Afghanistan: A Sideshow in U.S. Grand Strategy

by James D. Boys

Ending the U.S. mission in Afghanistan resulted in an outpouring of disbelief at what Tony Blair viewed as the policy’s “imbecilic” execution. Leaving Afghanistan was always going to be tough, but few could have imagined it would be handled so poorly and result in the loss of American lives. The flaws in the evacuation reflect long-standing defects in American engagement in Afghanistan, overseen by four successive administrations. 

George W. Bush’s decision to jettison the Powell Doctrine ensured that an adequate force was never deployed, while the subsequent decision to invade Iraq revealed Afghanistan to be a mere sideshow for U.S. grand strategy. President Obama’s 2014 announcement of a withdrawal timetable assured the Taliban that they merely needed to bide their time and await America’s eventual departure. The Trump administration’s peace deal, designed to end an “endless war,” exacerbated a sense that long-term thinking was a relic of a bygone era. Announcing his flawed withdrawal policy, President Biden asked, “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point, with al-Qaeda gone?” 

This reflects the ambiguous approach the United States adopted toward Afghanistan, which is evident in the National Security Strategy reports that have been produced over the past two decades. 

As addressed in Clinton’s Grand Strategy, the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Department of Defense Reorganization Act compelled the White House to formulate a coherent approach to foreign policy in a report to Congress: the National Security Strategy (NSS). 

The first report of the post 9/11 era, issued in 2002, acknowledged that Afghanistan had been “low on the list of major planning contingencies” prior to the attacks. It observed that while Afghanistan had “been liberated; coalition forces continue to hunt down the Taliban and al-Qaeda.” The report concluded that the United States would work with international organizations, including the United Nations, to provide “the humanitarian, political, economic, and security assistance necessary to rebuild Afghanistan so that it will never again abuse its people, threaten its neighbors, and provide a haven for terrorists.” This constituted the only forward-looking observation regarding the future of Afghanistan. 

By 2006, the NSS recognized that“winning the War on Terror requires winning the battles in Afghanistan and Iraq.” Addressing the two nations in this manner reflected the evolution of U.S. grand strategy, as Afghanistan became a secondary focus. The paper concluded that the “successes already won . . . must be consolidated,” noting that “the Afghan people deserve the support of the United States and the entire international community.” Beyond such platitudes, the report issued no indication of intent.

The Obama administration’s first NSS was published in 2010, by which point the United States had been at war for nearly a decade. Having campaigned against the War on Terror to gain his party’s nomination and then secure the presidency, Obama pledged to “disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qaeda.” Foreshadowing events of August 2021, the report warned that the “danger from this region will only grow if security slides backward,” allowing the Taliban to “control large swathes of Afghanistan.” The attention given to Afghanistan in this report was the most extensive to date. Never before and not since, would the nation garner such attention. The report made clear, however, that the long-term future of Afghanistan would not be the sole responsibility of the United States; it expected to work with the United Nations “to improve accountability and effective governance.” With Osama bin Laden eluding justice, the United States recognized the need to ensure “the capacity necessary for security, economic growth, and good governance,” which it recognized as being “the only path to long term peace and security” in Afghanistan. 

When Afghanistan was addressed in the 2015 report, however, it was to announce the United States had “moved beyond the large ground wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that defined so much of American foreign policy over the past decade.” Conflating Iraq and Afghanistan once more, the report noted that U.S. troop levels in both countries stood at 15,000, down from nearly 180,000 in January 2009. Having removed the Taliban from power and eradicated bin Laden, the administration reported that it remained committed to enacting policies to “mitigate the threat from terrorism and to support a viable peace and reconciliation process to end the violence in Afghanistan and improve regional stability.” 

Yet by the time the Trump administration unveiled its NSS in 2017, Afghanistan had returned to its role as an afterthought in U.S. grand strategy. Trump announced that his administration sought “a stable and self-reliant Afghanistan,” but failed to explain how this would come about, other than by continuing “to partner with Afghanistan to promote peace and security in the region . . . to promote anti-corruption reform in Afghanistan, to increase the legitimacy of its government and reduce the appeal of violent extremist organizations.”

The National Security Strategy reveals that Afghanistan has never been more than a setting for larger ideological conflicts, firstly with the Soviets and subsequently with terrorist groups. 

Despite having been the initial focus of the War on Terror, Afghanistan was merely a battleground upon which a war was waged, never a land to be successfully tamed and democratized. As Admiral Mullen suggested, a withdrawal after bin Laden’s death in 2011 would have been understandable, since what began as an operation to overthrow a regime and eliminate a terrorist leader, became an exercise in nation building. In this regard, the mission has failed at a cost of trillions of dollars, thousands of American and allied lives, and countless Afghan fatalities

Now Biden, who as vice president counselled against launching the operation that killed bin Laden, has withdrawn all remaining U.S. forces in Afghanistan. When his administration releases its National Security Strategy it will be telling to see if it makes more than scant reference to Afghanistan, or to any substantive attempt to preserve the peace and democratic values that had been fought for by so many over the past two decades.

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