US policy toward Afghanistan: Consider the trade-offs, including with other policy areas

A U.S. soldier assigned to the Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 1st Armored Division watches as a UH-60 Blackhawk Helicopter prepares to land during an advise and assistance mission in southeastern Afghanistan, August 4, 2019.    Picture taken on August 4, 2019.   Courtesy Alejandro Licea/U.S. Army/Handout via REUTERS  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY.
Editor's note:

The research reported here was funded in part by the Minerva Research Initiative (OUSD(R&E)) and the Army Research Office/Army Research Laboratory via grant #W911-NF-17-1-0569 to George Mason University.  Any errors and opinions are not those of the Department of Defense and are attributable solely to the authors.

When it takes office on January 20, the Biden administration will face an urgent foreign policy choice: whether to abide by the U.S.-Taliban Doha agreement of February 2020 and withdraw the remainder of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by May 2021. The existence of diplomatic and legal wiggle-room in the agreement — based on so-called interconnectedness (i.e. binding linkages) among the four key points of the agreement and the interpretation of compliance — are tangential to how the Taliban will react. The decision about the May 2021 deadline will have a profound impact on U.S. policy in Afghanistan and beyond.

The decision comes, of course, amid a range of other crises on the new administration’s front burner. But the Afghanistan decision will operate on an extremely tight timeline. A North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meeting of defense ministers takes place in the middle of February and, understandably, U.S. allies are clamoring to know more about the future of the U.S. military presence in Afghanistan. If the United States decides to keep forces there beyond May, will it seek to negotiate a time-limited extension with the Taliban, or simply force its continued military deployment on the Taliban? And for how long — the length of time it takes to achieve a peace deal that both the Afghan government and the United States like? Or will the United States try to keep an open-ended counterterrorism force in Afghanistan, perhaps even beyond an eventual peace deal?

NATO allies rightly want to avoid a U.S. military exit that fails to simultaneously lift their forces out, leaving them vulnerable without the logistics and intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities that the United States alone has brought to the war. Thus, the mid-February timeline is fundamental for NATO’s decisionmaking and forces. Unlike some other looming foreign policy challenges, Biden’s Afghanistan policy will be subject to intense political spotlight.

The decision revolves around on how the new administration prioritizes U.S. interests in Afghanistan. It also crucially depends on whether the Biden administration assesses U.S. Afghanistan policy in isolation, or considers Afghanistan within larger strategic, geopolitical, and domestic imperatives.

Prioritizing U.S. interests in Afghanistan

Since 9/11, the principal U.S. objective in Afghanistan has been to prevent a terrorist attack on the United States, its people and assets, or U.S. allies, and also to ensure that Afghanistan’s territory is not used for exporting terrorism. That remains the correct principal objective.

Another primary U.S. interest is ensuring that instability in Afghanistan does not destabilize Pakistan in a way could jeopardize the safety of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons or increase the risk of a Pakistan-India nuclear war by empowering anti-Pakistan terrorist groups. Clearly, the biggest sources of Pakistan’s instability come from within Pakistan itself. The country has made significant progress in recent years in reducing the threat posed by nonstate armed actors to Pakistan, and there have been improvements in the safety of nuclear weapons. But developments in Afghanistan can worsen Pakistan’s chronic instability.

The United States also has a set of secondary and tertiary interests in Afghanistan. First among them is that Afghanistan has a stable government that is not hostile to the United States. An Afghan government in which the Taliban is a strong, perhaps even the strongest government actor — but does not define the United States as a strategic enemy — satisfies this criterion.

It is also strongly in the U.S. interest that Afghanistan is not dominated by an outside power that is seeking hegemony there, such as, conceivably, Iran, China, or Russia. Afghanistan’s relative independence is essential for the U.S. to be able to pursue the full range of its interests in the country and the region. These include important substantive interests — pluralistic political and economic processes; rule of law and accountability; and human rights, women’s rights, and minority rights — as well as humanitarian issues, particularly minimizing the suffering and death due to war, illness, or starvation, and enabling inclusive socio-economic development. These interests matter because they reflect U.S. values, and because America’s interventions in Afghanistan have been on the basis of these values, profoundly shaping the country’s trajectory and political dispensation.

Moreover, the stability of the Afghan government and thus Washington’s ability to maximize its interests increases if political and economic processes in Afghanistan are pluralistic, inclusive, and accountable. Thus, these tertiary interests are both objectives in of themselves and a tool of advancing some of the secondary and primary interests.

Advancing these interests also increases U.S. global legitimacy and the effectiveness of its policy elsewhere. U.S. credibility is at stake in various ways in Afghanistan:

  • First is its reputation for accomplishing its articulated objectives. The objective of a democratic and stable Afghanistan where the Taliban has been defeated is more elusive today than at any point since 2002. However, the United States still has an interest in minimizing the extent of the loss to this type of credibility. A comprehensive U.S. failure would embolden other jihadists and encourage other nonstate and state actors to attempt to subvert U.S. policy objectives elsewhere.
  • Second is the reliability of its coalition partnership with its NATO and other allies. This reputation and the resulting health of NATO are influenced by how the United States treats allies as it winds down its military involvement in Afghanistan. After spending years persuading them to maintain out-of-theater operations and encouraging them to undertake more intensive offensive operations with larger forces, the Unites States will damage relations with allies if it leaves them alone and vulnerable. Adequate information-sharing and joint planning about the departure of military forces or their continued deployment is crucial.
  • Third is our credibility with the Afghan government and powerbrokers. A part of this credibility is fulfilling the commitments to our partners. But another is shaping their behavior and minimizing their mis-governance and undermining of peace processes. The United States has repeatedly indicated that it would end its military mission in Afghanistan, including in 2014 and 2016. The United States has repeatedly backed away from those decisions and signals. These extensions fuel a counterproductive sense among Afghan actors that they can anchor U.S. military forces in Afghanistan for years to come, and that Afghanistan is the center of geostrategic competition without their having to adequately improve governance and move toward reconciliation. This type of credibility thus partly in contradiction with type one and also type four.
  • Fourth is credibility around the United States’ basic strategic wisdom. The United States must maintain a capacity to correctly assess changing geopolitical and domestic environments, and adapt foreign policy goals to maintain domestic unity, well-being, and external strength. That includes extricating itself from quagmires and unwinnable causes, as well as redeploying resources from domains of lesser importance to primary geostrategic issues — be they preventing zoonotic pandemics or managing new geostrategic competition. A key hallmark of a great power is to know when to liquidate unwise commitments. Increasingly, this fourth type of U.S. credibility in Afghanistan is at odds with the first type of credibility.

A key hallmark of a great power is to know when to liquidate unwise commitments.

Prioritizing interests does not involve jettisoning non-primary interests. But it does imply setting limits on the resources and tools devoted to lesser-level interests, particularly lengthy military deployments. That does not mean that primary interests should ipso facto be prosecuted through military means, such as military counterterrorism forces. Other tools may be more appropriate, and the choice of available tools can change over time. But it does mean that costly resources, particularly those with high opportunity costs, should be applied selectively and reserved for the most important interests — not left tied to tertiary issues, especially if the prospects of securing those tertiary objectives are low and become lower over time.

Beyond providing a framework for resource allocation, prioritizing interests provides a framework for how to trade interests against each other.

Two alternate decisionmaking frameworks

In addition to prioritizing interests within Afghanistan, a second prioritization should be adopted: namely, regarding where Afghanistan lies within the scope of U.S. geostrategic and foreign policy objectives and how it affects U.S. domestic issues. This second procedural decision is thus about whether or not to treat Afghanistan as a policy island onto itself.

Treating Afghanistan decisionmaking in isolation artificially inflates its significance and heightens the risk of policy choices being influenced by the tyranny of sunk costs. It also amplifies the weight of “commitments and promises” and the credibility of outcomes achieved, as well as emotional attachments to achieving those outcomes. It obscures problems of “bleeding away” resources from other more important geopolitical imperatives, and tying up U.S. valuable and limited assets, such as ISR and U.S. special operation forces, to objectives of lesser strategic significance.

In contrast, placing Afghanistan into a global strategic framework and reviewing Afghanistan policy with a clear eye toward its impact on the most important U.S. strategic priorities — avoiding nuclear war and terrorism, managing geopolitical competition with China, countering nefarious moves by China and Russia around the world, preventing pandemics and climate change and mitigating their effects, as well as assuring the physical security of the United States and its citizens from terrorism, crime, and other avoidable deaths (such as those due to COVID-19) — very significantly, and appropriately, reduces the otherwise inflated importance of Afghanistan.

Such integrated decisionmaking forces focus on opportunity costs and trade-offs (instead of sunk costs) as well as marginal costs and benefits. It drives incorporating the likelihood of success into all policy choices. In such a decisionmaking framework, the expense of $20-40 billion devoted to maintain 10,000 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan stops being a small amount in comparison to the Pentagon’s total budget; instead, it is $40 billion taken away from the annual — and currently almost entirely unfunded — $20 billion to $60 billion it would take to prevent environmental destruction and associated deadly zoonotic pandemics (more of which will arrive, easily rapidly, unless sufficient resources are committed to addressing their sources). Even a less expensive U.S. military deployment becomes a significant opportunity cost if the likelihood of success is low. In other words, a smaller expenditure of, say, $10 billion a year to maintain a force of 2,500 U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan may be “financially sustainable,” but if the strategy has paltry prospects for success, it can still amount to money misallocated or altogether wasted. Those are resources taken away from other imperatives, such as rebuilding a productive middle class in the United States.

Similarly, the United States needs to focus on how the way it prosecutes its counterterrorism interests in Afghanistan influences its counterterrorism interests elsewhere. This is not merely about precedents and credibility. U.S. deployments of large military forces to Afghanistan, the Middle East, and (on a smaller scale) Africa have created an extremist blowback — not just among international jihadist terrorists, but also right-wing armed actors in the United States.

U.S. veterans of these open-ended wars — which fail to produce satisfactory victories, even while exposing soldiers to devastating violence — have been an important source of recruitment for armed right-wing groups in the United States. These groups, and the domestic political violence they generate, are an immense threat to U.S. democracy and rule of law, having produced more deaths of American citizens in recent years than has foreign terrorism. The various ideologies embraced by right-wing armed groups, such as white supremacy and rejection of the federal government, would exist without the U.S. open-ended wars. But veterans recruited for these causes greatly increase the membership, networks, and multifaceted potency (both the capacity for violence and for building political capital) of these groups.

Reducing the pool of angry veterans as recruits for armed groups in the United States thus ought to be regarded as one of the key benefits of limiting the number, extent, and seemingly endless nature of U.S. military counterterrorism deployments. Meanwhile, there needs to be far better assistance to reintegrate veterans into civilian life. These considerations should be integrated into judgements about how to prosecute counterterrorism objectives abroad, including in Afghanistan.

It is time to prioritize among the interests the United States is pursuing within Afghanistan, and to readjust the priority accorded Afghanistan within the scope of U.S. interests abroad and at home.