The Trump administration’s decision to halve the size of the US troop presence in Afghanistan indicates a failure of Washington’s Afghan strategy rather than the diminution of the country’s geopolitical importance. The administration has experimented with both coercive and conciliatory strategies – but in vain.
Afghanistan remains unstable due to the unfathomable sway of the Taliban. An ISIS affiliate in Afghanistan (known as ISIS-Khorasan or Islamic State Khorasan Province), a relatively new actor in the Afghan conflict, also contributed to the destabilization of the country this year.
The US has approached the complex intra-state conflict from a geopolitical perspective instead of adopting a humanitarian approach which, in turn, has resulted in a misreading of the nuances of the security scenario, contributing to the failure of Washington’s long-drawn military engagement.
Following the 9/11 terror attacks on the US mainland, Washington’s response was initially framed according to Article 51 of the UN Charter, which stipulates that retaliation must be in self-defense. However, to legitimize its long-term presence, the US resorted to the language of humanitarian intervention and humanitarian justification, so the removal of the repressive Taliban regime was provided as the rationale.
The doctrine of humanitarian intervention can provide a fig leaf of morality, allowing the most powerful countries to occupy a moral high ground while shaping international politics in a way that serves their interests. While the intervention doctrine is aimed at saving the masses of other countries from oppression and human rights abuses, it can be instrumental, at the same time, in deflecting international attention from the long-term problems of political instability and the socio-economic needs of the civil war-affected countries. Afghanistan exemplified such an intervention – the US attempted to put a humanitarian veneer on its geopolitical interests, and post-facto humanitarian explanations were provided to justify its actions.
Historically, poor countries lacking geo-strategic luster in the eyes of the developed ones and the countries where authoritarian regimes acted as their geo-strategic partners did not figure in the powerful states’ agenda of humanitarian intervention. For instance, in the 1990s, Rwanda, an African state, was left to its tragic fate despite atrocious human rights violations, while Kosovo, a European state, quickly attracted the attention of the West, which intervened.
US viewed Taliban as a stabilizing force
On the other side, the geostrategic importance of Afghanistan became instrumental in determining the timing of the intervention. It was 9/11 that prompted the US to intervene in Afghanistan, but for a long time, the country was ripped apart by civil war and human rights violations by the Taliban regime. The US considered the Taliban a stabilizing force helping to advance its geostrategic interests by assisting with the laying of the alternative Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan (TAP) pipeline bypassing Iran and Russia.
For instance, in his book Taliban: The Power of Militant Islam in Afghanistan and Beyond, Ahmed Rashid pointed out how the US was poised to recognize the Taliban as a legitimate regime in Afghanistan. Not unsurprisingly, this happened following an energy policy report released by the Bush administration elevated the importance of the exploitation of Caspian energy resources and projected it as one of the primary security objectives of the US.
The US decided to intervene in Afghanistan when the Taliban indicated it was moving away from Washington’s sphere of influence and the Taliban-led regime refused to hand over Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of 9/11. It is no surprise that when geostrategic interests rather than humanitarian concerns provide the background to intervention, the mission is bound to be militaristic.
It is worth mentioning that the doctrine of humanitarian intervention has gradually matured through the concept of Responsibility to Protect (R2P) in 2005. Intervention is no longer considered the right of the intervener – it is humanitarian considerations in the civil war-affected country that shape the intervention and post-intervention role of the international community (still an amorphous entity implying the role of powerful countries).
However, a change in discourse hardly indicates a corresponding change in ground realities. In his 2011 book The Good War: NATO and the Liberal Conscience in Afghanistan, MJ Williams argued that the US was inclined to use military power to fix a problem, even when that problem ultimately defied the ability of the military to provide a solution. He was of the opinion that while the Obama administration had a more evolved view of the Afghan issue, the continued US over-investment in defense illustrated a preference for military tools in the American psyche.
In many instances, the American mission turned militaristic with an emphasis on air strikes to limit casualties among its soldiers, but that led to more civilian casualties – “collateral damage.” American-led coalition forces were not only seen practicing various types of torture against Afghan detainees in various detention centers, they had to court assistance from violence-prone Afghan warlords to conduct their mission.
