Intelligence Agency began covertly funding and organizing Operation Cyclone, a program to finance and arm the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets. President Reagan greatly expanded this program, which lasted over ten years and cost billions of dollars. The Soviets exited Afghanistan in 1989 and left the country to the mujahideen.

Unfortunately, the mujahideen became the Taliban. In 1996, the Taliban took over Afghanistan’s capital, and with that, restrictions were immediately imposed. Women were forbidden to leave the house without a male escort, forbidden to work, forbidden to seek medical help from male doctors, and were forced to cover themselves entirely. Thanks to well-intended American efforts to end the influence of the Soviet Union, the US helped set back women’s rights in Afghanistan—not by generations, but by centuries.

That’s not all, of course. The Taliban, let’s not forget, allied with and supported al-Qaeda, the group known best for their work on the events of September 11th, 2001. Within a few months of the attack, the United States military was dropping bombs on the people they’d been funding and training 20 years earlier. They began fighting for the “liberation” of a people they have previously helped oppress.

As an American right after September 11th, I remember how the Bush Administration sold it to us. They told us about the horrible oppression women suffered in Afghanistan, and about Sharia law and extremism. President Bush said the world would hear us, and the people who committed these acts against our innocent civilians would be brought to justice.

They never mentioned the role our country played in bringing that terror to our doorstep.

Then, in 2003, the US military began bombing Iraq. Between alleged weapons of mass destruction and human rights violations, it was sold as a war of “good intentions.” Reports vary about the situation in Iraq before US intervention, but things have undisputedly been precarious in Iraq for over a decade now. After taking out the established infrastructure, government and military, the US tried to implement a new government and security forces and then withdrew in 2011. Since then, there has been an increase in violence as competing groups attempt to gain power. As the conflict has spilled into Syria, the US finds itself militarily involved in the region again this week, though whether the airstrikes are actually effective is a matter of some debate.

We have been given reports of journalists being beheaded, and the situation grows more dangerous for innocents on the ground in both Iraq and Syria. I’m impressed to see the average person acknowledging that our country is at least somewhat responsible for the situation in Iraq (and which President is, as if it matters). However, that ownership is being used as justification for us to get involved again.

We simply can’t keep doing this. Our government spends trillions of dollars, ends countless human lives, and for all the good intentions we might have, the results are leading us to proverbial hell. It hasn’t worked. I don’t have a realistic solution, but it’s about time we look at history and blowback, and really come to terms with the fact that military action is not a realistic solution anymore.

  • Unintended Consequences, by John Ross. A book worth reading, by the way. I can’t help but mention it whenever I see that phrase. You may need an interlibrary loan to find a copy, though. If you want to peel back the onion on Pax Americana, grab a copy of Imperial Grunts, by Robert Kaplan.

  • Matěj Šuster

    Excellent article.