The South Asia Channel

The Ideological Failings of the Afghan War

When the United States led the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the mission was clear: retaliation against the Taliban government for offering safe haven to the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks. Ten years later, the mission is no longer clear — not to the American people, not to the Taliban, not to regional stakeholders, and ...

TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images

When the United States led the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001, the mission was clear: retaliation against the Taliban government for offering safe haven to the masterminds of the 9/11 attacks.

Ten years later, the mission is no longer clear — not to the American people, not to the Taliban, not to regional stakeholders, and unfortunately, not even to the nearly 100,000 American troops struggling to maintain a sense of purpose in some of the most forbidding terrain in the world. And the criticism and challenges to U.S. efforts in Afghanistan abound. What happened?

Too much ideology, that’s what.

Al-Qaeda’s ideology did not take us by surprise, even though the strength and success of the 9/11 attacks did. The organization’s particular brand of jihad, intent on eliminating American influence in Muslim nations, toppling pro-Western regimes in the Middle East, and establishing an Islamist state, was well documented among counterterrorism experts. The alliance between al-Qaeda and the hardline Taliban movement in Afghanistan also made sense on ideological grounds. What was most disconcerting, however, was the equally ideological response by the United States, later labeled the "Bush Doctrine," that it was locked in a war of values with enemies who hated the freedoms offered to American citizens.         

This was the beginning of how the United States lost its way in Afghanistan. What was perceived under the Bush administration as a war of values lost its luster following the invasion of Iraq, and eventually transformed into a counterinsurgency (COIN) war under the Obama administration. In response to widespread criticism that it militarily and financially neglected the Afghanistan war, the United States initiated political, economic, military, and civic engagement under a COIN rubric to defeat the Taliban insurgency. Afghanistan began to look like a super client state, destined to receive billions of dollars in U.S. aid and patronage for years to come. But to what end?

Once again, intellectual underpinnings of the war were poorly conceived. As COIN focused on the provinces, the political approach at the national level suffered from weak engagement with influential external actors, such as Pakistan, India, and Iran. During the presidential campaign and early in his time in office, President Barack Obama himself acknowledged the need for India and Pakistan to resolve their differences to counter instability in Afghanistan. Yet, when the late Amb. Richard C. Holbrooke was named Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan in 2009, the inclusion of India in his portfolio was purposely excluded, in response to pressure from the Indian government (other countries in the region were also not included). As a result, the United States was late to address the role these countries had vis-à-vis the insurgency, governance, and the competition for resources among the many domestic actors in Afghanistan. These countries continue to view U.S. policies on transition and reconciliation as overly ambiguous, de-linked from the military strategy, and having failed at incorporating specific regional concerns.

Unfortunately, opportunities for regional engagement are more limited now than ever before: Pakistan is now viewed as actively trying to block U.S. and Afghan-led reconciliation efforts unless it has a dominant role; the U.S. dialogue with Iran is virtually non-existent; India-Pakistan talks continue, but they are not talking about the bilateral tensions now being played out in Afghanistan. Speculation persists that India, Iran, and Pakistan have intensified outreach to their traditional proxy groups in Afghanistan, readying themselves for a post-U.S. Afghanistan where the "great game" continues whether the U.S. engages them or not. But if the United States seeks a face-saving transition out of Afghanistan by 2014, it must find ways to bring in regional stakeholders more quickly to the negotiating table, despite their competing interests.

Not only were the intellectual underpinnings for the war flawed in setting an impossible standard for victory, the timeframe for their implementation was equally unrealistic. President Obama’s December 2009 speech at West Point provided the first official confirmation of U.S. plans for departure from Afghanistan. In the same breath, President Obama announced 30,000 additional troops would deploy to Afghanistan in the first part of 2010 to target the insurgency and secure key population centers, and also stated that the transfer of U.S. forces out of Afghanistan would begin in July 2011. 

