The Taliban’s stunning victory has unsettled many in the United States and around the world. The speed with which the group took Kabul turned Joe Biden’s risky decision to withdraw completely from Afghanistan into an utterly embarrassing fiasco even before twin suicide bombings on Thursday killed 12 U.S. troops and, according to reports, 90 Afghans. And it is leading many to reexamine not only the war in Afghanistan, but also overall U.S. foreign policy. The question is whether to retrench, redouble, or reform.
For the retrenchers, the message is clear: Afghanistan is just one of many places from which Americans should retreat. These neo-isolationists recite the litany of American mistakes and failures in Afghanistan to make a broader point: American foreign policy leaders across both parties have for decades pursued unattainable goals through foolhardy methods as the country has deteriorated.
As they see it, nation building in Afghanistan is the most emblematic of American failures. After defeating the Taliban, the U.S. attempted to create a heavily centralized national government in a country that had rarely been governed in such a manner. Still more ambitious, the traditional Afghan forums for developing consensus were expanded into a full democracy that would reconcile disparate ethnic groups while empowering women and the LBGT community. This new government was to be protected by a large military that would train and fight like the U.S. military, albeit with somewhat less technological sophistication. Every component of this strategy has failed abysmally.
Nation building is only one of a set of American mistakes, however. Many in this camp, conservatives included, think that Barack Obama was right when he called for nation building at home. Voters agree: Remember that George W. Bush ran on a largely domestic-policy platform and changed course only after September 11. And every successful presidential candidate this century has campaigned on pursuing a more restrained foreign policy. Some retrenchers lament that the U.S. will still fight terrorists intent on attacking Americans and harming U.S. interests abroad; others that Washington has not yet ceded control of the Indo-Pacific to Beijing. To these self-styled “realists,” combating climate change or vanquishing internal political opponents are higher priorities than supporting a global balance of power that favors American interests.
To others, this sounds like callousness and defeatism in the middle of a disaster for human rights and democracy, and we must redouble our efforts to prevent another such catastrophe. The spectacle of Taliban fighters mowing down surrendering troops and bestowing unwilling young Afghan women as “brides” on their fighters is as horrifying as it was preventable. The media has been filled with story after story of brave Afghans who risked their lives working with Americans and inventive and determined women building a better future for themselves under challenging circumstances, all condemned to suffer under a new regime that has admitted that it is open to mutilating and torturing to death its opponents. American and allied forces defeated ISIS with few American casualties and at relatively little expense: Might the Taliban have been kept at bay longer?
Even worse, the damage may spread beyond Central Asia. Does abandoning the Afghans mark an end to American support for democracy and human rights abroad? Will the Taliban’s victory embolden al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups around the world? Can American allies and partners trust their security guarantees anymore? Will China and Russia press their advantages because of perceived American weakness and war fatigue? Who can say?
The fundamentally unsound advice offered by both the retrenchers and the redoublers stems from the same source: the never-ending search among American intellectuals for a foreign policy doctrine that will reconcile our varied interests and offer a template for action. This mistake leads to arguments over abstractions that are then imposed onto any topic under consideration, with predictable consequences. For example, the admonition against nation building makes sense in light of the collapse in Afghanistan, but it seems foolhardy to Americans who do not want to see Colombia devolve into a failed state overrun by narcotraffickers. Strategic concepts that can delineate priorities and clarify challenges are valuable for decisionmakers, but a doctrinaire insistence on withdrawal is of no more value than the refrain that a setback for democracy anywhere poses an existential threat to freedom in the United States.
Afghanistan is a warning against both retrenchment and redoubling. A loss in one theater does not necessarily lead inexorably to defeat elsewhere, and many allies and partners are built on sturdier foundations than the Afghan government was. However, the neo-isolationists’ blithe assumption that the U.S. can substantially reduce its presence and commitments abroad without adverse effects for Americans shows how pollyannaish and idealistic they are in the face of hard realities. How realistic is it to believe that Taiwan’s 24 million citizens can secure a strategically pivotal part of the world on their own against China? Or that the jihadists will, after winning this tremendous victory, stop trying to harm American interests and kill Americans? Biden has already admitted that the Afghan branch of ISIS affiliate is resurging, and jihadists around the world arehailing the Taliban’s triumph as proof that their side is on the ascent. Yesterday’s suicide bombings shows the danger that still threatens.
At the same time, this defeat should caution us against charging after a quick success to reverse our losing streak. Americans have advocated internationally for human rights and democracy since the founding and there is little reason to believe that we will stop entirely in 2021, but Afghanistan has shown starkly the limits of our ability to do so. The billions of dollars of aid allocated to democracy promotion, education, and women’s empowerment were ultimately only as effective as the Afghan armed forces, which we failed to prepare properly. Many aspects of international life that we take for granted depend on the effective exercise of American power and are more unstable than we realize. For that reason, American power is an asset that should be guarded zealously and used carefully.
America’s defeat in Afghanistan shows that its foreign policy urgently needs reform. Like most defeats, this one has many causes, among them our inadequacy at identifying the dynamics that would lead to victory, creating policies to control those dynamics, implementing those policies effectively, and adjusting to our adversary’s actions. Each of these shortcomings against a stronger opponent could be devastating.
Perhaps the greatest failure has been at defining our objectives. The leaked “Afghanistan Papers” published by the Washington Post in 2019 reveal the confusion American troops and officials experienced. Objectives were rarely defined and articulated clearly, and frequently contradicted one another. Some of this is to be expected–few wars are as straightforward as a mathematical theorem–but the consistency of this failure is remarkable. Notably, the military learned in Vietnam how challenging it is to combat an opponent that has safe havens in another country, but no president successfully pressured our “major non-NATO ally” Pakistan to stop supporting our enemies. Washington is full of very intelligent and knowledgeable experts, but the expansive interagency apparatus did not generate a coherent or successful strategy.
Despite this confusion, the military eventually developed a set of tactics that has worked reasonably well (rely on Afghan ground forces to find enemies and destroy them from the air), but that took more than a decade and cost two thousand American lives against an enemy that was vicious and determined, but not nearly as lethal or well-equipped as most of our conceivable adversaries. Moreover, this tactical blueprint made the Afghan military reliant on American logistical support and air power even though it was clear that American voters wanted to end our presence in Afghanistan.
The fact that, after nearly two decades of operations in Afghanistan, senior U.S. leadership was so blind to the consequences of the withdrawal suggests that many of our best and brightest have sunk into a stupefying complacency about our adversaries. Against the Taliban, this is dismaying; against other opponents, it would be catastrophic. Two months ago, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Milley reassured Congress that in China, “there is little intent right now or motivation” to attack Taiwan militarily, overruling former Indo-Pacific commander Adm. Philip Davidson’s more urgent warning. Who is right? If China strikes earlier than we expect, will Xi Jinping go easy on us for a decade while we figure out a response?
After a devastating upset loss in the 1960 NFL playoffs, legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi opened his team’s next training camp by saying, “gentlemen, this is a football,” and retraining the team from the ground up on football fundamentals. Unlike in sports, our adversaries do not take time off for us to evaluate and fix problems, but the events of the past two decades–not merely the past two weeks–suggest that our problem is not merely poor doctrine, but a failure to correctly identify and respond to challenges and opportunities. Because the U.S. has global interests, this is an extremely challenging task. It grows harder as the world becomes more complex and more threatening, but also more vital to perform well. There are many parts of the world that stand on a knife’s edge, and the next slip may cause even greater harm than this one.
Mike Watson is the associate director of Hudson Institute’s Center for the Future of Liberal Society.