Imposing Regime Change by Military Force

Imposing regime change by military force almost never achieves a lasting peace and is always costly in political, financial and human terms

America has repeatedly tried to change the political systems of other countries by using military force.  Condoleezza Rice, who was the National Security Adviser and then the Secretary of State for George W. Bush’s administration, wrote an article Rethinking the National Interest which argued that “An international order that reflects our values is the best guarantee of our enduring national interest, and America continues to have a unique opportunity to shape this outcome”.

Security concerns (7.2.7), and human rights ( are also reasons that have been put forward for imposing regime change by military force, but neither reason stands up to critical analysis.  Security concerns might justify an attempt to neutralise a security threat, but they don’t justify attempting to change its regime – which can be both costly and futile, as illustrated by two recent examples: Afghanistan and Iraq.  And the appalling human suffering of both populations were not justified by their temporary advances in human rights.

The invasion of Afghanistan was initially very popular with the American public, as a response to the 9/11 attack on the twin towers in New York.  According to the Britannica entry on the Afghanistan War, “The first phase—toppling the Taliban (the ultraconservative political and religious faction that ruled Afghanistan and provided sanctuary for al-Qaeda, perpetrators of the September 11 attacks)—was brief, lasting just two months.”  It can be argued that toppling the Taliban was an action of legitimate self-defence but the subsequent attempt at regime change, to install a western-style liberal democracy, lasted nearly two decades, was very costly and was ultimately unsuccessful.  As noted earlier (, attempts at forced regime change have a dismal track record.

Security concerns were also put forward as a justification for the invasion of Iraq, alleging that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction.  When no weapons were found, Britain and America invaded regardless – despite the opposition of the other members of the United Nations Security Council, who argued that more time should have been given to the weapons inspectors.

The financial cost of the two wars was staggering.  As reported later (, the cost of the war in Iraq exceeded $3 trillion (compared to “the Bush administration’s 2003 projections of a $50 billion to $60 billion war”) and the cost of the war in Afghanistan was put at $2.3 trillion.  And the populations of the countries concerned were grievously harmed: the human cost of the two wars has been put at 900,000 deaths and 15 million refugees.

Neither country can claim to have achieved political stability in the two decades since the invasions.  The Afghan government installed by the Americans collapsed as soon as the foreign troops left, as summarised in the title of a BBC report: Afghanistan: ‘We have won the war, America has lost’, say Taliban.  The attempt at regime change was a failure.  The explanations offered in Chronicle of a Defeat Foretold, a Foreign Affairs review of a book on The American War in Afghanistan, included the following observations:

“the United States and its allies shut the Taliban out of talks on a political settlement, failing to appreciate that the group represented a point of view that many among the majority Pashtuns shared”;

“The average soldier and policeman …could not reconcile fighting for Afghanistan alongside an infidel occupier and against a movement that represented Islam.”;

“the Taliban exploited tribal rivalries that Western forces didn’t understand. Many powerful Pashtun tribes, such as the Ghilzais, the Ishaqzais, and the Noorzais, felt cut out. They resented foreign troops for disrespecting their culture (entering women’s quarters, bombing wedding parties) and attempting to eradicate their poppy crops.”;

Christina Lamb, the reviewer, also pointed out that the newly installed puppet government delegitimised itself by engaging in massive corruption: syphoning off American aid.

In Iraq, the majority Shia population exacted vengeance on the Sunni minority which had ruled them under Saddam Hussein and the country was plunged into instability from which it has never recovered.  Following a disputed election in October 2021, triggered by public dissatisfaction with corruption and continued poverty, a report on The New Government in Iraq: Challenges Ahead observed that:

“The Iraqi nationalist parties have emerged as the main gainers. This has generated hope that the new government will try to address the issues of political instability, economic crisis, inflation, unemployment, among others. The government will also have to maintain a balance between the US, the Arab allies, Iran and Turkey, the main external actors active in Iraq. Given the number and intensity of the challenges, the new government will have to show some extraordinary diplomatic skills to manage them.”

Afghanistan and Iraq shared several common problems: the corruption that was facilitated by western aid; tribal and sectarian conflict; and interference from powerful neighbours (Pakistan in the case of Afghanistan, Turkey and Iran in the case of Iraq).  At a more fundamental level though, the newly installed governments lacked legitimacy because they were seen as alien creations of the West, introduced down the barrel of a gun.  Any attempt at imposing regime change by military force would face similar problems – and to expect otherwise would be a triumph of hope over experience.

The neoconservative hopes for creating stability in Afghanistan and Iraq were not realised.  The interventions failed to improve security because, as described later, the invaders faced formidable military problems (7.4.1) which appeared to be creating ‘forever wars’ from which they were ultimately forced to beat an ignominious retreat.  A BBC article, Why is the Taliban’s Kabul victory being compared to the fall of Saigon?, shows dramatic images of the humiliating withdrawals from Vietnam and Afghanistan – and notes that America’s prestige was severely dented in both operations.

And resentment against foreign interference created a huge surge in international terrorism (7.3.3).


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This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6775a.htm.