The United States Left Afghanistan to Prepare for a War It Will Probably Never Fight
Seth G. Jones, Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran and the Rise of Irregular Warfare (New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. 2021).
When the United States prepared to withdraw from Afghanistan during the last days of the Trump administration and first days of Biden’s presidency, the urgency of refocusing on great-power competition was offered as a leading justification. Mark Esper, Trump’s last confirmed secretary of defense, praised troop reductions as helping “free up time, money and manpower,” while Biden’s Secretary of State Antony Blinken later declared, “We have other very important items on our agenda, including the relationship with China, including dealing with everything from climate change to Covid. And that’s where we have to focus our energy and resources.” By the late 2010s, the counter-terrorism interests that had justified wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had without question sunk on America’s list of national security priorities. The “new Cold War” with China, as some have called it, now reigned supreme.
The logic on Afghanistan was linear: Withdrawal from Afghanistan frees up resources, including money and troops, which can be reappropriated to the Pacific theater, to help deter Chinese aggression.
But it was also flawed. The thought process assumes that China (or Russia or Iran) intends to fight the United States and its allies in combat, on a battlefield or at sea, heavyweight military against heavyweight military — and that deployments to Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific are therefore zero-sum. But the past suggests America’s adversaries do not intend to fight conventional wars. Instead, the future of warfare is irregular, set to be fought on political, covert, psychological, and digital battlefields. And America is critically underprepared — as the Taliban’s takeover in Afghanistan starkly showed.
The United States has often been criticized for strategic mistakes in Afghanistan. But the latest American foreign policy debacle was more accurately down to failures of grand strategy: notably, the notion that Afghanistan, and other so-derided “forever wars,” represent a lost or wasted cause. No, the United States will not “win” the war on terror — it will never “win” a war on terror, because terrorism is a tactic, a means to an end, not the end itself. But the discussion should long ago have shifted from “winning” and “losing” to “managing” and “accepting” such a conflict and commitment. America was not winning in Afghanistan, but it was also not losing.
Should the United States Even Have Left Afghanistan?
The decision to depart Afghanistan, and the ignominious manner in which it played out, have been widely panned by national security experts and politicians. Casualties had plummeted (which, as Richard Haass points out, coincided with an Obama-era decision to end combat operations, not with Trump’s signing of a “peace deal”). The initial mission was being completed successfully — the United States went in to prevent another 9/11, and its presence there contributed to the successful effort to keep the homeland safe from terrorist threats from Afghanistan. And, as a bonus, many Afghan people were enjoying a greater degree of freedom and human rights.
Much of U.S. national security policy today is driven by ensuring sufficient resources for an allegedly coming conflict with China — projected to be over Taiwan or in the South China Sea. But even if America does end up in a conventional war, Afghanistan was beneficial preparation. The war provided an arena to train and conduct real joint operations both between services and with NATO allies. Chinese leaders have publicly discussed their fear of so-called “peace disease” — the fact that China rarely fights wars, and that its soldiers almost uniformly have no real military experience. That is not the case for the United States, and continued engagement for America’s most elite soldiers ensured readiness and fitness should a more serious conflict break out. Presence in Afghanistan also provided forward basing, through installations like Bagram Air Base. And Afghanistan sits in a strategically important location. America’s three leading adversaries blanket Afghanistan from the west (Iran), the north (through former Soviet republics, still heavily influenced by the Kremlin), and the northeast (where China holds a short border).
But more importantly, it provided an arena for the United States to practice the kind of irregular warfare that leading national security scholar Seth G. Jones argues in his latest book, Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran and the Rise of Irregular Warfare, is likely to define the next generation of competition. In its 20-year Afghan quagmire, the U.S. military repeatedly failed to adapt its enormous capabilities to so-called “low-intensity conflict.” In so doing, it reinforced a crucial message from Vietnam — technological superiority and conventional military power do not always win the day, and the United States is vulnerable to nonstate actors, particularly when domestic energy and morale wane. Refusal to heed that lesson in Afghanistan, and willingness to walk away in defeat, has therefore again highlighted an effective path forward for U.S. adversaries seeking to undermine American influence: inflaming third-world insurgencies which seek to force Western armies into long-term engagements, which they do not seem able to win. The United States should not be surprised to see adversaries return to that playbook repeatedly.
