America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan continues to generate dire warnings from a host of former and current national security officials. But Americans must understand that the greatest self-inflicted strategic disasters of the past century have been the consequence of an exaggerated and inaccurate sense of danger theatrically played out in national debate—from the Vietnam War to Operation Iraqi Freedom. It is well past time to call attention to the United States’ tendency to over-dramatize threats, particularly since the real tragedy for U.S. national security has been the predictable adventurism that results from inflating national security concerns. Consider the three main acts in the ongoing drama regarding the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, recycled not only in recent days, for example, by former national security advisor John Bolton, but also in recent years by alarmists in policymaking circles who have driven U.S. decision-making in Afghanistan for a full generation of Americans.
1. Afghanistan will become a breeding ground for more international terrorism just as it was before 9/11
Analogizing threats is one way to dramatize them. Simply saying that Afghanistan will return to the way it was before 9/11 does not account for the dramatically altered environment of 2021. There are plenty of reasons why a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan will not become a source of international terrorism in the way it was before 9/11. First, consider the strategic patience and pragmatism the Taliban demonstrated during the past two years of their campaign to seize Afghanistan. The Taliban took steps to avoid direct attacks on U.S. service members and citizens, even taking steps to cooperate with U.S. forces during the withdrawal. Why would a Taliban government assist in attacking the U.S. homeland, when such attacks would gain them absolutely nothing, and risk everything by all but guaranteeing that the United States would bring its power to bear on them again? A key question will be how the division between pragmatists and extremists in the Taliban’s ranks plays out over time. On the one hand, Taliban extremists are part of the new Afghanistan government. On the other, the Taliban are pursuing international recognition, including from the United States, which will certainly impose expectations on their rule, perhaps foremost of which is that the Taliban will not permit any terrorist attacks on the United States to originate from within Afghanistan’s borders.
Of course, the Taliban face a new challenge in this regard that they did not face before 9/11 with the rise of ISIS. While the rapid rise of ISIS in the power vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq seems like a warning for what could happen in Afghanistan, the two cases actually bear little resemblance. The Taliban realizes that ISIS-Khorasan (ISIS-K), the Afghanistan branch of ISIS, is a threat to Taliban rule over Afghanistan. The Taliban and ISIS have fought each other in Afghanistan for the past several years, with the United States and the Taliban even operating in a way that looked a lot like cooperation—much the same way the U.S. (albeit begrudgingly) found itself working toward a common goal with Iran and Hezbollah as they all fought ISIS in Syria and Iraq. In the Taliban, ISIS faces a ruthless opponent that controls nearly the entirety of the country and will fight ISIS on its own terms.
Still, the existence of ISIS-K and the threat of ISIS-K attacks on the United States or other countries present two possible pathways for the Taliban. The Taliban could conceivably use ISIS-K as a scapegoat for al-Qaeda or other terrorist groups that are able to successfully launch global attacks from the safety of Afghanistan. Given the forensic capabilities of U.S. law enforcement and intelligence organizations, this would be an unlikely recourse and big risk for the Taliban. Alternatively, the Taliban could actually identify ISIS-K as the culprit, leading the United States to launch military strikes against ISIS-K that would further aid the Taliban in containing a threat to their regime. Aside from the strange cooperation the United States and the Taliban have had against ISIS-K, the Taliban has had a more traditional ally in its fight against ISIS-K.
Al-Qaeda has even more to fear from ISIS-K than the Taliban. Al-Qaeda has actually had firsthand experience against ISIS as an existential threat to it and its offshoots in Iraq and Syria. ISIS-K poses an existential threat to al-Qaeda in Afghanistan both in terms of recruitment and combat between the two terrorist organizations. While the Taliban need al-Qaeda and al-Qaeda need the Taliban, between the threat of ISIS-K, a complicated triangular relationship with Pakistan, decades of U.S. military strikes, and the challenge of consolidating themselves in Afghanistan following the U.S. withdrawal, both the Taliban and al-Qaeda have their hands full. Of course, the precariousness of al-Qaeda’s difficult position in Afghanistan may not be a comfort for those Americans who fear al-Qaeda today as much as they did on 9/11, but one of the key questions the United States must face in the aftermath of its withdrawal from Afghanistan is how much longer should al-Qaeda or the threat of terrorism dictate U.S. national security policymaking?
