After 20 years, Biden finally got the US military out of Afghanistan. Even though it can seem to signal the end of an era for US interventionism, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Leaving Afghanistan is simply a necessary step in America’s new chapter of interventionism in China’s neighbourhood, argues Hew Strachan.
What was shocking about President Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan was not the decision itself, but that it took all his partners unawares. Within the United States, neither the State nor the Defense Department expected it, and nor did the US’s NATO allies or – most importantly - the Afghan government. For all of them, wishful thinking had replaced objective considerations. They suppressed from their collective memories what Vice-President Biden had said in 2009. He saw the war in Afghanistan not as a counter-insurgency campaign to build a better state but as a counter-terrorism mission to break the link between al Qaeda and the Taliban. He opposed the ‘surge’ even on the terms set by Obama in 2009, a push more limited in duration and in troop numbers than the generals wanted. Over a decade later, on 14 April 2021, after he had become president himself, Biden declared that the counter-terrorism mission had been accomplished.
Biden’s framing of the war in Afghanistan as a war on terrorism, not as a nation-building exercise or a humanitarian attempt at spreading democracy, might seem to signal the end of an era of American military interventionism. But that conclusion would be premature. After all, Biden has gone out of his way to refurbish America’s global image, seeing it as a way of promoting his country’s interests. The US is not ending its era of military interventions, it’s changing their geographical focus. In shifting from global counterterrorism back to great-power competition, America has moved its attention from the Middle East and Central Asia to China and the western Pacific. That does not mean that Afghanistan won’t come back to bite the US. If the Taliban succeed in overthrowing the Afghan government, the reputational damage will be lasting, and could even revitalise global terrorism.
Biden’s framing of the war in Afghanistan as a war on terrorism might seem to signal the end of an era of American military interventionism. But that conclusion would be premature.
The long road to leaving Afghanistan
American foreign policy since Barack Obama’s election in 2008 has been marked by more underlying continuity than is allowed for by much of the rhetoric. Obama made clear from the outset his desire to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He had followed through on the first of those resolves by 2011, despite the warning that he was acting too soon. In January 2012 he announced the US ‘pivot’ to the Pacific and Asia, so prioritising the threat from China over the security of Europe or global terrorism emanating from the Middle East or Afghanistan. Under Donald Trump, especially when Jim Mattis was Defense Secretary, the broad contours of US strategy followed these same preferences. When Biden succeeded Trump, he abided by Trump’s plan for withdrawal from Afghanistan and continued to prioritise the challenge from China.
Shifts in US foreign policy have more often been about form than substance. The voice of America has sounded different as presidents have rotated but much of the message has been the same. Trump’s tweets commanded headlines which crowded out more reflective analysis. The focus on personality obscured the weight of geography and national interest. Less changed in 2016, when Trump succeeded Obama, or in 2020, when he gave way (however gracelessly) to Biden.
Given this context, how should we interpret Biden’s decision to stick with Trump’s timetable for America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan? Does Biden’s presidency, for all its international emollience and overt engagement, indicate a new era of US isolationism? After all, in the national narrative (however selective its telling) US overseas interventionism only began in earnest (with a temporary blip between 1917-21) after its entry to the Second World War in 1941. Assertive international engagement since 1945 has not been hallowed by obvious success. During the Cold War, the conflict in Korea was ‘frozen’ and remains unresolved. The United States was defeated in Vietnam. Since the end of the Cold War, America’s military interventions have struggled to deliver on their political aims, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan. The military history of the dominant military super-power of the age is that of massive strength confounded by apparent failure. The argument for success has to be made either in counter-factual terms – through the wars that did not happen, pre-eminently the US’s ‘victory’ over the Soviet Union – or by changing the narrative. The latter was always the problem for America’s war in Afghanistan.
As the Afghan conflict morphed into the longest war in US history its purposes altered. In setting its aims within the context of the ‘global war on terror’, Biden tried to get back to its origins, the 9/11 attacks. By 2009, they had been overtaken by other objectives more reflective of America’s ‘manifest destiny’ and the democratising mission, which first Woodrow Wilson in 1917 and then Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1941 interpreted as an international as well as a domestic task. In Afghanistan the US and its allies pursued human rights, economic security, education and many other laudable aims, but they were now uncertain whether these were the war’s true purpose or the means to ensure that Afghanistan would never again become the incubator for global terrorism. By choosing an end date of 11 September 2021, Biden is reminding the American people how this war began and asking them to see its outcome not as a response to what is happening in Kabul or Kandahar in 2021, but to what occurred in Washington and New York in 2001.