The withdrawal was fundamentally about realigning the military for a conventional confrontation with China. But, as Jones shows, “Chinese military strategy generally aims to avoid a conventional war. China’s goal is to weaken and surpass the United States without fighting.” Withdrawal from Afghanistan to prepare for war with China, then, is further evidence of the American military’s bias towards fighting the war it wants, not the war it likely faces. As one U.S. Army officer wrote after the withdrawal, “If America takes nothing else from its experience there, it should adopt a more realistic outlook on the limits of its massive, conventional military in small, irregular wars.”
Afghanistan now is likely to sink back into terrorist sanctuary, with the Taliban providing safe haven for al-Qaeda and affiliated networks. But, as has generally been the case in Afghanistan, its future will be determined in large part by the desires of the next state to intervene. China, Russia, and Iran will all likely see important reasons to engage in Afghanistan — if nothing else, for defensive purposes. When they do, it will more than likely be through irregular means — not tanks and battalions, but information and psychological warfare, intelligence units and covert action, special operations, and economic coercion.
Some, including Jones, have argued that leaving the Afghanistan quagmire for Russia or China to clean up will bog down those countries. But China, in particular, has shown an adeptness at dealing with unsavory actors and situations. Its leaders’ willingness to work with the Taliban — a longstanding challenge for the United States, given that terrorist group’s alliance with al-Qaeda — will help dampen any costs of their engagement in the country. China will also likely aim to infuse Afghanistan with economic investments as part of its Belt and Road Initiative — buying loyalty that it hopes will help allay its counter-terrorism concerns. As one analysis reads, “In Beijing’s view, if China could rebuild and stabilize Afghanistan, the China model would be proved superior and, consequently, China would be proved superior to the United States as a global leader.”
Russia, too, has laid the groundwork for collaborating with the Taliban in Afghanistan — at one point possibly even offering bounties to the Taliban for killing American troops. Moscow has hosted Taliban delegations for peace talks for several years. Russia, of course, sees risks in engaging in Afghanistan. How could it not given the Soviet Union’s own fatal mission there? But those risks will be outweighed by the blow to U.S. credibility and global standing, as Anna Borshchevskaya writes: “As desperate Afghans cling to sides of American airplanes leaving Kabul while Biden told the American public he does not regret his decision, Moscow’s (like Beijing’s) clout can simply grow by default.”
For Iran, perhaps the adversary with the most immediate stake in Afghanistan, U.S. withdrawal presents an enormous propaganda boon: more evidence that the United States cannot survive in the region and ultimately should leave altogether. Afghanistan will likely join the long list of Middle Eastern and Asian countries — already including Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen — where Iran supports and empowers proxy actors in a bid to expand its regional influence.
Each state does have serious national security interests in Afghanistan, chief among them counter-terrorism. Where each side will likely accept relations with the Taliban, rogue terrorist groups like the Islamic State in Afghanistan will be uniformly rejected and pursued. Russia and China both have Muslim enclaves in their countries, which in both countries have sparked jihadist uprisings against the regime. Moscow and Beijing will both carefully watch any safe havens that emerge, to ensure Afghanistan does not become a destination for jihadists from the Caucasus or the largely Uyghur Xinjiang province. Iran, meanwhile, has long warily watched the emergence of Sunni jihadism across its border with Afghanistan (the two nations almost warred in the late 1990s over a Taliban attack). Its “marriage of convenience” with several senior leaders of al-Qaeda throughout the years suggests it will also make peace with the Taliban in exchange for their avoiding Iran in any international terrorist campaigns.
