US troops in Afghanistan (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

March 25, 2024   6 mins

International diplomacy requires countless decisions: the large, small, mundane and monumental. Some turn out to have been wise and some not; some can be corrected, while others bring consequences that must be survived. A few are so pivotal that they reset the course of history.

We can’t be certain how the world would be different had a different course been chosen, but we can identify turning points and their cascading tumbles of consequences. And we can hypothesise an alternative history that, absent some fateful step, might have unfolded instead. Such “Planet Ifs” are more than thought experiments; if we can uncover what these wrong turns have in common, we can try harder to avoid them in the future. To see how, let’s consider four.

The first is almost as old as America: What if the United States had never permitted slavery? Slavery, after all, was an ethical transgression, while the Civil War that followed ripped the country apart. Today, slavery’s toxic effects still impact the nation — socially, economically, culturally, politically. Nor was this outweighed by any significant benefits, as plantation-style farming was not essential to southern agriculture. A national story free of slavery would thus be indisputably preferable. Case closed.

On to our second Planet If, this time in Europe: What if the Treaty of Versailles had refrained from deliberately humiliating Germany after the First World War? The Treaty placed exceptionally harsh conditions on defeated Germany. The Bundestag was forced to cede territory and portions of its population, to accept burdens that prevented their economic recovery, and to demilitarise and to pay massive reparations. Such a vindictive stance fuelled Germany’s subsequent nationalism, with economic despair rendering its populace vulnerable to the recovery and pride promised by Hitler.

This lesson was learned by the end of the Second World War. In 1945, few would deny that a contemptuous and vindictive attitude towards Germany would have been warranted — but the decision was made to aim for rehabilitation and reintegration into the international system. They were obliged to pay reparations, and there was mandatory public education about the camps and the genocide, but there was also a roadmap for Germany’s return to being a normal and respected nation. Had such an approach been taken in 1918, it is entirely possible that we would not have had the Second World War. It seems unlikely Hitler would have seized power. And projecting forward: no expulsions of Jews, no genocide, and therefore no Israel, no Middle-East conflict, no PLO, no Hezbollah, no Hamas, and no Gaza War.

Third, let’s visit a more recent Planet If: What if Mohammad Mosaddegh, a secular reformer, had been allowed to remain as Iran’s elected Prime Minister?

As Prime Minister, Mosaddegh launched a series of policies targeting the country’s social inequalities. These included land reform, public housing, the abolition of forced and indentured labour, and sick leave for workers. Then he decided to nationalise the country’s oil. Why, he reasoned, should a country so rich in resources be so poor, with its principal source of wealth under the total control of a foreign government, the UK, through its Anglo-Iranian Oil Company?

Mosaddegh proposed to compensate the British company for its future losses, but that did not assuage Churchill’s rage, who determined to overthrow Mosaddegh and replace him with the compliant Pahlavi dynasty. Unable to manage such an ambitious undertaking alone, the British sought to pull in the Americans. Sensibly, Secretary of State Dean Acheson rejected the plan, terming it “destructive” and criticising the British intention to “rule or ruin” Iran. But the British persisted and, when Eisenhower was elected, they finally had their patsy. Playing on his Cold War paranoia, they persuaded him that Mosaddegh, an outspoken anti-Communist, was going to ally with the Soviet Union. With that, Project Ajax was born — a bold, elaborate and expensive plan to foment unrest, spread disinformation, instigate riots and overthrow the Mosaddegh government. Hundreds of demonstrators were shot, members of the government captured, tortured and executed, and the submissive successor regime was placed on the throne, his first task being the return of the oil wealth to the foreign companies. Mosaddegh was placed in solitary confinement, where he died.

A great triumph: a Pyrrhic victory. Let’s recall where this path went.

Social and economic reforms having been nipped in the bud, the Iranian populace continued to be poor and uneducated. With the secular reformists eliminated, the disgruntled masses turned to firebrand religious scholars who concocted a volatile mix of nationalism and retrograde religion. Eventually, this erupted in an Islamic Revolution whose successors now support terrorist groups across the Middle East. The consolidation of Hezbollah, Hamas and even last year’s horrific attack on Israel can be traced back to the coup against Mosaddegh — a man who, we must recall, was on course to effect reforms, modernise his country and educate the populace. Iran could have been a regional ally, instead of where it is today: partnering with Russia and China to bring us down.

Our final Planet If was formed three decades later: What, it holds, if the US had not backed the radical Islamist mujahideen in Afghanistan?

