U.S. forces were slated to leave Afghanistan by the end of the calendar year. Already America’s longest war (13 years and counting), the United States is now trying to persuade Afghan President Hamid Karzai to allow residual troops to stay in Afghanistan, according to a draft of the new U.S.-Afghan bilateral security agreement. The document potentially commits several thousand troops to Afghanistan for another 10 years and could cost an additional several billion dollars. To date, the United States has spent more than $675 billion on this war and lost nearly 2,300 servicemen and women.
What has the United States gotten in return for this war that has been so costly in blood and treasure? An ineffective and dysfunctional central government in Kabul; an incompetent, illegitimate and corrupt leader in the person of Karzai; a resurgent Taliban; and an unfavorable strategic outcome from the perspective of U.S. interests.
The Afghan fiasco reveals much deeper philosophical dysfunctions underpinning American grand strategy, the results of which have been dreadful. First is the overreliance on the armed forces as an instrument of foreign policy. The United States has been at war for an amazing two out of every three years since the end of the Cold War, a pattern that shows no signs of abating anytime soon.
Both sides of the political aisle in Washington tend to believe that through grand displays of military might, America can defeat terrorists, topple anti-American regimes and promote international peace and stability. But policymakers generally have the logic backward. Terrorism is usually a consequence of and reaction to military occupation, not the other way around. Iraq, for example, turned into a haven for terrorist activity only after the U.S. invasion, not before.
Furthermore, it stands to reason that U.S. interference in the domestic affairs of another country by militarily removing political leaders will only generate more outrage directed at the United States, thus making it more difficult to achieve the stated foreign policy objectives. Finally, war ordinarily has the effect of disrupting financial markets and spreading violence, thus contributing to global instability. In Afghanistan, military power on its own proved to be incapable of vanquishing the enemy.
Not only has the unabashed use of American military power failed to secure many foreign policy objectives, it has also served to create a national security state domestically that spies on its citizens and undercuts civil liberties. Of course, all of this is to be expected with wars that last a long time. James Madison noted more than 200 years ago that “no nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
Second is the notion that America can impose democracy on Middle Eastern countries through the use of its awesome military might in the belief that democratic forms of governance do not give rise to terrorism. This idea underpinned the social engineering effort of the United States to transform Afghanistan from a backward and theocratic country into a functional, Western-style democracy. Democracy promotion as a goal of American foreign policy has a very bad record historically, however, as does the more general practice of nation-building.
Even more problematic has been the attempt to do all this quickly, at the barrel of a gun. Building democracy takes a long time – just look at the United States – and is almost always homegrown; very rarely is it the result of foreign power intervention. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that even if the United States could successfully install democratic regimes, that they would be more hospitable to U.S. interests insofar as democracies reflect the will of the people, not the desires of outside actors.
In Afghanistan, once the Taliban had been toppled and al-Qaida had been driven out, the United States should have removed its forces from the country altogether rather than engaging in an open-ended pursuit of an elusive and ill-defined victory. Instead, Washington time and again overestimated the utility of military power – shown most vividly in President Obama’s 2009 troop surge – and underestimated the difficulty of creating democracy from scratch. Sadly, policymakers have apparently still not taken to heart the limits of American power and influence.
The time has now come for Washington to learn the lessons of history and take a more realistic approach to foreign affairs, one rooted in the promotion of a clearly defined articulation of the national interest. A complete pullout from Afghanistan would be a good first step.
Nilay Saiya, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of political science and director of international studies at Brockport State College.