Joe Biden is the fourth president to promise an end to the US war in Afghanistan, and it looks like he’ll be the first to make it stick. After 20 years, thousands of lives, and a trillion dollars or more, it’s not unreasonable for Americans to wonder what it all amounted to.
The mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks is dead, as is his chief Afghan accessory to mass murder (who allegedly succumbed to tuberculosis, meaning he was a casualty of Afghanistan’s poverty, not America’s ordnance). The question of whether Afghanistan is more stable and less likely to suborn terrorism remains unsettled, though. The country is still one of the poorest in the world. How is that possible, after all that the United States and NATO have invested in blood and resources?
It has to do in part with the hard reality of self determination, a lesson Americans should have learned after Vietnam. In Afghanistan, as soon as the US and allied mission became something other than a response to a specific attack, we were an uninvited guest in someone else’s country. With each passing year, America’s goals grew more ambiguous, but the Taliban knew exactly what it was fighting for.
At the same time, Americans should feel no relief about the end of the war in Afghanistan — this is at best a Pyrrhic retreat. The Taliban of Mullah Omar jailed men for having the wrong beard length and beat women and girls in the streets for an atrocious list of infractions, including wearing shoes that made noise. They even tried to kill history. Today’s Taliban is not the exact same group of men, of course, but if they are anything like their fathers, turning the country back at least partially into their hands is profoundly sad and potentially dangerous. Save a place in your hopes and prayers (and budgets) for the people of Afghanistan.
The most important lesson Americans might want to learn from this moment, however, is not that we waged a feckless war for elusive goals, but that we weren’t very good at building peace. It’s important to understand this lesson not so much to relitigate Afghanistan, but because the world is in a very dangerous moment — the United States is in a dangerous moment.
The coronavirus pandemic is spreading fast once again, from South Asia and South America. COVID-19 is leaving behind not just ruined lives but a very weak global economy and political turmoil, an alarming echo of the run-up to World War II. This is happening just as costs of climate change and biodiversity loss are mounting as well. At the same time, the best-armed nations in the world are jockeying for preeminence and relevance, equipped with weapons that are redefining lethality and proximity, whether that’s artificially intelligent, bomb-dropping drone swarms, continent-hopping hypersonic missiles, or digital disinformation campaigns that infiltrate and undermine public trust.
The United States is in uneasy territory, an insecure peace, or, from another perspective, the road to war, and with today’s technology, what a devastating war it would be. But to move along the spectrum away from conflict and toward true security requires deliberate strategy, policy, planning, and investment — all the things the US Department of Defense routinely does in order to be prepared to fight wars. That has to start with strategic imagination, a vision for coexistence with nations such as China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. And for those who think coexistence is impossible, what is the alternative? Obliteration? That’s neither possible nor morally acceptable. Even in the Cold War, that was not the US goal. Moreover, the United States succeeded against the Soviet Union without a direct armed conflict through a strategy that called on all elements of American power, not just the use of force. On the other hand, the US failure to convert that Soviet defeat into a more stable peace helped bring about Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Considering that the end goal of war is actually peace, it seems reckless that the United States puts so much less priority on diplomacy, economic development, trade promotion, and information than on military means.
But that’s not even the biggest problem for US national security. More than anything else, a “positive peace” agenda, as the peacebuilding community calls it, has to start with a solid foundation at home. By that measure, the United States is ticking way too many boxes on the fragile states index, including factionalization, group grievances, and uneven economic development. The Biden proposals on infrastructure, education, equity, resource security, and job creation may be the best investment the United States could make in its national security, but the internecine political warfare across the country is putting it all at risk.
Maybe a more effective positive peace agenda in 2001 would have made a difference in Afghanistan — we will never know. But it’s not too late to save the United States.
Sharon E. Burke is director of the Resource Security Program at New America. She served in the administrations of Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton, most recently as an assistant secretary of defense.