The 20th anniversary of 9/11, an occasion President Joe Biden had hoped to mark with a successful withdrawal from Afghanistan, was instead marred by the Taliban’s return to power in the very country where it all started. Beyond Afghanistan, the same flawed logic of the U.S.-led “war on terror” has fueled societal dysfunction from Iraq and Syria, through Yemen, Libya, Somalia, the Sahel, and now Mozambique.
Some argue that despite many failures, the U.S. has achieved counterterrorism success and that occasionally “mowing the grass” by keeping pressure on so-called terrorists abroad through intelligence, lethal strikes, and partnered operations is sufficient. While such analysis argues that this approach has achieved a modicum of safety for Americans at home, the tactics contribute to the climate of fear and racism that continues to harm Muslim and South Asian Americans. More directly, it helps feed recruits into violent groups and comes at the expense of people in conflict-affected countries, particularly women and children. The latter was demonstrated painfully yet again in the revelations that an Aug. 29 U.S. drone strike that was intended to prevent a second feared terror attack in Kabul during the chaotic withdrawal killed 10 civilians instead.
Such actions have repeatedly damaged the U.S. morally and strategically over the past 20 years. They also risk sowing the seeds for another cycle of blowback. It’s time to get off this loop.
The Biden administration has pledged to lead with diplomacy and development to address global security challenges and to use the military as a last resort. But recent events in Yemen and Afghanistan, where the administration has sought to demonstrate its new approach, have shown that attempts to pivot U.S. strategy must be done with care and in a way that is far more analytically attuned to conflict- and gender dynamics, lest such drastic action escalate violence and imperil human rights.
In other words, ending “endless wars” should not be equated with simplistic solutions. In such contexts, the U.S. should strategically reorient its posture away from elusive military solutions to intractable conflicts and away from violent and destabilizing counterterror options. Instead, it must invest leverage and capital in political settlements and in more holistic strategies that address the root causes of conflict and violence, address the peace and security needs of women and men, and protect human rights. That means a more patient and sustainable course of action, with stronger multilateral cooperation. It would involve elevating rights, governance, and issues such as corruption in U.S. foreign policy, without overplaying the U.S. capacity to remake societies from the outside.
With reviews of the government’s global defense posture, counterterrorism strategy, and national security strategy still underway, along with planning for a Summit for Democracy, possibly virtually, later this year, the president has several opportunities to close out two decades of post-9/11 failure by embracing a fresh strategic approach for promoting peace and stability around the world.
Prioritizing Rights and Governance Over Terrorism
The Biden administration’s interim National Security Strategy places welcome emphasis on defending human rights and democratic governance in contexts affected by insecurity and violent conflict. However, in regions like the Sahel, the international community remains over-reliant on counterterrorism operations to remove “enemies” from the battlefield and supposedly shore up stability. This is pursued “by, with, and through” questionable military and paramilitary partners, with the help of authorizations like the $100 million 127 Echo program that supports “surrogate forces” to meet U.S. counterterror objectives. The atrocities committed by the CIA’s “Zero Units” in Afghanistan and countless other allied warlords there in service of a corrupt system are just the latest example of how counterterrorism strategies ultimately can be self-defeating.
When the United States escalates military support that props up corrupt, abusive, or authoritarian regimes, this removes the prospects and incentives for reform, perpetuates cycles of abuse and violence, and displaces or undermines support for nonviolent political solutions. The United States needs to break this pattern by putting in place significant, flexible development and peacebuilding assistance in reform-minded, fragile states, as envisioned by the Global Fragility Act. It also requires, at a minimum, adopting reforms that tie security assistance to improved governance and incorporate civil society, particularly women’s rights and women-led organizations and other marginalized groups, into the decisions on U.S. support to security actors.
As a new approach of strategic peacebuilding is scaled up, the U.S. global military footprint becomes less necessary. The Pentagon’s Global Force Posture Review should aim to reduce the expansive post-9/11 military presence across the globe, and resist the temptation simply to repurpose it for “grey zone” operations in service of great power rivalry. This is just another means of perpetuating open-ended military engagement around the world and maintaining a swollen post-9/11 defense budget. Configuring U.S. defense posture and security engagements away from lethal drone strikes and special forces – an approach that could help, for instance, in Somalia – would be more consistent with the overall pivot needed towards peace, rights, and democracy.
Building International Support for Nonviolent Conflict Resolution
The global war on terror has weakened and warped the multilateral system for managing international peace and security. Detention without trial, rendition, torture, lethal strikes, and countless other measures have eroded the rules-based international order and the U.S. standing in it. Norms will be hard to rebuild. But the process starts with the United States working to restore and improve the multilateral system it helped establish and behaving within its constraints.
