In truth, there is little that one can say about Afghanistan that has not already been said in twenty years. In a nutshell: America’s longest war was lost long ago–perhaps as much as seventeen or eighteen years ago–though reality is only now catching up with policymakers. President Biden’s decision to largely honor the deal negotiated by former President Trump means that American troops will finally leave Afghanistan by September 11th, 2021, effectively bookending a two-decade war in the highest profile theatre of the global war on terror.
The costs have been high. According to Brown University’s Costs of War Project, the war in Afghanistan has cost a stunning $2.26 trillion. Those costs will not end when the United States withdraws; care for veterans and interest on the debt will likely add billions more in coming decades.[i] More importantly, the war cost the lives of at least 2,400 U.S. servicemembers and several thousand contractors. From the war’s earliest successes, through the Obama-era troop surge, to the slow decline of U.S. interest and presence in the country over the last decade, Afghanistan has represented a largely insoluble political problem. For twenty years, the United States and its partners struggled to impose western democratic institutions and liberal norms in a minimally developed and largely unconsolidated nation state, despite copious political science research suggesting it was likely impossible. Even the Obama-era troop surge proved incapable of turning the corner of an intractable conflict. Ultimately, it was the hackneyed tropes about Afghanistan as the “graveyard of empires” that ended up predicting the outcome correctly.
Of course, it is in many ways misleading to portray America’s withdrawal as a total defeat. Afghanistan’s civil war has lasted four decades; it started long before the American invasion, and it will likely last beyond America’s retreat. That America failed to end the war, or to reshape Afghan society, does not mean our intervention was an entirely pointless endeavor. As President Biden was at pains to point out in his withdrawal speech, U.S. troops actually succeeded in the more modest goals they went to Afghanistan to achieve in 2001, toppling the Taliban from power and breaking up the terrorist strongholds in that country. “War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking,” Biden argued. “We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives. Bin Laden is dead, and al Qaeda is degraded in Iraq — in Afghanistan. And it’s time to end the forever war.”
His last point, however, is more questionable. Afghanistan may not have started as a forever war, but it has long been the poster child for mission creep even in a well-justified conflict. It is also just the tip of the iceberg. Withdrawal has been rightly hailed as a step in the right direction, finally beginning the process of ending the global war on terror. And it is certainly a win for antiwar activists, proving that it is indeed possible to end one of America’s interminable counterterrorism deployments. Indeed, the withdrawal from Afghanistan puts the nail in the coffin of at least one part of the Bush Freedom Agenda, the idea that the world could be reshaped into a pro-American, democratic paradise by force. As Bush put it in his second inaugural address, U.S. policy was nothing less than “the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.”[ii] Public opinion has increasingly turned against that notion. The Biden administration’s choice to withdraw all U.S. forces from Afghanistan is broadly popular; recent polls show that over half of Americans now support either downsizing or ending the U.S. presence in Afghanistan.[iii] A supermajority of the U.S. public–as well as veterans who fought in those wars–now say that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars were not worth fighting.[iv] Just twenty percent of Americans now consider promoting democracy abroad to be a top foreign policy priority.[v]
Perhaps more importantly, the Afghanistan withdrawal is a sign that Washington’s foreign policy community has soured on the notion of nation-building as a core tenet of foreign policy–or at least, on the notion that such things can be achieved through military means. As one report from the Center for American Progress put it, “The United States has numerous tools to vigorously defend its values and advance democracy without seeking to impose it using force.”[vi] Martin Indyk, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations, recently argued that “it is time for the U.S. to find a way to escape the costly, demoralizing cycle of crusades and retreats….never-ending wars and grandiose objectives” in the Middle East.[vii] Meanwhile, Jake Sullivan, now President Biden’s National Security Advisor, argued in 2019 that Iraq was “one of the most catastrophic decisions in American history,” resulting in “an open-ended military commitment that spans multiple countries.”[viii] In short, though regime-change fervor still exists in some quarters, Washington has, for the most part, thankfully abandoned its post-9/11 fervor for regime change and nation-building.
Yet in other ways, withdrawing from Afghanistan will not resolve America’s broader problem with endless wars. Though it may not have seemed it, Afghanistan was in reality one of the easier legacies of the war on terror to resolve. It was a clearly delineated conflict, in one specific country. There was widespread public awareness of the conflict (if not actual interest in the details), and public opinion had turned against it long ago. There has been a growing antiwar movement within the Democratic Party, and a sense among the Republican base–fueled by Donald Trump’s pronouncements–that nation-building was not in American interests. And perhaps most importantly, there was a strong sense of “mission creep.” Because our initial goals in Afghanistan were more circumscribed–the toppling of the Taliban rather than the end of terrorism, for example–it was possible to argue that the mission in Afghanistan today was not what had originally been intended.
