The Age of Nation Building is Over: American Grand Strategy After Afghanistan

By Daniel Baxter

Naval Seabees construct Camp Deh Dadi II in Afghanistan in 2010
Image Credit: Michael Watkins/DVIDS

The tragic end of America’s 20 year building project in Afghanistan, and subsequent Taliban takeover of the country, should mark an important turning point in American grand strategy.

The conflict in Afghanistan serves as an important lesson in the limited effectiveness of great power interventions, especially interventions to change a country’s regime type and defeat insurgencies.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, often heralded as the sign of imperial decline or military weakness, is a move that strengthens the US by saving billions of dollars and preventing further US casualties in Afghanistan that would yield few, if any benefits for US national security.

The return of great power competition with rivals such as Russia and China calls for an American grand strategy focused on great power competition in Europe and East Asia, and a more targeted counter-terrorism strategy that eschews protracted counterinsurgency or nation-building efforts.

Any assessment of the 20 year US presence in Afghanistan should distinguish between the relative success of the US’s original counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan and the more costly, ineffective US counterinsurgency and state building efforts.

By the late 2000s, the jihadist movement had become far more internally divided, and Osama bin Laden’s ability to communicate Al Qaeda remnants elsewhere in the world was extremely limited. The relative success of US counterterrorism efforts stands in stark contrast to US attempts to defeat the Taliban insurgency by building up an effective Afghan military.

The inherent risks and high cost of US counterinsurgency efforts generally outweigh the benefits, and the US should avoid such nation-building attempts in the future.

How did the Afghan government and military collapse so quickly in the face of the recent Taliban offensive?

An American military presence can help combat an insurgency, but is exceedingly difficult for any great power to compel reforms, change the political calculations of ruling elites in an allied government or build up their partner government’s state capacity.

Recent research by Naval War College Professor Jacqueline Hazelton calls into question the conventional “Hearts and Minds” strategy of winning popular support for a government, and emphasizes the importance of elite bargains.

Although public opinion surveys from as recently as 2019 show very little popular support for the Taliban, a lack of support for Taliban rule clearly did not translate into support for President Ghani’s government. Elite bargaining and coalition was one of the biggest shortcomings of President Ghani’s governance.

For instance, Ghani snubbed influential Herat Warlord Ismail Khan by meeting with Khan for only 15 minutes. A defeat of the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan would depend on a durable political order forged by local elites in a broad, anti-Taliban coalition.

A direct US military intervention can temporarily hold back an insurgency, but outside powers such as the US face tremendous costs and a very low chance of success in influencing a country’s domestic political elites. The costs of US interventions to change a country’s domestic political regime type have a low chance of success, and generally provide little benefits to US national security in proportion to their costs.

With great power competition in regions such as the former Soviet Union and the Indo-Pacific increasing, direct US military interventions in the Middle East have increasingly high opportunity costs.

Terrorist groups such as ISIS-Khorasan, which continue to threaten the lives and property of Americans and US allies, will continue to pose a security threat that is best addressed through US intelligence and airpower, in partnership with US allies, rather than direct US military interventions.

The situation in Afghanistan is rapidly changing at the time of this writing, but there is little chance that the US departure from Afghanistan will provide a geopolitical gain for rival great powers.

The Taliban’s history of support for the Chechen separatist cause in the 1990s, as well the possibility of instability in Afghanistan impacting post-Soviet Central Asia make the Taliban unlikely partners for Russia and other post-Soviet states.

Tajikistan, Afghanistan’s northern neighbor, hosted joint military exercises with Russia near its border with Afghanistan, will not officially recognize the Taliban government.

On paper, Afghanistan’s geographic location and mineral reserves make it an attractive candidate for China’s Belt and Road, but instability and security concerns will continue to limit Chinese trade and investment in Afghanistan for the foreseeable future.

Iran, Afghanistan’s western neighbor, has historically had a confrontational relationship with the Taliban. Iran came close to war with the Taliban after the 1998 killing of Iranian diplomats in Afghanistan. The US withdrawal from Afghanistan has eliminated a reason for Iran and the Taliban to cooperate against a common rival, and the welfare of Afghanistan’s Shi’a minority under Taliban rule will be a major point of contention in Tehran’s relationship with the Taliban.

The US withdrawal from Afghanistan, in spite of the rapid collapse of the Afghan government, is the least disastrous possible for a seemingly endless US engagement with no attainable definition of victory or clearly-defined exit strategy.

Predictions of damaged US credibility from the withdrawal are unlikely to harm or call into question US commitments to major allies like other NATO members. The current administration should reevaluate other US defense commitments in the greater Middle East, such as the costs and benefits of a US military presence in Iraq and Syria.

American grand strategy should focus economic and military resources on strengthening US allies in Europe and Asia and preventing an illiberal great power from becoming a hegemon in Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific.

This grand strategy would require prioritizing resources on economic, security, and technological competition with other great powers, as well as strengthening major US allies, and putting an end to regime change wars against autocratic governments.

Daniel Baxter is a recent graduate of George Washington University with a degree in International Affairs. He is also a recent Marcellus Policy Fellow with the John Quincy Adams Society.

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