The War in Afghanistan Ends but US Strategy Has not Changed
Michael Stricof, OREMA, Aix-Marseille Université, LERMA.
243,000 deaths as a direct result of the war. For the US, over 6,000 lives and $2.313 trillion lost over twenty years, according to the Cost of War Project’s estimates. America’s longest war has come to an official end. Fuller accounting will surely follow.
Symbolic alignment with the 20th anniversary of the September 11th terror attacks on New York and Washington, as well as the powerful images of Afghans pushing to evacuate paralleling the fall of Saigon further highlight the significance of the current moment. Like Vietnam, debates about the costs and consequences will likely go on for decades.
Given these facts, it is worth considering that the formal withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan does not represent a major shift in American global military policy. Without meaning to minimize the significance of the Taliban formally controlling the country, nor the political or psychological effects of ending America’s longest war, nor the reduced costs in blood and treasure of withdrawal, this post tries to situate the end of the war in Afghanistan in America’s broader geostrategic context.
War on Terror
The US withdrawal from Afghanistan puts an end to the misguided nation building of George W. Bush. These ideas have long been discredited. Almost as soon as Bush declared “Mission Accomplished,” reversals in Iraq and the inability to stabilize much of Afghanistan rendered his administration’s early statements of success an embarrassment.
This does not mean that the “Global War on Terror” has slowed in any meaningful way. It has long since transformed into a different kind of war, truly global in scope and focused on fighting a range of identified groups, such as Boko Haram, Al Qaeda, and ISIS. When the US is directly involved in this combat, it is usually through drone strikes and special forces operations. The Authorization for the Use of Military Force, the blank check for fighting terrorism passed immediately after September 11, 2001, remains in place, providing a (questionable) legal basis for counterterrorism activities to this day (see Public Law 107-40, 107th Congress). Despite Donald Trump’s effort to end the involvement, the US retains roughly 900 troops in Syria. US proxies fought Iranian proxies in Yemen, and while no US soldier died in that particular conflict, two US contractors were killed. On July 26, President Biden promised Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi that the US would finally pull out of the country; however, like in Syria, this is the end of the formal combat mission, but many of the 2,500 US troops will remain in Iraq as “advisors”. Keeping track of US involvement in Africa is even more difficult than in the Middle East, as US actions have been from the beginning based on special operations forces and drone strikes with a smaller footprint. For now, the best grasp of the militarization of US foreign policy in Africa comes from tracking surveillance programs, logistics networks, counterterrorism alliances, contracting firms and, when possible, identifying US drone and special forces bases and specific deployments (Moore and Walker, 2016). In 2019, reporting identified US Special Operations deployments in 22 African countries (Turse, Sperber and Mednick, 2020).
Military and academic sources have provided numerous labels to understand the evolving war on terror and the nature of contemporary military conflict. Discussions of “Obama’s Way of War” for the reliance on drone strikes gave way to a “New Western Way of War” which traces American fear of casualties (a reaction to Vietnam), nominal anti-imperialism (long standing tradition) and high technology (various “revolutions in military affairs”). This kind of war at a distance first relied on the satellites, stealth bombers, and precision guided munitions developed in the 1970s and made especially visible in Operation Desert Storm and NATO’s campaigns in Kosovo and Serbia. Instead of claiming a Western tradition, Max Mutschler builds on Zygmunt Bauman’s idea of Liquid Modernity to argue that all warfare has become “liquid”—technology has decreased the importance of territory universally, and “modern states shy away from the burdens and responsibilities of controlling and administrating territory because they believe that they have more cost-effective means of control at their disposal” (2016, 5). David Gregory argues that the global scope of interventions mean an age of “the everywhere of war” (2011). In 2006, the Department of Defense’s Quadrennial Defense Review labeled one aspect of 21st century innovations to warfare with the tongue-twisted formulation “conducting war in countries we are not at war with” (Rumsfeld, vi). Maria Ryan argues that these “peripheral” conflicts, in the Horn of Africa, across the Sahara, Georgia and the Philippines, have been central to the war on terror and other US interests (2011). The military took a particular interest in the mid-2010s in defining war in the “Gray Zone,” a “space in the peace-conflict continuum” that is neither in a state of war nor peace, but contest between adversaries that may range from the political to the “kinetic” (sterilized military language for overt war fighting, with bullets and bombs). This version of ongoing fighting short of war, used to describe the favored Pentagon concept of “irregular warfare,” prefers to parallel the Cold War tradition of applying covert means when “traditional statecraft is inadequate or ineffective and large-scale conventional military options are not suitable or are deemed inappropriate for a variety of reasons” (Votel et al., 2016, 102).
That these concepts were developed in and outside the military well before the withdrawal from Afghanistan demonstrates that the US deployment in Afghanistan had become an aberration in the war on terror that it had initiated. From this perspective, the withdrawal will allow the US to focus resources on fighting the war on terror the way both the military and political leaders believe it ought to be fought. Biden essentially gave this argument in an interview with ABC News on April 19:
Al Qaeda, ISIS, they metastasize. There’s a significantly greater threat to the United States from Syria. There’s a significantly greater threat from East Africa. There’s significant greater threat to other places in the world than it is from the mountains of Afghanistan. And we have maintained the ability to have an over-the-horizon capability to take them out.
The war on terror is not over, it too, has simply finished one step of metastasizing.