In 1979, Soviet troops were sent to Afghanistan to defend a beleaguered pro-Soviet Communist government. This being the Cold War, the US saw an opportunity. The theory was that the Soviets as a superpower would inevitably prevail, but we could make it costly for them by backing the craziest, most extreme among their opponents, the ones who would fight most brutally. Some modern-minded, pro-democracy Afghan resistance groups were also opposing the Soviet forces, but they were judged to be too tame. So, we turned to the mujahideen, “those who wage jihad”.

After the Soviets threw in the towel and withdrew, the mujahideen groups became the new Afghan government. The US had brokered a power-sharing rotation agreement among them, which instantly fell by the wayside as each group decided to seize and permanently hold on to power. A bloody civil war ensued; the mujahideen encircled Kabul and blasted away at each other, destroying entire neighbourhoods of their own capital city and killing many civilians. Disgusted by this, the Taliban, made up of Afghan graduates of fundamentalist madrassas in Pakistan, marched forth to end the civil war that was devastating their country. To the initial relief of the population, they brought pacification, but then went on to impose a regime of oppressive ultra-Islam. And they hosted their like-minded partners: al-Qaeda.

As for what happened next, little speculation is required. To use legal terminology, “but for” our nurturing of the mujahideen, and “but for” our prolongation of the war in order to stretch to the maximum the losses we could inflict on the Soviet military (and the hapless Afghan population) through our proxies, there would have been no Taliban, no al-Qaeda safe haven and no 9/11.

We can project by analogy what would have happened instead: the Soviets would have quashed the uprising against the Communist Afghan government, the country would have endured an unappealing political system — but, alongside that, it would have enjoyed accelerated infrastructure and economic development. Of course, within one or two decades, the Soviet Union would still have collapsed, leaving Afghanistan to now look like any other Central Asian Republic. Women of all social classes would be educated and integrated into all levels of public life, and the country would now be in the process of de-Sovietising, rather than being governed by a rogue regime that is being courted by China and, oh irony, Russia.

What do these examples have in common? In each instance, those formulating the policies and the plots knew that they were violating principles of fairness and their own ethical and ideological values, in the interest of material gain and power; and they also knew that what they were doing was morally wrong and extremely risky. We can imagine them congratulating themselves for being so bold and diabolical, indeed even so brilliantly Machiavellian.

On each occasion, the illusion of success initially appeared to confirm the cleverness of the plotters. The plantation owner elite became rich and powerful. Germany not only lost the First World War; it was crushed. The compliant Reza Shah Pahlavi took his seat on the Peacock Throne, and Western corporations could once more pump Iran’s oil to their heart’s content. And in Afghanistan, our erstwhile proteges-gone-rogue were eliminated and a pro-Western democracy installed in their place — or so it briefly seemed.

But what can we say about each of these episodes? The most obvious commonality is that they all involved leaders and policymakers knowingly violating their country’s ethical code and belief system. After all, the Founding Fathers knew that slavery offended the values of their new nation. They initially planned to emancipate the slaves upon gaining independence. Earlier drafts of the Declaration of Independence blamed King George for polluting the New World with this abominable practice. But the section was deleted.

Why did they override their better knowledge? The simple answer is greed. The Founding Fathers, otherwise endowed with admirable foresight, had to know that this would not end well, that it would undermine the moral integrity of their society, harm the middle and lower classes, and create a minority that inevitably would become free one day and have cause for deep resentment. But for individual — and influential — members of the Southern elite, to be “gentleman farmers” with large landholdings was a matter of prestige and wealth.

“Why did they override their better knowledge? The simple answer is greed.”

As for the experienced statesmen who drafted the Treaty of Versailles, they could have focused on bringing stability and reconciliation to Europe. Instead, they were determined to not just punish Germany, but to prevent it from getting back on its feet for decades to come and perhaps ever. As Keynes observed, the Treaty was “one of the most serious acts of political unwisdom for which our statesmen have ever been responsible”.

In Afghanistan, however, ignorance was no excuse. The US knew full well that the terrorist groups and warlord bands they were arming, funding, training and supporting did not remotely resemble “freedom fighters”. Their goal was to conduct a holy war, a jihad, with the purpose of imposing Islamist rule over the country.

So, what can we glean here? Well, international affairs can seem highly convoluted, but as these examples suggest, one simple maxim can make things easier. First, don’t violate your own beliefs and core values in the interest of being clever — because it won’t end well. Or, in other words, to thine own self be true — because karma’s a bitch.

Cheryl Benard is an academic and an author.