It’s evident that within weeks of the August 30, 2021, withdrawal, Vladimir Putin began amassing troops on the Ukrainian border. It’s no coincidence that as soon as progress was announced on talks between Saudi Arabia and Israel, Hamas launched the deadly attack with Iranian assistance. It’s also no coincidence that since August 2021, China has only stepped up its bellicose rhetoric regarding a forceful unification of Taiwan.
While the particulars of each conflict are different, one commonality underlies them all: a failure of American deterrence. The threat of overwhelming American force has historically been a check on regional actors that has prevented further escalation. In both Ukraine and Gaza, American politicians mistook our adversaries’ vital interests and failed to anticipate their responses.
For Ukraine, its potential induction into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the perceived existential threat this posed to Russia played a significant role. Although the decision to go to war ultimately rested with Putin, the conditions and objectives that fueled the conflict had been evolving for years. Namely, Russia sought to reinstall a pro-Moscow régime in Kyiv, not unlike the one ousted during the Euromaidan Revolution in 2014. While the United States has benefited by supplying Ukraine to continue the fight, it was not the objective of U.S. diplomacy and happened despite U.S. actions. It should not erase the failure of American deterrence to prevent the war in the first place, especially since American intelligence was more than aware of the coming invasion months before it began.
Similarly, in Gaza, the failed détente attempted by the Biden administration toward Iran, combined with the push to facilitate a peace deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, incentivized the current conflict. Such an alliance could only threaten Iranian interests by uniting its competitors in the region, prompting Tehran to turn to its network of terrorist proxy groups throughout the Middle East to derail the deal. In this case, giving the go-ahead to Hamas so that the fallout of the Israeli backlash would exacerbate latent tensions between Jerusalem and Riyadh, squashing any olive branches between the two.
In both instances, U.S. adversaries perceived that the United States was too distracted by internal and international considerations, making it their most opportune time to strike. This belief originated in Kabul. This national humiliation opened the door to later crises by conspicuously signaling American weakness on the international stage.
The lesson for future generations of U.S. statesmen must be to prevent such an embarrassment from ever happening again. The optimal alternative would have been a shift in thinking before the negotiations that led to the Doha Accords in 2020.
It should be noted that the overwhelming drive by U.S. politicians to end the war in Afghanistan at all costs, regardless of the fallout and regardless of human cost, is, on one level, understandable. It was a resurgence of the notorious Vietnam Syndrome, the aversion to seriously engage in overseas military campaigns after the social upheavals that followed the Vietnam War. We live in a republic, so long-term strategic thinking is not a tool we are often fortunate to possess. Often, the public mood quickly sours on limited military operations, especially if they prove to be prolonged. There exist significant isolationist sympathies in both American parties, and the party not in power is likely to pander to them for political gain, as evident by the anti-Iraq Democrats in the second Bush administration and the anti-Ukraine faction of House Republicans today. As such, a key component of republican statecraft must be messaging at home.
Referring to the continued U.S. presence in Afghanistan as a war did nothing to increase maneuverability for American diplomacy. Instead, recognizing that we were engaging in a peacekeeping mission, working to preserve the fragile democracy in Kabul while preventing the country from becoming a base for terrorist organizations again, would have taken scrutiny away from U.S. leadership and reduced channels of attack by the isolationists at home.
A more strategic move would have been for the Trump administration to appeal to Congress to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) given to the Bush administration after the September 11 attacks. That AUMF effectively served as a blank check to all future administrations in Afghanistan. Once repealed, the administration could have requested Congress to replace it with a much narrower authorization.
A simple mandate by Congress requiring the President to defend and uphold the legitimate Afghan government in Kabul and protect U.S. assets in the region (infrastructure and personnel) would have sufficed. Even in the divisive second half of the Trump administration, such a move likely would have garnered bipartisan support, especially if the military rather than the administration presented the argument.
Then, when the Trump administration reduced the number of NATO troops from 13,000 to 2,500, it could have engaged in a massive media relations campaign, claiming to have “ended the war.”
This would be a misnomer since, in fact, nothing on the ground would have changed.
It’s worth noting that either the Biden or Trump administrations (or even Bush or Obama) could have pursued this course of action and claimed credit for it. Although news outlets unfriendly to the current administration would have derided the campaign, their own base would have likely praised it. Such a move would have politicized the conflict in the short term while keeping the longer mission intact and denying the national embarrassment that did happen.
Additionally, it must be mentioned that maintaining a presence in Afghanistan served multiple geostrategic goals beyond the humanitarian and political aspects. The region is gaining importance, especially as China seeks to integrate the surrounding nations within a Beijing-centric economic order through its Belt and Road Initiative. Coalition causalities were minimal, and stationing fresh recruits in a volatile zone fosters combat readiness and professionalism that doesn’t exist at a relatively comfortable base in Germany or South Korea.
All of these points highlight a failure of imagination, a failure to seriously consider American interests in the region, and a failure to fully grasp the repercussions of national humiliation on the global stage. The Biden administration’s attitude of inevitability doomed what was already a dire situation. A thoughtful and fresh look at the situation during the stalemate might have prevented the most egregious U.S. foreign policy disaster since the Fall of Saigon.
Haydon N. Parham splits his time working in mortgage finance and on American foreign policy while living in Washington, D.C. An alumnus of the Hudson Institute Political Studies Program, he is also a Public Policy Fellow at the Fund for American Studies and a Jean Bethke Elshtain Fellow for Providence Magazine. He is an active member of the Cicero Debate Society and the American Conservation Coalition. He writes on topics ranging from economics and philosophy to history.