The main drawback to Jones’ argument over the coming predominance of irregular warfare is the classic chicken-or-the-egg question: Which comes first? If the United States did focus on unconventional warfare, might that embolden China, Russia, and Iran to in fact pursue the far more threatening conventional military measures? And will those countries really press forward with their irregular strategies now that the United States is seemingly committing fully to rebuilding its conventional powers? The Afghanistan withdrawal might pose the ultimate test. Should U.S. adversaries embrace America’s withdrawal, and seek to press their own advantages in this critical strategic arena, Jones will be proven right—Afghanistan will become the latest battlefield in their increasingly successful irregular warfare campaigns against the United States. Should they withdraw inward, nervously fencing with the Taliban while focusing on building their own conventional forces to respond to America’s latest moves, he will not.
Flaws in U.S. National Security Strategy
In certain respects, U.S. adversaries’ constant activity has highlighted their own priorities: Russia seeks to undermine U.S. democracy, believing that disharmony in America’s heartland damages Washington’s foreign policy credibility; China unleashes waves of propaganda to defend its conduct in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeking to maintain its own credibility and competency on the international stage; and Iran spends inordinate amounts funding proxy groups around the region, seeking to maximize its influence all around the Middle East and South Asia. They all share a desire to undermine the United States without direct military confrontation — which may even lead to collaboration in post-U.S. Afghanistan.
The United States, then, by insisting on continuing to build up its conventional military capabilities, misses the point. It must be willing to fight the enemy where the enemy wishes to fight it. And, as Jones argues, “While conventional warfare—clashes between large military forces—defined twentieth-century power, irregular warfare will increasingly define international politics in the coming decades.” This may include Cold War-style irregular proxy wars, where both sides fight kinetic wars through third parties in third countries. The main counterargument is whether America needs to actively fight in order to better prepare for either irregular or conventional combat, or if it can build its capabilities from afar. But such a mindset would inevitably lead America to step away from its engagements around the world, opening vacuums for adversaries to fill and expand influence and leaving the U.S. without forward basing for responding to national security emergencies.
The most critical flaw in America’s current strategy, however, is its insistence that great-power competition and counter-terrorism are mutually exclusive — they are not. Many of the same irregular warfare initiatives that helped the United States defeat the Soviet Union in the Cold War — and that should now be deployed against China and Russia — also carry counter-terrorism benefits. Public diplomacy and influence operations that promote and celebrate American values do not just counter authoritarian propaganda in third world countries, they undermine the narratives perpetuated by anti-Western extremist groups. Strong international diplomatic and military alliances do not just deter Chinese or Russian aggression, they provide the United States greater reach in its more militaristic counter-terrorism pursuits. Providing economic and governance support to countries around the world does not just align them closer to the United States, it strengthens their capacity to defeat extremism within their own borders. If the United States intends to largely deprioritize counter-terrorism — and, more broadly, irregular warfare — in this “new Cold War,” it will miss out on some of its most effective tools.
Sun Tzu, oft-quoted by Jones, implored his followers to attack weaknesses — to strike where the enemy cannot defend. U.S. adversaries, across the board, have concluded that America’s weaknesses exist in the so-called “gray zone” — the range of activity between “peace” and “war.” And in response, it appears, the United States will continue building its conventional warfighting capabilities, to prepare for a fight that will probably never happen.
Jones’ concluding note, though, is an encouraging one. Russia, China, and Iran will forever be underdogs in global competition with the United States and its allies, because they share governing systems that repress people, and that are fundamentally unattractive. “[T]he principles and objectives that guide US foreign policy,” Jones writes, “should be linked to the country’s democratic values, and US policy should leverage all the instruments of power, such as military, diplomatic, financial, development, intelligence, and ideological.”
America and its allies will always be favorites — as long as they fight the right way.
Jacob Ware is the research associate for counterterrorism at the Council on Foreign Relations, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University’s Walsh School of Foreign Service. His work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Hill, War on the Rocks, and the CTC Sentinel, among other publications.
Photo by Staff Sgt. John Jackson