The Primacy Problem: Explaining America’s Afghan Purgatory
The United States government has sent almost 800,000 military personnel to Afghanistan over the past 18 years. It has never been entirely clear why they were fighting, or whether they had any prospect of winning. Frustration abounds among those who were repeatedly deployed. Some have lamented the dismal conditions in Afghanistan that provide fuel to seemingly endless violence. Some have spent years trying to make sense of missions that felt utterly futile. Others feel actively deceived by policymakers and military leaders who offered rosy public pronouncements, despite the miserable stalemate on the ground, and failed to provide any practical guidance for improving the situation. “Everything that we were told was bullshit,” one soldier said, “from the level of support we had to what we were allowed or expected to do.”
Meanwhile, U.S. strategists could never agree about strategic objectives. Some sought only to destroy al-Qaeda and topple the Taliban regime that gave it refuge. To these observers, the United States made a fundamental error by expanding its aims after invading Afghanistan in late 2001. The decision to take on the responsibility for nation-building, rather than simply destroy al-Qaeda, was the original sin. Hubris led policymakers to try reshaping a country about which they knew little, and it forced U.S. soldiers to take on tasks for which they were painfully unprepared. A more modest approach could have focused on counter-terrorist operations while leaving Afghanistan’s future to the Afghan people. Others, however, warned that this approach promised only temporary benefits. Security force assistance had a dubious track record, and targeting militants without addressing Afghanistan’s social and political problems would change the war into a man-hunting campaign with no obvious stopping point. Meaningful victory demanded more ambitious goals: establishing security, building institutions, training local security forces, and developing Afghanistan’s economy. The basic question about American purposes remains unanswered.
Strategy is the use of military violence to achieve certain political objectives. If we cannot define those objectives, then strategy by definition is absurd. This is a key reason the war has been so frustrating for so long. Making matters worse, the war does not fit neatly into how we traditionally understand the use of force. In counter-terrorist campaigns like the one against al-Qaeda, victory is not a matter of forcing enemies to surrender or destroying their ability to resist. Instead, it is a matter of risk acceptance. The question in Afghanistan is whether U.S. leaders are willing to bear the risk of subsequent attacks if they remove U.S. personnel. So far, they have answered no. Strategy is impossible without practical objectives, but policymakers have not yet decided that the costs of staying exceed the risks of leaving. The result: a war of stubborn inertia.
Strategy doesn’t provide much analytical traction for those seeking to understand Afghanistan. Grand strategy, however, might help.
If strategy is a theory of victory, grand strategy is a theory of security. It tells a story about how states keep themselves safe in the world, based on a set of assumptions about how the world works. Grand strategy answers questions about what kind of military forces to buy, where to send them, and when to use them. It also provides guidance on how to coordinate military, diplomatic, and economic instruments to produce durable national security. Unlike strategy, which deals with specific questions about force during conflict, grand strategy operates in peacetime as well as in war.
The concept helps explain the durability of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. U.S. grand strategy since the end of the Cold War has rested on the assumption that the world is safer when there is a dominant power in the world. The existence of a hegemon promotes security, stability, and prosperity. In this respect the United States is as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it, the indispensable nation. The hegemon facilitates international cooperation by resolving collective action problems. It provides an economic safety net by coordinating international action during times of crisis and offering a currency of last resort. Most importantly, it prevents war by deterring challenges to the international order, and putting down any challengers who are foolish enough to try. This last point is key to understanding why U.S. leaders have continued to operate against scattered terrorists around the world. Groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL explicitly proclaim their opposition to the United States and the international order it has built in its image. Hegemonic stability theory impels Washington to respond forcefully to such groups, despite the fact that they are comparatively tiny. More importantly, officials fear that walking away from such threats will damage U.S. credibility, undermining international confidence in the U.S.-led order.
The purpose of grand strategy is security, which is a general condition rather than a specific goal. Security is subjective for this reason. A state may feel insecure even if it achieves wartime victory. Conversely, the experience of losing may cause the state to feel more secure over the long term, if the experience inspires overdue institutional reforms. And unlike victory in war, security is not time-bound. States do not feel permanently secure, no matter their current advantages. Leaders of unusually strong states look warily upon much smaller adversaries, sensing that they cannot be truly safe unless they remain vigilant. Leaders who espouse a grand strategy of primacy are particularly prone to this sort of threat inflation. The relentless pursuit of security encourages it.
Critics of grand strategy argue that it can be misleading and subject to abuse. They have a point. The concept is inherently vague and subject to interpretation. Security is especially malleable and hard to pin down. How much is enough is an evergreen question, one that is almost never resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. The irony is that these properties of grand strategy, the fundamental issues that make the concept so aggravating, also allow it to accommodate ambiguous conflicts like the war in Afghanistan. The conflict does not persist because U.S. leaders are striving to achieve some practical objective, but because it is nested in a larger counter-terrorism campaign that is measured by an implicit risk assessment. That campaign itself is part of a grand strategy of primacy, which errs on the side of military activism and a large forward presence.
None of this will satisfy critics of the war. But the focus on grand strategy at least helps explain it. Until American leaders are willing to revisit their grand strategic beliefs, and the counter-terrorism policies that follow, this will have to be good enough.
Joshua Rovner is associate professor in the School of International Service at American University. In 2018 and 2019 he served as scholar-in-residence at the National Security Agency and U.S. Cyber Command. The views here are his alone.