Robert Crews: Afghanistan, Taliban, Bin Laden, and War in the Middle East | Lex Fridman Podcast #244 | Summary and Q&A

November 28, 2021
Lex Fridman Podcast
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Robert Crews: Afghanistan, Taliban, Bin Laden, and War in the Middle East | Lex Fridman Podcast #244


Bin Laden's motivations and ideologies were complex, rooted in geopolitics, empathy for human suffering, and a desire to challenge American imperialism, making his appeal to certain individuals and groups wider than commonly acknowledged.

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Key Insights

  • 💣 The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was seen as a mistake due to the panic and desire to show toughness by the George W. Bush administration after 9/11.
  • 📺 Russian television provided an unfiltered view of the violence of 9/11, showing more than what was shown on American television.
  • 🌍 Bin Laden's motivation for terrorist acts was fueled by a sense of victimhood and a desire for revenge against perceived injustices committed by Western powers.
  • 🗺 Bin Laden's arguments were grounded in geopolitics, appealing to the suffering of various groups and nations, such as Kashmiris and Palestinians.
  • 🌍 Bin Laden exploited the suffering caused by global events, such as the Gulf Wars, to recruit followers and justify acts of violence.
  • 💭 Bin Laden's writings and speeches displayed a complex understanding of world history, geography, and various ideologies.
  • 🔍 Bin Laden's ideas had the potential to resonate with a broader audience due to their multidimensional nature and appeal to grievances beyond religion.
  • ♂️ Bin Laden's charisma and leadership did not reach the level of Hitler, limiting his ability to attract a mass following.


the following is a conversation with robert cruz a historian at stanford specializing in the history of afghanistan russia and islam this is the lex friedman podcast to support it please check out our sponsors in the description and now here's my conversation with robert cruz was it a mistake for the united states to invade afghanistan in 2001 20 y... Read More

Questions & Answers

Q: What were some of the narratives and arguments that Bin Laden used to appeal to different audiences?

Bin Laden utilized a range of narratives, including discussions on imperialism, environmental degradation, gender inequality, and suffering caused by American intervention. He framed himself as a fighter against Western aggression, positioning himself as someone who empathized with the pain and injustice experienced by Muslims around the world.

Q: How did Bin Laden's ideologies and motivation differ from traditional Islamic scholarship?

Bin Laden's ideologies differed from traditional Islamic scholarship in that he was not a religious scholar himself, but rather a charismatic leader who drew upon various modern and historical ideologies. While he incorporated some Islamic concepts into his rhetoric, his broader narratives and arguments were rooted in geopolitical concerns, inequality, and a desire to challenge American imperialism.

Q: What role did media and technology play in Bin Laden's recruitment efforts?

Bin Laden and other extremist groups have effectively employed media and technology to disseminate their messages, recruit followers, and spread their ideologies. They recognized the power of visual imagery, music, and social media platforms to appeal to a global audience. By utilizing media, they were able to reach marginalized individuals, providing a sense of belonging and a space to voice their frustrations and grievances.

Q: How did US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, contribute to the rise of Bin Laden and extremism?

US foreign policy, particularly in the Middle East, had a significant impact in fueling grievances that extremist groups like al-Qaeda sought to exploit. American interventions in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as support for repressive regimes, led to increased anti-American sentiment and helped recruit followers to extremist causes. The perception of America as an imperial power and its disregard for the suffering of Muslim populations provided a framework for extremist narratives.


In this conversation, historian Robert Crews discusses the United States' invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and whether it was a mistake. He shares his perspective as a historian and his observations in the aftermath of 9/11. Crews also provides insights into the history of the region and his personal experiences in Uzbekistan, offering context for understanding the events of 9/11 and the decision to invade Afghanistan.

Questions & Answers

Q: Was it a mistake for the United States to invade Afghanistan in 2001?

Yes, it was a mistake. From a historical perspective, the decision to invade Afghanistan was based on panic and the desire to show strength and resolve. The Bush administration did not fully consider the complexities of the situation and the nature of the enemy they were fighting.

Q: Why did the Bush administration choose to invade Afghanistan?

The Bush administration felt a sense of crisis and a need to take action following the 9/11 attacks. They wanted to demonstrate their resolve and legitimacy as a government. However, they did not thoroughly consider the connections between Afghanistan, the enemy, and the attacks, leading to a misinterpretation of the situation.

Q: What were the events and statements made in the minutes, hours, days, and weeks after 9/11?

After the 9/11 attacks, there was a sense of panic and fear among the American people and government officials. Crews, who was in DC at the time, recalls the anxiety and concern, as well as the rumors and unconfirmed reports of potential further attacks. The media coverage, particularly Russian news, provided a raw and unfiltered view of the violence, which emphasized the severity of the situation. There were also commentators discussing Afghanistan and its connections to the attacks, which influenced the perception that Afghanistan was to blame.