Did the United States really believe it could change the political, socioeconomic, and civic makeup of Afghanistan with 30,000 troops over the span of 19 months? Not for a second. By that time, it was evident that the new U.S. approach was more exit strategy than nation building, as the COIN strategy led us to believe. Obama clarified in June 2011 that all U.S. troops would be out of Afghanistan by 2014, in what appeared to be a newly extended timeline intended to placate regional and international concerns about the possible security impacts of an abrupt U.S. departure.

A welcome statement, it nonetheless represented the fourth shift in the U.S. approach to the war since 2008. The United States went from waging an under-resourced war of values in 2008 to sufficiently funded counterinsurgency in 2009, followed by a 30,000-troop "surge" and initial drawdown timetable set for July 2011, only to be re-characterized as a "transition to Afghan-lead" plan with all troops out of Afghanistan by 2014. These developments are obviously part of a policymaking process influenced by changing political and security conditions on the ground. But unfortunately, too much change in too little time did not create enough tangible security and political gains on the ground in a timeframe that benefited the United States. It also created skepticism among regional and international partners regarding U.S. staying power in Afghanistan.    

Even though threats to U.S. national security interests in Afghanistan persist, the moral and political imperative for continued U.S. military intervention does not.  The United States can best serve its interests by outlining an exit strategy based on political realities and narrowly defined national security interests, one that manages expectations of future progress.

Major divisions persist about the future role of the Taliban. The Taliban are neither foreign to Afghanistan nor are they an apolitical movement. Just like other parties to negotiations, they will likely seek out a defined political space in a new system of governance. The sooner all U.S. government institutions — defense and diplomatic — can agree upon this, the greater the likelihood of a political approach having a positive effect on the battlefield. Unfortunately, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s recent reversal on Taliban negotiations following the death of former Afghan President and High Peace Council chair Burhannudin Rabbani will complicate U.S. reconciliation efforts, as those efforts cannot exist independently of an Afghan-led process. But, the fact remains for Afghanistan as much as it does for the United States, the Taliban must be dealt with — if not sooner through negotiations, then later, unfortunately, through protracted conflict. 

Given the growing economic crisis in the U.S., and the subsequent likelihood of cuts in aid, the United States must now prioritize its national security interests in Afghanistan.  Most urgent is its ability to pursue counterterrorism operations against groups in Afghanistan that directly threaten U.S. interests at home and overseas. The Strategic Partnership Agreement currently being negotiated between the United States and Afghanistan can lay the foundation for this, but only if it provides a security assurance that U.S. interests at home and overseas will not be threatened by Afghanistan-based groups. Even then, the major wild card will be Pakistan. An agreement with Afghanistan means nothing without Pakistan’s commitment to offer the same assurances with regard to Pakistan-linked groups in Afghanistan and those based in Pakistan. Unfortunately, under the current circumstances, the likelihood of such a commitment is virtually impossible, as it would require either a commitment from Pakistan to take on militant groups should they attack the United States or admit their own (currently alleged) links to some of these groups.

Finally, despite ten years of blood and treasure lost in Afghanistan, the United States must accept the reality of more conflict upon its departure. No reconciliation effort, successful or otherwise, will completely eliminate the domestic and foreign competition for power, influence, and dominance in Afghanistan. That is a game in which the United States itself will continue to be engaged, but hopefully one for which it will be less responsible.

Adopting an approach of less ownership of Afghanistan’s problems, prioritizing U.S. national security interests, and acknowledging the realities that reconciliation will impose on the Afghan government as well as the international community will allow the United States to withdraw troops so that it can start on its own reconciliation policy at home — a process that should seek to identify long-term U.S. interests and strategy in a post-war South Asia — which may prove even more difficult and drawn out than that in Afghanistan.

Shamila N. Chaudhary is a South Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

NEXT: Jenna Jordan, Killing al-Qaeda?

Shamila N. Chaudhary is Senior Advisor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and Senior South Asia Fellow at New America. She served as Director of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the White House National Security Council from 2010 – 2011.

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