Afghanistan, Iraq, and the End of the Global War on Terror
The news streaming from Afghanistan as the Taliban storm back into power is as breathtaking as it is tragic. While I never personally served in Afghanistan, I can’t help but to feel a sense of national loss and disappointment. As a Soldier and a student of American foreign policy, I suspect I’ve paid closer attention to the war in Afghanistan than most Americans. Having served in uniform alongside Afghanistan veterans and personally experiencing war in Iraq, everything happening in Afghanistan similarly feels personal. The debacle unfolding in real time in Afghanistan didn’t begin in April 2021 when President Biden announced the U.S. withdrawal, nor did it begin when the Trump Administration completed negotiations to withdraw from Afghanistan.
The drama unfolding in Afghanistan is substantially due to the U.S. decision to invade Iraq, putting real progress in Afghanistan on hold from late 2002 to sometime early in the Obama Administration. By then, however, the U.S. ability to gain or regain momentum was likely gone, leading to the slow procession to what is currently happening. In my mind I cannot separate the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. The members of the Bush Administration who wanted to invade Iraq were unable to do so until 9/11 created the opportunity, and for eight years, the conduct of the war in Afghanistan took place in the shadow of the war in Iraq. As an Iraq veteran, I can’t help but to think of Iraq as I witness the disaster happening as the United States withdraws from Afghanistan.
The Ties That Bind — Afghanistan and Iraq
I can’t consider Iraq and our war there without my personal biases. I served there twice and know the pain of losing friends and fellow Soldiers there. And as an American citizen, I want to believe that the actions that my government takes are right and proper. When it comes to the Iraq War, however, I struggle to justify the decision to go to war and how we conducted the war. It was an unnecessary endeavor with far-reaching consequences that we still haven’t fully realized. The political scientist in me says the Iraq War may have been our biggest foreign policy mistake since… I can’t think of a bigger one or one with greater effects on the United States and maybe the world. The Iraq War further destabilized an already troubled part of the world, cost the United States an incredible amount of blood and treasure, and damaged our reputation and standing in the world. That war is also a major contributing factor behind the awful news coming out of Afghanistan as we withdraw after 20 years of war there.
The 20th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s attacks on September 11, 2001 is only a few weeks away, and in my mind, I cannot separate the Iraq War from 9/11 — they are inextricably linked. There are only a few days I remember as clearly as I do 9/11. Stationed in Germany, six hours ahead of the east coast of the United States, I saw the first ultrasound of my oldest child that morning at my wife’s doctor’s appointment, and that afternoon sat in my battalion’s command and staff meeting. Shortly after getting news of the attacks, I found myself leading my platoon on security operations guarding U.S. facilities in central Germany as no one fully knew what was going on or what else al-Qaeda was planning. These security operations went on for several weeks and turned into drudgery. My platoon struggled to stay alert as it became clear that the war wasn’t coming to Germany. I also remember the kindness and support the local Germans showed us. I don’t remember how many cups of coffee and hot chocolate I drank because of their courtesy that chilly autumn. That kindness and support was a far cry from the opposition those same Germans gave us as we deployed to Iraq a little over a year later.
The Iraq War was never a necessity in my mind, even before I’d ever heard the term ‘preventive war.’ Even if the arguments in favor of the war were true, the question I kept asking myself was, “If the United States could successfully contain the Soviet Union — an existential threat! — for 50 years, what is the urgency to go to war against a regional threat boxed in by rivals on two sides?” The threat of terrorism wasn’t good enough for me. Maybe because I was in Germany on 9/11 and didn’t see lower Manhattan, the Pentagon, or the field outside of Shanksville, PA, I didn’t sense the threat of terror in the same way others did. Regardless, the idea that the United States and a ‘coalition of the willing’ was going to rid the world of terrorism was a ridiculous concept in the first place. Terrorism is a tactic as old as written human history; as long as there are disadvantaged and aggrieved people, there will be terrorism. Invading Iraq and occupying the country gave cause to would-be terrorists and metastasized the problem. In effect, as outsiders, the United States bears a great deal of culpability for the current situation in Iraq.
One can draw a straight line from the invasion of Iraq to the creation of ISIS. Al-Qaeda had no presence in Iraq before the American invasion, but that invasion led to the insurgency which led to al-Qaeda’s franchise, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). I saw this development firsthand serving in Iraq in 2006, and I understand how the brutality of AQI helped spur the development of the Shia militias that were the enemy in my company’s area of operations.
A complex series of events that I don’t fully yet understand led to the evolution of AQI into the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS or Daesh. In effect, the United States created the problem it was trying to solve. Eight years of war in Iraq set the conditions for ISIS which then necessitated the American ‘return’ to Iraq. In a bit of tautology, the expansion of the Global War on Terrorism led to an expansion of terrorism, which worsened the situation in Syria following the Arab Spring. All of these events amplified the effects of each other, destabilizing an already unsteady region. Worse for the United States, its own actions strengthened the hand of Iran, which supported the Shia militias in Iraq and directly led to the deaths of American servicemembers.