Irrespective of parties in power, the US administrations displayed a remarkable consistency in their belief that the military was to be fundamentally transformed and should not to be used for “policing” or for open-ended peacekeeping missions tied to notions of nation-building. The transformation of the military was to be, in essence, based on high-technology, rapidly deployed, short-duration combat missions, in which victory could be achieved quickly and forces speedily withdrawn.
The role of American forces in Afghanistan was conceived more as a high-tech-driven military mission, while the mission of the International Security Assistance Force was to be about post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction
The role of American forces in Afghanistan was conceived more as a high-tech-driven military mission, while the mission of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) was to be about post-conflict stabilization and reconstruction.
In their book Afghanistan: How the West lost its Way, Tim Bird and Alex Marshall observed that the US spent more on military operations in Afghanistan than it did on reconstruction, humanitarian aid, economic assistance and the training of Afghan security forces combined. In Long Shadow of 9/11: America’s Response to Terrorism, James Dobb ascribes the Afghan predicament to the inadequate provision of resources for nation-building in Afghanistan. The US-led Afghan mission, he argued, “represented both an exaggerated confidence in the efficacy of high-tech warfare” and “an aversion to the whole concept of nation-building.”
The Afghan war represented a non-traditional security scenario as the US-led coalition forces had to deal with disparate non-state radical actors in place of a single identifiable enemy. This kind of asymmetric warfare showed that extremists could easily mingle with civilians, hide effectively, slip through porous borders, and launch offensives at their convenience.
The difficulties faced in Afghan counterinsurgency operations revealed that the US army embraced a big-war paradigm. Difficult terrains, porous boundaries, difficulty in understanding native peoples’ languages and cultural dissimilarity impeded the American fight against the radical groups. Displaying a lack of cultural understanding of target-state’s societies, US troops in one case reportedly set around 100 copies of the Koran on fire, sparking riots across many parts of Afghanistan.
A recurring issue of debate in Washington was how to combine counterinsurgency operations effectively with nation-building efforts, and it has been observed that America’s thrust on the military aspect of its overall strategy to deal with civil war conditions has very often made the counterinsurgency operations more militaristic, impeding the nation-building process.
In his article “The Folly of Asymmetric War” (The Washington Quarterly), Michael J Mazarr wrote: “The tremendously insightful [counterinsurgency expert Thomas] Hammes and policymakers such as the thoughtful and dedicated [Secretary of Defense Robert] Gates have fully recognized the importance of non-military instruments of power in dealing with these new threats and have called for improvements in those instruments. In practice, however, actual US operations in these contingencies have retained an overwhelmingly military flavor.”
Emphsasis on non-military methods
A focus on the non-traditional conception of security underlines that socio-economic and cultural aspects of human lives must be considered as important as military and defense concerns, and emphasis must be placed on achieving peace through persuasion, negotiation and moderation rather than by military means.
Afghanistan is a case where it has been proved that extremism is hard to beat on the battleground. All these alternative mechanisms could have worked effectively if humanitarian rather than geopolitical considerations had driven Washington’s and other powers’ approach to Afghan problems.
The US and NATO members who are involved in the support and training mission should approach the Afghan stalemate through a more patient understanding of the internal and external dynamics and work toward a state-building exercise that is not only based on the legitimate will of the Afghans but seeks accommodation of the legitimate interests of regional powers.
The US mission henceforth must prioritize making regional powers understand that a peaceful Afghanistan will be in the interest of all and should, therefore, shun narrow geopolitical considerations in favor of an inclusive humanitarian approach.
The complex and volatile nature of intra-state conflicts such as the one that has been unfolding in Afghanistan proved difficult for the US to manage as they fell outside the purview of conventional warfare strategies and professional standing armies, rather than involving civilian concerns and predicaments at each stage. These necessitate the provision of humanitarian assistance during conflict and post-conflict state-building exercises. However, great powers’ perceptions of and approach toward conflicts, which usually play significant roles in peace-making, peacekeeping and peace-building efforts, have not shifted accordingly.
It is pertinent that the rising instances of intra-state conflicts accompanied by a steep decline in inter-state conflicts will need a non-traditional security perspective – embracing security as a comprehensive concept rather than a militaristic notion. Concerns for societal stability and approaches based on a socioeconomic and cultural understanding of societies affected by civil wars are imperative.