The administration has rightly emphasized international cooperation to resolve long-standing conflicts in places like Mali, Libya, Syria, and Yemen. But too often, attempts to address conflicts in fragile states have been subordinated to other objectives, making them even more intractable. In Syria, the U.S. focus on defeating fundamentalist groups like ISIS and al-Nusra helped internationalize the war, gave the Assad regime the means of manipulating the violence of fundamentalists toward its own ends, and distracted from a more coherent international strategy to protect civilians and find a solution. In Yemen, the United States prioritized maintaining Saudi support for its Iraq and Syria policies and checking supposed Iranian expansionism in the Arabian Peninsula over the need to address what was primarily an internal conflict. The result has been a humanitarian disaster.
In Afghanistan, the United States now will need to fashion a careful diplomatic strategy, building on the minimum security interests it shares with regional powers such as China, Russia, Pakistan, India, Iran, and with Afghanistan’s other neighbors, to ensure that the country does not become a haven for international jihadists. Those neighbors also have a stake in curbing the Taliban’s worst excesses and even perhaps pressuring it toward some degree of reconciliation with non-Pashtun groups, since new insurgencies would impact refugee flows and the ability of the Taliban to carry out is pledges to rein in violent groups that might pose a threat abroad. While no one expects Afghanistan’s neighbors to become human rights advocates, democracies like Pakistan and India also have indicated they have no interest in associating with the Taliban’s oppression of women. The interim Taliban government will not endure without gaining some international support and legitimacy; that offers the United States at least some opportunities to work with other nations and Afghan civil society to meet humanitarian needs and advance inclusion and human rights.
Support More Inclusive Paths to Peace
A critical weakness in the peace processes for both Afghanistan and Yemen has been the absence of strong civil society participation, which can ensure societies that will have to live with the results of political settlements have the chance to assert their rights during negotiations, potentially increasing public support for such agreements. The United States also has failed to seriously support indigenous peacebuilding efforts and movements, more inclusive dialogue and justice processes (including women and marginalized groups), and civil society organizations advocating for more accountable governance.
This could be a key link between the Biden administration’s commitment to human rights and its approach to addressing conflict and fragility. Experience and research show the involvement of civil society, particularly women, in peacemaking results in more durable and lasting agreements. It’s also the law: the United States is required by the Women, Peace and Security Act to vigorously support the meaningful involvement of women in peace processes. The State Department’s implementation plan for the Act is a good start, but the department does not have a policy or strategy for including a broader range of civil society actors, including youth, ethnic and religious minorities, LGBTQI groups and other marginalized groups in peace processes. This should be an urgent priority.
The Afghan “peace process” ostensibly would have been a good place for the U.S. to demonstrate this principle in practice, but the Trump administration negotiated a U.S. exit from Afghanistan directly with the Taliban, even leaving the country’s elected government out of the process. While the United States did press for an Afghan government negotiating team inclusive of women, the political imperative to end a “forever war” and withdraw troops resulted in no structured engagement with civil society, especially women’s rights and women-led organizations, despite long-standing proposals for how to do so. When there is a way, there must first be the will. In the end, the Doha process became a U.S. exit deal rather than delivering any form of peace for Afghans.
In Yemen, the newly appointed U.S. envoy is not helped by an outdated United Nations Security Council resolution that frames the conflict as between the Houthis and an internationally recognized government. This must change. Yemen’s conflict landscape has become far more fragmented and complex, involving more conflict actors and complex regional grievances, and analysts have made the case for how to structure a peace process more inclusively, given these realities. Considering the dangerous climate for Yemeni activists, the U.S. should take its cue from Yemeni civil society on how best to support safe spaces where they can articulate their priorities and ideas on structuring a revitalized, inclusive peace process. The U.S. (and other donors) should be investing resources now that will protect and develop capacities for civil society to engage effectively. The United States must always be willing to put its diplomatic weight behind a more inclusive process.
Another context where the United States and its partners can get behind civil society peacebuilding is in West Africa, where the People’s Coalition for the Sahel has collectively outlined a framework for the international community to focus on protecting civilians, addressing the conflict’s root causes, meeting humanitarian needs, and addressing impunity and injustice. While recognizing the threat to the State from violent insurgent groups, it reframes and rebalances priorities away from the current counterterrorism focus that is not working. A diplomatic strategy to engage with civil society could do much to reinforce its vital role in future peace processes, increasing the potential to address the roots of conflict and fragility in the Sahel and elsewhere.
The U.S.-led response to the 9/11 attacks has been damaging and destabilizing for the United States and the world, and has produced four times more militants fighting in the name of Sunni Islam than existed on 9/11. The only rational response is to adopt a new course that learns from the past, addressing instability in a durable way by prioritizing the restoration of people’s rights and human security and eschewing the flawed logic of a “war on terror” that has cost so much for so many.