Great Power Competition
Beyond the political need to spare American lives, emphasis on lowering the costs of the war on terror and remastering the Gray Zone are about the current national security priority, “great power competition.” Both Barack Obama’s desired “pivot to Asia” and the Russian annexation of Crimea which partially stifled this geopolitical rebalancing put competition with major powers who might seek to undermine (Russia) or rival (China) American hegemony back at the top of the military mission. Defense budgets rose during the Trump years despite his populist promise to stop wasting US resources abroad for two reasons. Politically, Trump, like most recent American leaders, promised to strengthen a supposedly hollowed military. Strategically, the perceived challenge by Russia and especially China implied a need for a new generation of weapons systems, the mastery of new domains like outer space, cyberspace and the Arctic which were only informally militarized previously, and increased traditional resources in both the European and Indo-Pacific theaters.
As I have discussed previously on this page, the emphasis on great power competition was consistent between the Obama and Trump administrations, perhaps surprisingly so given how much of Obama’s legacy Trump sought to change or ignore. Early signals from the Biden administration suggest some new tactics relative to his predecessor, offering a more conciliatory multilateralism and replacing certain economic tools with a newer version of human rights and environmental leadership. However, the key military components for containing China and Russia remain consistent.
It would be misleading to focus merely on the last decade. The decision a priori to maintain US leadership by containing China amounts to a continuation of the strategy of primacy which had become the clear consensus for post-Cold War order by the end of the 1990s (Posen, 2003, 5-6 n.2). While the greatest attention is given to apparently excessive documents like the leaked 1992 Defense Planning Guidance authored by Paul Wolfowitz and the work of many future-George W. Bush officials in the Project for a New American Century, American liberals, after flirting with a post-Cold War “peace dividend” decided instead on augmenting engagement, most violently through “humanitarian intervention” in the Balkans. In either case, the 1990s defense drawdown was slight, the Cold War force remained in place, and US commitments around the globe expanded despite the lack of any apparent challenger. Every US president, as well as congressional and military leaders, have accepted that the US should naturally control the global commons and maintain the “rules-based international order” which was established in the West in the post-World War II moment and fully realized with the collapse of the Soviet Union. To do this, no strategic competitor can be allowed to challenge US leadership. While the Defense Planning Guidance sounded too overtly imperialist, its major argument to prevent the rise of a challenger has remained the underlying logic of US military strategy.
The war on terror has always been something of a diversion; necessary, perhaps, to check a secondary threat, but only able to rise to the top of the priorities list because the real strategic challenge was so far off the horizon. Like peacekeeping or fighting drug trafficking in the 1990s, fighting terrorism could not have the full force of US planning behind it because it was truly a secondary mission that simply appeared like the top priority because it had more immediate political consequences than the primary justification for maintaining the world’s mightiest military—fears that a resurgent Russia might restart the Cold War until 1991 or 1992 and then the “preventive defense” of the remainder of the decade: “shaping the future security environment” so that a new Cold War-style challenger would not emerge. “Preventive defense” was a favored label of William Perry, Secretary of Defense under Bill Clinton from 1994 to 1996, while “shaping the future security environment” was used by both Dick Cheney as Secretary of Defense during the George H.W. Bush administration and his successors, including Perry, during the Clinton years.
Dominating the Gray Zone, in Africa or the Middle East, is about more than fighting terrorism. It is about limiting the influence and access to resources of nations which might threaten American global power. Freed from nation building, the continuation of the war on terror can now fit into the broader military strategy of containing great powers.
The end of the US war in Afghanistan will have real consequences. It is life changing for many Afghans, and significant for Southwest Asia. For the United States, the consequences will also be long-lasting. Psychological and political reckoning will be important, especially because of the muddled justifications, uncertain mission and by now long-standing unpopularity of the war. However, the geostrategic consequences currently appear limited. Withdrawing from Afghanistan rationalizes current US military by allowing for a more efficient and less politically damaging war on terror, while freeing up resources for the real priorities of maintaining US advantages over China and to a lesser extent Russia.
Costs of War. “US Costs to Date for the War in Afghanistan.” Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs, Brown University, https://watson.brown.edu/costsofwar/figures/2021/human-and-budgetary-costs-date-us-war-afghanistan-2001-2022, (Accessed 6 September 20210).
Gregory, David (2011). “The Everywhere of War.” The Geographical Journal 177, no. 3: 238-250.
Moore, Adam and James Walker (2016). “Tracing the US Military’s Presence in Africa.” Geopolitics 21, no. 3: 686-716.
Mutchler, Max M. (2016). “On the Road to Liquid Warfare? Revisiting Zygmunt Bauman’s Thoughts on Liquid Modernity in the Context of the ‘New Western Way of War.’” Bonn International Center for Conversion, Working Paper 3 (2016).
Rumsfeld, Donald (2006). Report of the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review. US Department of Defense, 6 February.
Ryan, Maria (2011). “‘War in countries we are not at war with’: The ‘War on Terror’ on the Periphery from Bush to Obama.” International Politics 48, no. 2-3: 364-389.
Posen, Barry R. (2003). “Command of the Commons: The Military Foundation of U.S. Hegemony.” International Security 28, no. 1: 5-46.
Turse, Nick, Amanda Sperber and Sam Mednick (2020). “Exclusive: Inside the Secret World of US Commandos in Africa.” Pulitzer Center, 11 August, https://pulitzercenter.org/stories/exclusive-inside-secret-world-us-commandos-africa.
Votel, Joseph L., Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin (2016). “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone.” Joint Forces Quarterly 1: 101-109.