Biden might be a Democrat, but his narrative for America’s war in Afghanistan suggests that the United States does not intervene abroad militarily in order to pursue humanitarian objectives or even to establish a liberal international order – or at least not for its own sake. In 1945 multilateralism, affirmed in the first instance by the United Nations and then by NATO, underpinned the global security of the United States. Realism shapes US foreign policy today even more surely than it did then. American motivations in its wars of intervention have been determined by self-interest, not by altruism. Their concerns have been global, not local. Neither Korea nor Vietnam mattered in themselves; they were conduits for the confrontation with Communism. Although Obama wanted for understandable reasons to ditch the ‘global war on terror’, and formally speaking did so, it has proved more persistent as a leitmotif for American actions than he would have wished. Biden has effectively reinstated it.
The pivot to China
Like voices of reason in the Trump administration, such as Mattis and H.R. McMaster, Biden sees China as the principal opponent of the United States today and for the foreseeable future. The seemingly precipitate and ill-considered withdrawal from Afghanistan is not a rejection of American interventionism but a re-concentration of effort where it is most required. Ultimately, it may even presage a return to the sorts of interventions characteristic of the ‘global Cold War’ in the 1960s and ‘70s. These after all constituted the background to American support for the Mujaheddin in their war against the Soviet Union. But the Taliban today are local, not global actors. Confronted by civil war, the government in Kabul is understandably trying to wag the tail of the American dog, and many in Washington want it to respond. For those who have invested blood and treasure in Afghanistan, and who want to support all those Afghans who have built their lives and expectations around the promise of the last twenty years, the current situation is personally distressing. However, the arguments that they can most effectively deploy are not those of women’s rights or economic development, but those which evoke American self-interest – the blow to America’s international standing or the danger that global terrorists will again use Afghanistan as a sanctuary from which to attack the US.
The confrontation with China has the potential to trigger American military intervention at very short notice and with implications that globally would dwarf the events that are now unfolding in Afghanistan.
Self-evidently the United States remains ready to intervene internationally, but its focus is now on the ring of islands that contains China in the western Pacific. The United States Navy is asserting the freedom of the seas in the international waters that lap the Chinese mainland (despite the fact that America has not ratified the UN Charter on the Law of the Sea) and the United States Marine Corps is training for operations in support of Taiwan, Japan and other regional allies. The confrontation with China has the potential to trigger American military intervention at very short notice and with implications that globally would dwarf the events that are now unfolding in Afghanistan.
The response of America’s European allies to the US withdrawal has been pathetic. Biden may talk the language of multilateralism, but in 2021 – as in 2009 – the United States took its own decision without consulting its partners. None of them has publicly registered its dismay at this lack of consultation, despite the fact that some still had troops in Afghanistan. Instead, the United Kingdom cut its aid budget to Afghanistan and proved niggardly in granting refugee status to Afghans who fled the Taliban, even if they had supported British operations. Confronted with the need to act independently, America’s allies lacked the political leadership to do so. Disgruntled because they were not consulted and outraged by the consequences, their collective response to Biden’s decision has been spineless.
Instead, on June 10, when Biden visited Britain for the G20 summit in Cornwall, Boris Johnson announced that the US and the UK had renewed the Atlantic Charter: once again, form over substance. It might more aptly have been dubbed the Pacific Charter. Britain, France and Germany, and now even NATO collectively, have fallen over themselves to follow the United States to the western Pacific. Frustrated in one theatre, they are moving to another, without fully addressing the possible consequences or wondering whether they should first honour their pre-existing obligations, most obviously those in Afghanistan itself. Nobody was really listening when in late July the US Defense Secretary, Lloyd Austin, suggested that America’s allies might more usefully ‘backfill’ in those places from which the US was withdrawing. The US needs allies to legitimise its interventions, especially if (as in Iraq in 2003) it does so without a UN Security Council Resolution. So far it has had less need of their military capabilities – hence its readiness to act independently. That may be about to change, but with intervention comes responsibility, not least for the welfare of the people caught in the crossfire of conflict. If you break it, you own it. It is a responsibility that falls as squarely on America’s allies as on the US itself.