The aftermath of the United States’ withdrawal from Afghanistan—following the loose terms of an agreement made between the Trump Administration and the Taliban in February 2020—has generated a flood of analyses and think-pieces on the “consequences” for American “credibility” and “international stature”. No one can or should disagree with the assessment that the outcome, as demonstrated by the events of the last week, is tragic for the Afghan people. And for the U.S., no president in the last 20 years imagined leaving an Afghanistan that would be as dysfunctional as it was prior to the American invasion in October 2001.
However, what these assessments of U.S. foreign policy and the legacy of American leadership ignore makes their conclusions regarding credibility and prestige specious, if not outright fallacious. In order to suggest that the U.S. failed in its objectives for Afghanistan, and that these failures are likely to result in geopolitical consequences with respect to standing vis-a-vis allies and adversaries, we must first state clearly what those American objectives were. But therein lies the problem: no equitable post-mortem of the American Afghan policy can offer an explanation of that policy for simple the reason that one did not and does not exist—at least not beyond the immediate objective of evicting al Qaeda from Afghanistan and denying it any future haven there.
Put simply, there may be no tangible consequences for U.S. credibility and international standing due to the Afghanistan fiasco because the U.S. lacked any clearly-defined long-term objective for being there in the first place. If we are going to accuse someone of failing at something, we must first point to what he was trying to accomplish; if we cannot, then what was there to fail at? To better understand this point, it is imperative that we revisit the primary and immediate objective for American policymakers in the wake of the September 11 attacks. At the time, President George W. Bush made it clear when he addressed a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001 and made the following demands to the Taliban leaders of Afghanistan: (1) deliver to American officials any and all leaders of al Qaeda currently seeking refuge there; (2) dismantle the entirely of the “terrorist training camp” infrastructure; (3) and surrender to the
U.S. anyone who aided and abetted those who facilitated the 9/11 attacks and other “acts of terrorism” abroad. The Americans then enshrined these specific objectives into military action with “Operation Enduring Freedom”, which began on October 7 in response to the Taliban’s failure to comply with those three sets of demands.
With the capture and death of Osama Bin Laden in neighboring Pakistan in 2011, and the subsequent dismantling and weakening of what remained of al Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan, the first of the three objectives were met. As a result of the efforts of American and NATO forces from 2011 through 2014, the terrorist training camp infrastructure ceased to exist in any meaningful way, thereby satisfying the second objective. And we can disregard the third objective because its purpose was satisfied by U.S. covert and counterintelligence operations all across the world, as all major al Qaeda leaders and principle supporters—including state and non-state financiers—were neutralized. With the death of Bin Laden and soon thereafter, the short-term objectives of the U.S. following the 9/11 attacks were satisfied; al Qaeda was never able to reconstitute in Afghanistan and launch a successful attack on American soil in the last 20 years.
Viewed from this perspective, Operation Enduring Freedom was a success—al Qaeda in Afghanistan was vanquished, its terrorist camps liquidated, and its leader eliminated. It was what followed, however, that paved the way towards the withdrawal fiasco we have witnessed this week.
By many accounts, Enduring Freedom should have defined the scope and limits of American operations in Afghanistan. If the initial purpose of U.S. intervention was to eliminate the Qaeda presence there and remove Bin Laden as a threat, then it should be considered a successful intervention because that purpose was satisfied. But immediately following Enduring Freedom came Operation Freedom’s Sentinel—and here is where the trouble begins.
Whereas Enduring Freedom had several measurable goals, Freedom’s Sentinel offered only vague promises: counterinsurgency operations meant to stabilize the country and allow for NATO-led nation-building to take its course. The issue with both counterinsurgency and nation-building is that they are strategies rather than objectives, and it is near impossible to know with confidence when you have succeeded at either. What the U.S. pursued with Freedom’s Sentinel were chimeric ambitions; what it needed were achievable outcomes.
Operation Freedom’s Sentinel officially began on January 1 of 2015, nearly four years after Bin Laden was found and killed. By that point, the U.S. had met its tangible military objectives in Afghanistan. From 2015 all the way through the present, the Americans and their NATO allies devoted their resources to building and maintaining the trappings of a new Afghan civil society, entirely from scratch. Without a handbook, model, guide, or comparable precedent, the Western nations envisioned an opportunity to graft a system of social, economic, military, and political development based on their own experience onto the new Afghanistan. The unique challenge that they may or may not have been aware of was that Afghanistan, like many other neo-states in the region (especially those formed by the British and French in the aftermath of World War I) had weak-to-nonexistent national bonds and operated more through a loose and informal federation of tribal allegiances.
Instability as a result of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 was compounded by a decade of civil war after the Soviets withdrew. The civil war only ended after the coalition forces attacked Afghanistan in October of 2001. This means that for the last 40 years, Afghans have only experienced brief pockets of respite from civil strife or foreign invasion and occupation. The impact of 40-plus years of political instability includes impediments to building strong national bonds, and a state that is bereft of a strong and cohesive national identity is not one where civil society can thrive and flourish. To complicate matters further, we must add to this mix of war and misery the presence of tens of thousands of foreign “mujahideen” fighters from Arab nations and Pakistan over those years—a group of men whose loyalty is to an ideology and not to a state.
Taking all of these factors in sum—foreign invasion and occupation, followed by civil war, followed by totalitarian rule featuring many non-indigenous folks, followed by another foreign invasion in the wake of the greatest terrorist attack of the 21st century—all of them in a country where loyalties reside with family and tribal leaders rather than political operatives, in a culture with no tradition of the rule of law or basic “civic-hood”, and where corruption in and mistrust of government are endemic … what can be expected even in the best of circumstances? Under Operation Freedom’s Sentinel, the circumstances in which the U.S. operated were far from best. And without clearly-defined, actionable, and measurable objectives, any operation would be doomed to failure from the start. Which brings us back to where we started.
To the extent that the U.S. “failed” in Afghanistan, it was not for a lack of proper execution of policy. Rather, the failure is due to the lack of a policy to properly execute. And to the extent that there should be any consequences for international credibility, power, or stature as a result of this fiasco, it should not be with respect to American policy, but to the general belief that weak or failed states can be rebuilt by stronger ones, rather than by their own citizens. Among the casualties that mark this year in Afghan history, it should also include this principle: that nationbuilding is an actionable, achievable, and desirable policy—or that it is a policy at all, for that matter.
Dr. Benjamin Radd is a political scientist at the University of California and a Teaching Fellow at the Center for Middle East Development at the UCLA International Institute.
Cover Photo: A boy carries Taliban flags to sell in the Karte Mamorin area of Kabul – August 22, 2021 (Hoshang Hashimi / AFP).
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