18 Years After 9/11: What Can We Expect in Afghanistan?

Afghan Commandos practice infiltration techniques, 1 April 2010 at Camp Morehead in the outer regions of Kabul. Public Domain: US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class David Quillen/ RELEASED

President Trump's recent attempts at peace talks with the Taliban have failed. What can we realistically hope to achieve in Afghanistan?

The US-led invasion of Afghanistan in October 2001 was in response to the Al Qaeda attacks on New York's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Its primary goal was to dismantle Al Qaeda and deny it a base from which to operate. Its secondary goal was linked to deterrence: It was a show of force to indicate to other states that if they sponsored terrorism that threatened or hit the United States, they would suffer dire consequences. The US accomplished the first goal by toppling the Taliban government and waging a long counterterrorism and counterinsurgency (COIN) campaign in Afghanistan. Once the government was toppled, however, the United States was left to clean up the mess. Nearly 18 years on, the mess appears as un-cleanable as ever. The US will not stay forever, but leaving Afghanistan is hard to stomach. What can the US and its allies still hope to achieve?

It was always clear that attempting to establish a democratic government would take years of state- and nation-building. It has now been many years, and one thing is clear: if a democratic and peaceful Afghanistan is possible, it will require not only a continuing financial and military commitment from the US and its allies, but an increased one. Afghanistan has been slipping back into Taliban control, not progressing on an albeit bumpy road to peace and stability. What's happening now is clearly not working.

Make no mistake: There are no good options for Afghanistan. Here are three bad options:

  1. Make an increased and explicitly open-ended commitment to do whatever it takes to stabilize the country and support a democratic government there. (Upside: It protects Afghans, especially women, from Taliban fundamentalism and prevents terrorist from using the country as a base of operations. Downsides: It is unlikely to get past voters in the US or its allies and still does not guarantee success. It will cost the lives of more US and allied soldiers. Democracy also means government by consent—it cannot be forced.)
  2. Unilaterally announce our departure and draw down troops while issuing an ultimatum: 1. If the Taliban attacks our departing troops we will hit back hard; 2. If it ever supports or hosts terror that affects US interests again, we will be back full force. (Upside: It is cheap and the deterrence lesson has probably been learned. Downsides: This abandons the country, including its recently freed women, to a fate that most likely includes reinstatement of fundamentalist Taliban rule. We may have to come back to keep the promise made in that ultimatum.)
  3. "Stay the course": Try to split the difference by half-supporting the Afghan government and withdrawing only some troops. This might leave the Afghan government in control of portions of the country and the Taliban in control much of the rest. This is close to the reality today. (Upside: Cheaper than option 1 and it may protect Afghans from the worst Taliban abuses. Downsides: A combination of all the ones above—voters will tire of it, the Afghan government may collapse or become even more corrupt and unsupportable, and, when that comes to a head, we may find ourselves with option 2—but having wasted more lives, time, and money to get there.)
The first two choices are so grim it is not surprising that Bush, Obama, and Trump have all refused to make any choice, leaving us with something like option 3. But option 3 is not sustainable and option 1 is unlikely to happen. This means we can choose option 2 outright or end up with a more expensive and bloody option 2 many years from now. We could try to reach some sort of deal, but, with option 1 off the table, the Taliban would know option 2 was the future. Much like in Vietnam, the peace deal would be a fig leaf covering the US withdrawing in shame. Negotiations are thus superfluous and risk further emboldening the Taliban.

The option 2 ending, whether it comes intentionally or years down the road by neglect, would be a sorry state of affairs if ever there were one—but it is the default option. Are we willing to pay to avoid it? If not, how much will we pay to pretend we haven't already lost?


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