Elliot Chodoff & David A. Levy
The sudden fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban following the withdrawal of American forces did not surprise those who have followed the story for the past two decades. What began 20 years ago as a mission to rid the world of al Qaeda lost its focus as other, unattainable, objectives overtook the primary one – denying Al Qaeda a safe haven.
Before 9/11, five years of Taliban atrocities – massacres; withholding food supplies; destruction of fertile land, tens of thousands of homes, and historical-cultural monuments; brutal treatment of women and religious and ethnic minorities – did not trigger an American or other foreign nation’s intervention. There was lip service, but in the end, nobody really cared.
However, al Qaeda, welcomed by the Taliban as an honored guest, had established its command and training centers in the country. After the attacks on the US, the Taliban precipitated the American invasion by refusing to hand bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders over to US authorities.
The objectives of the operation, in which the US was joined by Britain, Canada, other NATO members, and the Afghani Northern Alliance, were to remove the Taliban from power and eliminate Afghanistan as a terrorist base, destroying al Qaeda along the way. While the Taliban was removed from power, many of its leaders were airlifted to safety in Pakistan to fight another day.
Both strategic objectives, though achieved, have subsequently been undone as the US unilateral withdrawal that was rapidly followed by the Taliban’s retaking control. The Taliban is now in a better position than the status quo ante bellum of 9/11, with the acquisition of tens of billions of dollars worth of US military equipment, enhanced alliances, and the cachet of defeating the US and the Soviet Union.
There is little doubt that with regained control of Afghanistan, the Taliban will be making its presence known abroad through facilitating attacks on Western targets worldwide, using clients and proxies, such as the hundreds of recently released Al-Qaeda and ISIS fighters along with other Islamist groups that will find Afghanistan a convenient staging area. The US, along with its allies, will have to find ways to deter or deny future attacks.
Having achieved the initial objectives, the US was faced with three options: control, withdrawal, and denial of control.
Control. There is a lot to be said for controlling Afghanistan. Known as the Graveyard of Empires, Afghanistan has enticed regional and global powers to invade and attempt to control the country for more than two millennia. One need not subscribe to MacKinder’s theory of the Eurasian Heartland to recognize that Afghanistan is a nodal region located between key strategic players on the Eurasian landmass such as China, Russia, and Iran. In addition, Afghanistan possesses considerable as-yet unexploited natural resources. Nonetheless, the fact that empires have repeatedly met defeat in Afghanistan must be considered as a potential consequence of attempting to subdue the country.
Such a strategy can succeed in creating stability. However, it requires great cost, a large footprint, and an even larger long-term commitment. The US maintains extensive forces and enduring commitments in Western Europe, Japan, and South Korea. It has also held bases in Persian Gulf states for twoscore or more years – after inheriting the UK’s regional commitments – with no indications of leaving.
The foundations of the American failure were laid when the US shifted its strategic objectives from security to nation-building. Establishing a stable, democratic Afghanistan was certainly an optimal solution to preventing the country from reverting to a terrorist haven. Consequently, the US, NATO, and local allies policed the cities, conducted operations into the interior, engaged in extensive intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), hired contractors, and tried to be strong everywhere. In Afghanistan, with its endemic instability and corruption exacerbated by the democratizing project, it was doomed to fail. Additionally, Afghanistan makes Lebanon’s confessionalism system seem homogeneous, with 14 officially recognized ethnic groups, including Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, Uzbeks, and others. Transition to Democracy was a long shot, and even if successful, it would have required a very long maturation period. Thus, a control strategy leveraging the Afghan Government would require a protracted to an indefinite commitment; history has shown that 20 years was not long enough.
Offshore Balancing. Another approach, hinted at by the Biden Administration as its preferred option, is offshore balancing. This calls for withdrawing land forces from onshore positions combined with a readiness to reenter, if necessary, from sea or bases nearby in friendly areas. In theory, this lowers the chance of fatalities as well as deployment costs. In practice, it often fails. Active offshore balancing uses special forces and air attacks to respond to potentially hostile activity. Called “mowing the grass” in Israel, it has been a strategic approach to Hamas in Gaza for over a decade. This approach requires a robust ISR and is unworkable for the US in Afghanistan due to distance. ISR assets (like drones) and rapid response teams would have to travel from sea-based assets or Persian Gulf bases over 3700 km (2000 NM) away, with hours of flight time, and require a Taliban sympathetic Islamabad’s permission to use Pakistani airspace.
Control Denial. Not to be confused with deterrence by denial, a control denial strategy determines that the cost of securing a territory is too high – in blood, treasure, or political capital – but denies the adversary use of that territory. Like a World War I “no-man’s-land,” it is unusable to either side except at a great cost. Thus, the US could have denied territory for the Taliban’s surrogates to train, equip, and from which to launch operations. A denial strategy is not optimal but adequate, and similar to police work, it doesn’t have a final “mission accomplished” phase but rather requires an ongoing commitment to prevent an undesirable outcome.
Terrorist organizations often operate out of areas of anarchy or chaos, whether in weak or failed states or regions difficult to control, such as mountains and forests. However, their optimum habitat is a friendly, hospitable state, as was pre-9/11 Afghanistan under the Taliban. In opting for an all-or-nothing strategy and ultimately choosing the “nothing” option, the US has returned Afghanistan to the Taliban and consequently the re-establishment of terrorist habitat “nature reserves” for the likes of al-Qaeda, ISIS, and others, thus raising the probability of another 9/11, version 2.0, to near-certainty.