Even with that, it took a decade or more for American leaders to overcome the political disincentives to withdrawal. No president, after all, wanted to be the man who lost Afghanistan. If not for Donald Trump’s personal idiosyncrasies–and his willingness to ignore criticism–it is possible the Afghanistan withdrawal would not have happened at all. They say that only Nixon could have gone to China; one might say only Trump could have opened negotiations with the Taliban. Biden is the beneficiary of that unusual circumstance. Afghanistan thus serves as a cautionary tale for those who seek to end the broader war on terror, which in some ways poses bigger operational, political, and legislative challenges. In 2019, there were U.S. troops in approximately forty percent of the world’s countries; some of these countries host bases; some have been targeted with drone strikes; and others have U.S. troops on the ground in combat, engaged in various forms of partner advising, or on train-and-equip missions.[ix] All of these will continue in the aftermath of an Afghan withdrawal.
Indeed, it is often challenging to ascertain where U.S. troops are actually fighting; the line between “training” missions and “combat” missions can shift in minutes under battlefield conditions. Consider the 2017 deaths of four American soldiers in Niger, which came as a surprise not only to the public, but to members of Congress, many of whom were unaware that troops might be fighting in that country–or even on that continent.[x] The soldiers were technically tasked to a partner support mission, which nonetheless brought them close enough to the frontlines for an ambush to turn deadly. And this was not an isolated case. The overlapping web of authorities used for foreign military deployments–Titles 10 and 50 of the U.S. Code (which authorize covert actions and espionage), Article 2 of the U.S. Constitution (which gives the president his Commander-in-Chief role over the U.S. military), various stand-alone Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs) in specific conflicts–often differentiate military missions far less than one might think. And the nebulous nature of these commitments makes it challenging for Congress to perform oversight of America’s military campaigns. It also makes it harder to end those deployments. How can one end endless war, after all, if one doesn’t know where or how it’s being fought?
It short, it’s a situation well-suited to legislative inertia. There is a growing level of agreement within Congress–and in Washington more generally–that the 2001 AUMF, which authorized the original invasion of Afghanistan, needs to be repealed. It is clearly outdated; few sitting members of Congress voted for it. It is also excessively broad, having been used to justify not only the fight against al Qaeda, but also against offshoots like ISIS, and associated groups like Boko Haram. But there is little agreement on how to proceed after repeal. Some in congress want to repeal the AUMF entirely; many others want to repeal and replace it with newer authorities, whether broader or more circumscribed. Some want to insert sunset clauses that require regular congressional debate and re-authorization.[xi] This lack of agreement on what to do next means that basic repeal of even lapsed AUMFs like the 2002 Iraq War AUMF has so far been stymied in Congress. There are considerable doubts about whether any administration will consent to having its power over questions of war and peace constrained in this way.
The continuation of the war on terror thus remains largely a political problem. Many of the same dilemmas exposed by the debate over Afghanistan are in play in the broader debate about America’s post-9/11 wars. The notion of failed states as a breeding ground for extremism persists in the popular imagination, though much of the research on counterterrorism suggests that this is far less of a problem than commonly assumed. And though the overall level of terror threat is low, politicians remain highly risk averse. Indeed, the argument against withdrawal that persisted longest on Afghanistan was the notion that maintaining a small troop presence there could act as a relatively low-cost “insurance policy” against a potentially catastrophic future terrorist attack, reflecting the long-running notion that it’s better to fight terrorists over there than over here. It’s a relatively misleading argument, yet in the absence of the domestic pressure we saw on Afghanistan, this risk aversion may carry the day. The Afghanistan withdrawal represents the beginning of the end of the war on terror, but it is certainly not the inevitable end.
However, there is a glimmer of hope in Washington’s increasing obsession with so-called “Great Power Competition.” The concept originated in the Trump administration’s 2017 National Security Strategy, which argued that American power is being challenged by states like China and Russia in a competition that “requires the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades.”[xii] Washington has wholeheartedly embraced the concept, as has the Biden administration; indeed, Biden’s first address to a joint session of congress was largely centered around the notion of competing with China. And though it has not immediately led to a drawdown in America’s war on terror conflicts, it is likely that a renewed focus on peer competitors like China and Russia might lead these counterterror missions to atrophy. It will not necessarily be a clean exit from the post-9/11 wars, which are likely to continue in some diminished form. Nor is Great Power Competition necessarily something to be welcomed. But as budgetary dollars shift toward great power competition, bureaucratic incentives to prioritize these counterterrorism missions will decline.
Ultimately, the withdrawal from Afghanistan should be seen less–as the president described it–as an end to the “forever war,” and more as the start of a long process of ending a twenty-year war on terror. Afghanistan itself represents a microcosm of America’s foreign policy during those two decades: from righteous struggle to overconfidence and overstretch, followed by disillusionment, and eventually, retreat. One can only hope that America’s next foreign policy crusade is less ambitious and more realistic.