Americans still have not come to terms with the reality that terrorism poses a persistent, but low, threat to them. Cass Sunstein’s warning about probability neglect—the human instinct to ignore the actual probability of a catastrophic event in the face of how our fears magnify the threat—is now nearly as old as the so-called “War on Terror” itself. Yet Americans still elevate the terrorist threat in a manner that is disproportion to its actual risk. That pervasive, elevated sense of fear led the U.S. into Afghanistan and kept it there for twenty years. Terrorist attacks and threats continued the whole time and will continue in the future. Even then, DNI Avril Haines recently pointed out that the risk of terrorism from Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and Syria is greater than the risk of terrorism from Afghanistan.
Finally, the American national security apparatus has adapted to the challenges of terrorism. The adaptations have been imperfect. But they have also been vast, well-funded, durable, and highly successful. While intelligence will be more difficult without the same presence on the ground in Afghanistan, western intelligence services will continue to focus on threats emanating from Afghanistan for years to come. That in and of itself is not a guarantee of security, but it is a crucial difference from the pre-9/11 environment. We can be certain the United States is not going to forget all the lessons it learned overnight. Counterterrorism will continue to be a mainstay of American national security well into the future even as competition with Russia and China commands more attention. This point raises the second argument of the alarmists.
2. Adversaries, especially China and Russia, will fill the vacuum left by the U.S. withdrawal
Warnings about China and Russia making inroads to Afghanistan just as the United States exits are contradictory. One of the recurrent arguments is that U.S. intervention in Afghanistan has been a distraction from the real threat posed by Russia and China. But now, the argument is that the United States is going to lose influence to Russia and China in Afghanistan. Which is it? Does the United States continue to immerse itself in Afghanistan to prevent Russia and China from gaining a foothold there, or does it let Russia and China into Afghanistan so it can focus on countering their aggressive activities elsewhere?
If one were to prioritize countries based upon their strategic significance to the United States, Afghanistan is akin to a social media influencer: it is strategically significant only because people perceive that it is. Neighbors, such as China, Pakistan, and others, may well seek to become more influential in Afghanistan’s future. But strategically, the United States should heed Barry Posen’s advice in a 2017 article aptly titled, “It’s time to make Afghanistan someone else’s problem.”
After all, letting Russia and China try to divide the spoils of Afghanistan may not be such a bad thing for the United States. Aside from those two powers, other major regional players—such as Iran and Pakistan—have a stake in Afghanistan’s future. For these powers, getting the United States out of Afghanistan was a unifying goal. But now that they are no longer bound together by this common goal, they will have to sort out their competing interests. The United States has realized its limitations in Afghanistan after twenty years. Other states may have to learn that costly lesson as well, perhaps for a second time in the case of Russia. Uncertainty over the future should not blind one to the possible, unforeseen upsides of strategic retreat.
Furthermore, the Taliban and other Afghans have a vote. The Soviet Union and China competed for influence over North Vietnam during the Vietnam War only for both powers to emerge with less influence after the United States’ departure from South Vietnam and the country’s unification. If history has shown anything, it is that Afghanistan continues to confound foreign powers who seek to dominate it. The best course of action is for the United States to step back and let other states wrangle over Afghanistan.
3. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan signals American global decline
This is perhaps the most preposterous claim. First and foremost, the United States still has the most formidable military in the world. If anything, the initially successful invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were a testament to U.S. power. Furthermore, in an impressive display of logistics, the United States sustained expeditionary forces—at times numbering over a hundred thousand service members—across thousands of miles of land and ocean, while operating and maintaining advanced weapons systems for two decades. Like earlier wars in American history, the tactical and operational virtuosity of the U.S. military is not in doubt. But, as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Mark Milley admitted, Afghanistan was a “strategic failure.” If strategy prosaically involves the matching of ends, ways, and means, then it remains for the U.S. military to now take the time to reassess how it can use the immense means and ways at its disposal to meet strategic ends. Still, strategy must serve policy, and the United States as a whole has work to do in the wake of the withdrawal from Afghanistan.