Q: What was the timeline of the invasion of Afghanistan?

The actual invasion of Afghanistan occurred later, but the decision to invade was made in the aftermath of 9/11. Crews mentions that in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, there was a focus on understanding the connections between Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda. Barnett Rubin, an expert on Afghanistan, was one of the commentators who contributed to the narrative that Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda were closely linked. It was during this time that Crews started thinking about the suffering of the Afghan people and the potential consequences of a war in Afghanistan.

Q: What was the context in which you observed the events of 9/11 and the subsequent discussions about Afghanistan?

Crews was living in Uzbekistan at the time and had a connection to the Afghan community there. He had gotten to know young Afghan traders who were part of a trading diaspora in Uzbekistan. This experience shaped his understanding of Afghanistan and its people. Additionally, his academic interest in studying empire and the region led him to have a broader perspective when analyzing the events of 9/11 and the decisions made by the United States.

Q: What were your thoughts on the morning of 9/11?

Crews recalls feeling a sense of shock and concern when he first heard about the attacks. He saw them as a blow to American power and a symbolic act from a position of relative weakness. He associated the attacks with radical groups that had targeted New York in the past. His immediate thoughts went to the suffering of the Afghan people, as he had personal connections to young Afghan traders in Uzbekistan.

Q: How did the conversation about Afghanistan evolve in the aftermath of 9/11?

Crews witnessed the conversation shifting towards Afghanistan as a potential response to the attacks. He reflects on how this narrative contributed to the assumption that Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda were synonymous. As someone knowledgeable about the region and history, Crews recognized the limitations and inaccuracies of this narrative. He also saw the danger of demonizing Islam and Muslims and the impact it had on the perception of Afghanistan and its people.

Q: What was the proper response or conversation about the invasion of Afghanistan?

Crews acknowledges the difficulties and pressures faced by decision-makers during such intense moments of crisis. He defers to experts in the military and intelligence community regarding the proper response. However, he believes that the Bush administration acted out of ignorance and a desire for revenge, rather than fully understanding the complexities of the situation. He suggests that there were missed opportunities for alternative policies and a lack of consideration for the long-term consequences of invading Afghanistan.

Q: What made Osama bin Laden and others like him become terrorists?

Bin Laden, in particular, was inspired by the idea of jihad in Afghanistan and saw it as an opportunity to take down a superpower. He was part of a larger group of Arabs who joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Their involvement in the conflict was driven by various motivations, such as personal aspirations, religious beliefs, and a desire for adventure. Bin Laden himself came from a wealthy Saudi family and had access to resources that he used to support the mujahideen cause.

Q: Did bin Laden's religious beliefs contribute to his involvement in terrorist acts?

It is difficult to ascertain the exact extent to which bin Laden's religious beliefs influenced his involvement in terrorist acts. However, it is worth noting that many of the leading jihadists, including bin Laden, did not come from religious scholarly backgrounds but rather had backgrounds in engineering and technical fields. Their interpretations of Islam were influenced by their personal experiences and beliefs. There is a tension between Islamic scholars and these "new intellectuals" who bring a secular mindset to religious issues.

Q: How did bin Laden's involvement in the conflict in Afghanistan impact his future actions?

Bin Laden's involvement in the Afghan conflict allowed him to establish networks and connections with other Arabs and like-minded individuals. He became a spokesperson and figurehead for a global jihadist project, capitalizing on his experiences and expertise in engineering and construction. While Afghanistan may not have been his primary focus, his role in the conflict allowed him to gain influence and establish himself as a key figure in the movement.


The invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 was a mistake, driven by panic and a desire to show strength and resolve. The decision was made without fully understanding the complexities of the situation and the nature of the enemy. The narrative that Afghanistan and Al-Qaeda were synonymous was flawed and led to a misinterpretation of the events of 9/11. Osama bin Laden and others like him were driven by various motivations, including personal aspirations and religious beliefs. Their involvement in Afghanistan allowed them to establish connections and influence, leading to their roles as key figures in the global jihadist movement. Understanding the history and context of the region is crucial in analyzing the decisions made during this time.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • Bin Laden's motivations and ideology were multifaceted, grounded in issues such as geopolitics, inequality, and human suffering.

  • He used a range of narratives and arguments to appeal to different audiences, including discussions on imperialism, environmentalism, and gender issues.

  • Bin Laden capitalized on the suffering caused by American intervention in countries like Afghanistan and Iraq, using it as leverage to recruit followers and justify acts of violence.

  • While he became a figurehead for extremist ideologies, Bin Laden's ideas were not solely rooted in Islam, but drew from various modern and historical ideologies.

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