The Biden administration’s calamitous withdrawal from Afghanistan last month marked one of the darkest moments in American foreign policy history. Hundreds of U.S. citizens, along with thousands of green card and special immigrant visa holders, were left behind under Taliban rule. Tens of billions of dollars worth of cutting-edge American military equipment was taken over by Taliban forces. Now, militant jihadist groups, including Al Qaeda, the group that attacked the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, are back in business on friendly territory. All of this will certainly have costly reverberations for many years to come.
But perhaps most damaging of all, is the continued insistence by President Joe Biden and his senior officials that the withdrawal was actually a net positive because it supposedly put an end to America’s “forever wars.” By this, they mean an end to overt U.S. combat operations related to the post-9/11 war on terror. What they don’t really like to discuss, however, is the highly controversial and extremely costly—in terms of both American dollars and American values—covert side of the war on terror. That’s because their Afghanistan withdrawal just made that side of the equation far more challenging.
To grasp this, consider how misguided it is to refer to the twenty-year war in Afghanistan as the cornerstone of America’s post-9/11 “forever wars.” This broader conflict actually did not begin on 9/11, or with America’s invasion of Afghanistan afterward to oust the Taliban government and take the fight directly to Al Qaeda.
We could easily say it began three years earlier, in August 1998, with Al Qaeda’s attack on two U.S. embassies in East Africa, which Osama bin Laden considered the first shots fired in a global civilizational war against the United States and its friends and allies.
The problem is, even five years before that, in February 1993, Ramzi Yousef and his co-conspirators detonated a bomb at the base of the World Trade Center, hoping one tower would topple into the other, killing well over one hundred thousand people. The only reason the attack failed was because (as Yousef later lamented) he was short of money for the proper amount of explosives.
The fact is, ever since the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—with Western imperial powers assuming control or influence over large parts of the Arab and Muslim world—Islamist movements based on austere and militant religious interpretations have arisen and gained in strength around the world. They have been inspired by well-known figures such as Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and Abu ala Mawdudi, founder of Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan.
These movements represent a minority of sentiments across the broad swath of 1.5 billion Muslims worldwide, and those who actively take up arms on their behalf are an even smaller fractional figure. But what they all have in common—and this goes for the Taliban, Haqqani, and any other groups under the banner of militant Salafism—is that they all position themselves as ideological and political alternatives to Western democratic capitalism and the modern globalized international system.
The bottom line is these groups see themselves—and pride themselves—as waging a “forever war” against their eternal enemies, which can be summarized as apostate rulers in the Muslim lands, and their imperialist, infidel supporters from the outside.
Therefore, saying that America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan has ended America’s “forever war” is patently absurd, and dangerously disingenuous. As Biden and his White House team know full well, the war will continue to be waged against the United States, and most likely with greater ferocity after what just happened in Afghanistan.
The White House, of course, claims to have all this under control. The United States has massive “over-the-horizon” airpower capabilities to supposedly strike any nefarious actors anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice. Or, as Biden recently warned anyone implicated in terror plots against Americans, “as well as anyone who wishes America harm,” the U.S. military “will hunt you down and make you pay.”
Here’s the problem: when the United States carries out a drone strike, or a missile strike, or a bombing run inside another country, that’s called an “act of war.” So pulling all U.S. troops out of Afghanistan did absolutely nothing to end the “forever war.”
All it did was move America into a new phase of globalized warfare where it will be operating even deeper in what Dick Cheney was once heavily derided for calling “the dark side” of international affairs. This “dark side” is the shadowy world of surreptitious surveillance, drone strikes, and covert operation—not to mention lack of transparency, knee-jerk deniability, little or no public accountability, and almost zero congressional oversight sensibility.
I am by no means saying that these tools are not necessary. They’re a big part of the reason why the United States has not suffered another major attack since 9/11. But they come with massive costs. These costs can be international. For example, the world certainly takes notice when a U.S. military strike somewhere accidentally hits a wedding party. These costs can be national, with an executive branch on a permanent war footing, overseeing a massive and ever-expanding surveillance state that directly challenges multiple Constitutional rights found in the Bill of Rights.
This is what James Madison meant when he warned that war invariably comes hand-in-hand with “an overgrown Executive” and other “instruments of tyranny at home.”
From afar, it appears that the past few months of tragically bungled foreign policy will actually extend the forever war, and make it more formidable than it needed to be. That’s because the Biden policy turned Afghanistan into an anomaly in America’s long-term (and mostly successful) fight against global terrorism.
For example, the White House has consistently presented the options in Afghanistan as a false choice: either “all-in,” fighting massive land wars with tens of thousands of troops deployed forever; or “all-out,” relying almost entirely on “over-the-horizon” capabilities.
But the other countries and regions which the administration keeps citing as models for its new counterterrorism approach toward Afghanistan—Yemen, Somalia, the Sahel region of Africa, the Philippines—are all places the United States does in fact have “boots on the ground,” typically partnering with a friendly government or local allies. The Biden administration itself recently placed dozens of Army Green Berets in Mozambique in order to help train and support Mozambican troops in their fight against a new ISIS branch there.
It’s not perfect, but that is the sort of forwardly deployed, small-footprint, multiple-force-posture, working with locals—not just blowing them up—kind of strategy that can have sustainability over the long run while the United States engages in the larger hearts-and-minds battle against a murderous ideology; much as it did, imperfectly but sustainably, during the Cold War against Marxism-Leninism.
There is no worse country for the United States to experiment with this “all-out, full withdrawal” concept than Afghanistan. It was, after all, the center of global militant jihadism in the 1990s, having just ousted the Soviet Union after its decade-long war there. And now those very same mujahideen and Taliban fighters can claim to have defeated and ousted another global superpower.
This is the perfect storm Osama bin Laden spoke of with his “strong horse theory” of militant jihadism—that any signs of strength and success over their enemies will ignite massive recruitment opportunities and massive inflow into the global jihad.
And that is precisely what is happening: the UN reported back in June that roughly ten thousand foreign jihadi fighters have already flooded into Afghanistan in recent months; and that was before America’s full withdrawal. A longtime senior intelligence official in the region told the New York Times earlier this month that “Afghanistan has now become the Las Vegas of the terrorists, of the radicals, and of the extremists.”
This is all eerily reminiscent of what happened in Iraq following the Obama administration’s equally unfathomable full withdrawal at the end of 2011. In the aftermath, ISIS arose and became a beacon of hope and of opportunity for jihadi fighters everywhere, followed by years of mass bloodshed, refugee crises, and global terror attacks, including across Europe and inside the United States. Not so ironically, the exact same rationales were given for that full withdrawal: to end a “forever war” and allow the president to “focus on nation-building here at home.”
Indeed, it is always tempting for presidents to wish away foreign policy challenges in order to focus on domestic policy. And now Joe Biden wishes to put Afghanistan and the war on terror—the forever wars—in the rearview mirror and focus on his multi-trillion domestic agenda. The problem is, his ill-conceived Afghanistan withdrawal has bled deeply into his overall poll numbers, threatening that very domestic agenda.
As Alexander Hamilton warned back in the eighteenth century, “No government could give us tranquility & happiness at home, which does not possess sufficient [ability] to make us respectable abroad.” The way the United States just exited Afghanistan will be a stain on this country’s reputation—and respectability—for many years to come.