A key problem the United States often faces in national security decision-making is largely one of perceptions. One particularly prevalent perception these days is that the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan is a prelude to a larger withdrawal of the United States from the global stage. While alarmists argue that the withdrawal demonstrated a lack of U.S. resolve to adversaries and allies alike, this conclusion ignores the fact that the United States remained in Afghanistan far longer than the Soviet Union did and ended the war at a time of its choosing even though it had not suffered nearly the same military reversals as the Soviet Union. No nation embraces a perceived retreat easily, but there are times when discretion is the better part of valor. In fact, the withdrawal from Afghanistan provides a new window of opportunity for the United States to reassess its diplomatic and military balance in its approach to the Middle East and Southwest Asia, which have consumed military resources and attention for far too long now. Moreover, the United States can now reexamine its global posture, which may actually result in firmer commitments to allies who have felt ignored or overlooked by the U.S. preoccupation with Afghanistan for the past twenty years.
Still, some states in Europe and Asia are worried that United States will “abandon” them to predatory Russian or Chinese expansionism. American policymakers have an unfortunate habit of falling prey to bad analogies, and while the withdrawal from Afghanistan occasioned innumerable comparisons to the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, by this point, enough observers have already realized the mistake in trying to analogize nation-building in Afghanistan to post-World War Two Germany or Japan. Likewise, it would be equally absurd to analogize the political and geostrategic importance of Afghanistan to that of Germany or Japan. Furthermore, recent U.S. foreign policy activity, for instance, the AUKUS pact or Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s warning to Russia following its deployment of troops and equipment along the border with Ukraine, signal that the United States is still very much engaged in global affairs that concern U.S. allies. At the same time, potential adversaries are still fully aware of America’s power to protect its interests. However, determining just what those interests are, how alliances and commitments relate to them, to what lengths the country should sacrifice blood and treasure to protect them, and, above all, how to prioritize them in national security policy are urgent debates the United States needs to have.
Lastly, the United States has experienced its own domestic convulsions in the past year that pose questions about the state of American democracy. Government officials and national security professionals have ignored democracy at home and the will of the American people in keeping the United States entangled in Afghanistan. The American people have been having second thoughts about Afghanistan for years while policymakers and national security professionals tried to persuade them otherwise, using the overdramatized arguments presented here in an attempt to skew the debate. Even if some experts and officials think the withdrawal was a bad decision, it is democracy at work, and most likely for the best.
The United States must stop tilting at windmills. The takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban is a tragedy for the Afghans that the United States dramatizes as its own. The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan does reflect some of the readily apparent challenges the United States is confronting, like the future U.S. role in the world. But the dramatization of national security threats is also one of those challenges. Exaggerated fears regarding Afghanistan kept the United States there for twenty years. Now the collapse of Afghanistan has created fertile ground for more exaggerated threats exacerbated by fears of national decline. This is a critical time to confront the United States’ deep-rooted proclivity to dramatize its fears.
Instead, it would greatly benefit U.S. national security policymaking if Americans recognized the vast safety the nation enjoys. After the conclusion of the Cold War, the U.S. national security establishment searched the globe for looming dangers. In doing so, American policies helped reinforce and foster the resentment that, in part, led to 9/11. Americans have a tragic tendency to over-dramatize the threats posed to them, while forgetting their wealth, power, and fortunate geostrategic position in the world. The result has been decisions that have undercut each of those pillars of American strength. This is the irony for the nation that calls itself the Home of the Brave: Americans need to find the courage to perceive how safe they actually are. The ancient Greek poet Archilochus wrote, “The fox knows many things; the hedgehog, one big thing.” The United States could learn from the hedgehog and discover that its greatest strength and source of security lies in a good defense.
The views expressed are those of the authors and do not represent the views of any US Government department or agency.