The Costs of Strategic Incoherence
Al-Qaeda’s attacks on 9/11 wholly justified the United States decision to go to war in Afghanistan. The second-order effect of doing so, however, was the removal of one of Iran’s security threats, the Taliban regime. Navigating the relationship with Iran over the war in Afghanistan may have been challenging, but could have led to some sort of rapprochement with the United States in an advantageous position in Afghanistan and the threat of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in the west. Instead, the United States then decided to remove the Hussein regime from Iraq, creating the opportunity for Iran to influence the Shia dominated government in Iraq and support the Shia militias. This gave Iran a much freer hand in the Middle East than it had prior to the U.S. invasion. U.S. actions in Iraq later enabled Iranian support for the Houthi rebellion in Yemen, creating another security challenge for Saudi Arabia, which led to the Saudi intervention there. The decision to go to war in Iraq created another problem for the United States: it drew resources from the war in Afghanistan.
As the United States built up forces in the Middle East in preparation for the invasion in late 2002, U.S. forces in Afghanistan essentially went to a strategic pause and remained in such a state until 2010. Any momentum the U.S. effort in Afghanistan had was lost in the sands and streets of Iraq. The decision to fight the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq simultaneously doomed both efforts. The strategic benefit for the United States is uneven at best. On the plus side of the ledger, the United States does not face the threat al-Qaeda posed 20 years ago even if terrorists who threaten the United States and terrorism itself still exist. That gain in security comes at the expense of blood and treasure: over 8,500 U.S. and allied servicemembers killed and over 60,000 wounded in Afghanistan and Iraq, and over two trillion dollars ($2,000,000,000,000) of U.S. debt. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 200,000 Iraqis died in the war as well. Beyond these directs costs of war, the debacle of Iraq opened the door to this emerging return of great power competition.
The ‘end of history’ Francis Fukuyama wrote about in 1989 was short-lived, which was clear by the time the three-way conflict in Iraq reached its apogee in 2007. This end of history marked the start of the unipolar moment when the United States was the sole global power with the strategic freedom of movement that entailed. For over a decade, the United States was able to intervene in global crises at will and without recoil. Somalia, the Balkans, and the Middle East all saw major U.S. military operations that didn’t clearly fit a strategic framework outside of an offensive realist’s drive to accumulate power in the name of security. Quite simply, the United States acted because it could without worrying about real challenges to its power. 9/11 ended that exercise of American power in favor of its exercise to end terrorism.
Unfortunately, the framework the United States organized its view of a unipolar world was that of American Maximalism: aggressively applying American power, primarily military, to maintain an extreme reading of the international system’s status quo of American primacy. During the bipolar Cold War era and in the unipolar moment, the United States could manage the risk, but the distraction of the misguided wars of Afghanistan and Iraq helped create the conditions for the return of great power competition. China and Russia have come to the fore as national security threats to the United States, and these state actors are much more capable and threatening than the Taliban or Iraq’s Shia militias, Sunni insurgents, and variety of terror groups. Those state threats pose risks to U.S. national security unseen since the end of the Cold War.
These security threats took notes on how the United States employed military force and planned to counter it accordingly, and now the United States faces near-peer threats and the need to modernize nearly all aspects of the military. It feels similar to how the U.S. Army needed to modernize after the Vietnam War after missing a generation of modernization and the Yom Kippur War shocking American military leaders on the lethality of the new modern battlefield. Today’s threats have witnessed the limits of American military power, which lies in the strategic employment of its forces, not necessarily the operational and tactical abilities. American maximalism is a continuity in American foreign policy, but an overreliance on military instruments without due consideration of the other forms of national power in this period of interstate competition may be a recipe for more costly military adventures.
As the Global War on Terror’s era ends so spectacularly, what lessons can the United States draw from this grand exercise of American military force? First, limited wars against enemies whose survival is at risk are dangerous for the United States. When the United States does not value the political object in question equal to its enemy, the wisdom of using military force may be absent. The outcomes of the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars aren’t positive for the United States because of a failure to assess the adversary and understand what the adversary feels is at stake in conflict. Fighting an adversary who senses an existential threat likely means a prolonged conflict. Second, political and military strategic objectives must be clear. Decision makers, both civilian and military, must be put on the spot. This is the role of Congress. If the answers to the question of objectives are unsatisfying, maybe Congress should tie appropriations for military operations to getting suitable answers. At the same time, the American public should do more than shop; all Americans must have skin in the game. Political leaders must involve their constituents, and constituents should hold their elected leaders accountable. Finally, maximalist political objectives require corresponding resources. If the creation of Jeffersonian democracies in Afghanistan and Iraq were the political objectives, the United States should have committed adequate resources to do so. These lessons seem to echo those from the last time the United States supported a flagging regime in Southeast Asia. Hopefully the hard-learned lessons last longer than the images of the consequences this time.