President Donald Trump’s decision to escalate the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan provides a reminder that the direct U.S. government involvement in Afghanistan and across the Greater Middle East has been an enduring feature of America’s foreign policy throughout much of the last century.
The U.S. has not had troops on the ground in Afghanistan since the brutal Soviet occupation in the 1980s. And despite the U.S. occupying large portions of neighboring Iraq from 2003 to 2011, both countries never came close to experiencing the kind of internal disintegration that ensued between the Russian and Iranian occupations. However, there are still useful lessons to be drawn from the experience of Iran and the Soviet Union.
In the 1980s, Afghanistan was managed as a command and control outpost for the Soviet Union and its overarching geopolitical interests in the Middle East. The war there was not designed or defined to fight Afghan resistance but was part of a region-wide expansion strategy.
What was true of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan is also true of the ongoing U.S. counterinsurgency in the Greater Middle East. The U.S. war in Afghanistan became a campaign of regime change from which America hoped to overthrow the Taliban government, but the goals shifted repeatedly during the ensuing decades. And when the Taliban relented and allowed al Qaeda to relaunch in Afghanistan in 2001, the U.S. decision to provide humanitarian relief was motivated more by concern for the wounded warriors than U.S. political objectives in Afghanistan.
The rise of al Qaeda and the 9/11 attacks led to another change in the U.S. approach to Afghanistan. While the Taliban government was still in power, the United States kept a sizable fighting force in the country and continued to contribute humanitarian assistance. The rationale for these efforts was primarily to discourage the Taliban from conducting terrorist activities and to maintain an internationally recognized government in Afghanistan. But these were only partial responses to the core U.S. objectives of applying pressure on the Soviet Union.
Over the course of the last decade, various U.S. administrations have toyed with different military missions in Afghanistan. In 2003, the Bush administration announced a modest mission focused on hunting down Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. However, that mission—which involved largely using unmanned drones over Afghan territory—was not renewed by President Barack Obama. Instead, the U.S. accepted President Hamid Karzai’s offer of a U.S. training mission rather than move into combat. In 2008, the Iraq war began, creating the ever-present threat of further interference. Afghanistan did not even enter the picture at this point. Finally, in 2009, Obama announced that he would send tens of thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. Unlike his predecessors, Obama did not have to wait for the additional troops to become available. Obama also pulled most U.S. forces out of Iraq by the end of 2011.
In addition to all these actions, the United States also threw its support behind Pakistan’s military dictatorship in the early 2000s and then began backing a civil war in neighboring Somalia. In 2010, the U.S. also intervened in Libya’s civil war through its support of Al Qaeda-affiliated forces that overthrew Muammar Qaddafi. In the case of Afghanistan, the U.S. failed to replicate its decisive victory in Iraq and took pains to avoid interfering directly in the power struggles of neighboring countries to prevent a repetition of the chaos that emerged in Iraq following the 2003 invasion.
Despite their many faults, the Afghanistan and Iraq counterinsurgency missions were established to deter future threats against the United States and the wider global community. And even though these missions have been costly and bloody, there is no military option in either country that will make America’s interests in the region any stronger. Because of this reality, the United States cannot afford to avoid intervention in Afghanistan—it must continue its offensive but contain it.
Every type of intervention and occupation is, in some ways, justifiable. But U.S. counterterrorism efforts are less effective when those efforts come while at the same time disrupting other long-term U.S. objectives. At this time, the United States has the time and resources to counter the Islamic State’s expansion in Afghanistan. In addition, the terrorist threat will endure if the U.S. does not act decisively in Afghanistan.