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Lessons From Afghanistan

Jul 22, 2021
  • Wang Zhen

    Research Professor, Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences

Thanks to the swift withdrawal of U.S.-led international forces from Afghanistan, the Taliban is making a comeback in the country. By early July, according to media reports, the Taliban controlled more than 85 percent of the country’s territory, and it’s a foregone conclusion that the group will be back in power. For the past two decades, the United States has been engaged in a “war against terrorism” in Afghanistan, starting in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. Now it’s leaving hastily and recklessly under the pretext of “great power competition.” Two decades on, the episode begs the question: Has America’s strategic goal in Afghanistan been achieved? What are the lessons?

Sept. 11 saw a major attack on the U.S. heartland, as psychologically significant as Pearl Harbor. For the Bush administration, a forceful response was required, both on the grounds of domestic politics and international standing. However, the war — styled as the “global war on terror” — deviated from its purpose from the beginning, so much so that the tactical success of the U.S. military has failed to salvage the longest war in history. There are at least three lessons that can be drawn while we assess the gains and losses of America’s two-decades in Afghanistan.

 The first is a substantial expansion of counter-terrorism objectives, leading to a serious decoupling between strategic resources and strategic objectives. The ultimate goal of the war against terrorism launched by the Bush administration was not only to avenge the attacks of al-Qaida and the Taliban, which provided shelter, but to reshape the international political landscape by calling it a global war. Afghanistan was a breakthrough intended to shore up the unipolar hegemony of the United States established after the Cold War.

This is where the goals of the war on terror have been expanded to what Ambassador Chase W. Freeman calls “undefinable.” Before the war in Afghanistan was over, the George W. Bush administration was engaged in outright regime change in Iraq, in disregard of strong opposition from the international community. Although the U.S. military overthrew Saddam Hussein, who was anti-America, it lost the best opportunity for reconstruction in Afghanistan, opened a Pandora Box of geopolitical imbalance and sectarian conflict in the Middle East and further stoked anti-American sentiment and radical Islamic movements around the world.

Second, unilateralism and parochial diplomacy in the name of this global war have virtually unraveled the unified anti-terror front that was formed globally after 9/11. International cooperation is essential to the fight against international terrorism, but the U.S. was unable to shake off the egoism that drives its anti-terrorism policy.

Since the 1980s, the United States has targeted anti-American regimes by calling them purveyors of “state-sponsored terrorism.” Even after 9/11, this approach of identifying terrorist activities based on self-interest and closeness of relations has not changed much. In the meantime, the U.S. has been using a double standard in dealing with counterterrorism activities with non-allies such as China and Russia. Some observers even believe that the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan was a strategic move to contain China, Russia and Iran.

In other words, the outpouring of sympathy and support for the U.S. after 9/11 not only failed to yield returns, but some countries (such as Pakistan and Egypt) that actively supported the U.S. against terrorism have been forced to bear huge costs stemming from terrorist retaliation, including military investment and political risks.

Last but not least, a blind copy of the Western political model was responsible for the failure of reconstruction in Afghanistan and its untenable social order and governance. Since the end of World War II, democracy featuring elections and a representative system has been regarded as ideal by the West, and the U.S. has successfully transformed some countries aided by Western democracy in the postwar period. However, for developing countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, which have strong Islamic traditions, political loyalty and policy choices are often dictated by their tribes and sects, so relying solely on elections, which are merely procedural, may not lead to reasonable political outcomes and effective modern governance.

In the political vision of Afghanistan after 9/11 the U.S. military has repeatedly excluded and delegitimized the Taliban, but it has never been able to root out the tribal and religious forces behind the group. In fact, political reconciliation and reconstruction in Afghanistan have long been stalled precisely because of the neglect and miscalculation regarding the Taliban.

While U.S. troops are ending their presence in Afghanistan, the troubles brought by the war on terrorism in the country are far from over. U.S. President Joe Biden has said that the withdrawal of U.S. troops will allow resources to be directed at competition with China. But if the U.S. fails to take to heart the lessons of Afghanistan, it will pay a hefty price anew in the future. It will not likely regain its advantage in a new round of international competition. 

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