The United States has finally left Afghanistan – twenty years after the original failed mission to bring Osama Bin Laden and his criminal gang to justice morphed into a nation-building project, breathtaking in scope and ambition. The national humiliation over the chaos that attended the withdrawal itself will without a doubt linger for some time, but the larger question is whether this long-overdue withdrawal will trigger more than endless forensics of punditry as to what went wrong and when. Rather, we need genuine soul-searching as to why this great country has found itself at this juncture at this time, and what must be done to regain our footing and move forward.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Biden administration’s apparent determination to end America’s open-ended wars constitute the final acknowledgment that the post-Cold War era is over. As such, the decision to pull out of Afghanistan carries within it the seeds of a new grand strategy to preserve and protect the vital national interests of the United States and its allies, and to do so at an acceptable cost. This strategic redefinition should take as its point of departure the unequivocal admission that the extant globalist project, with its system-transforming agenda of democracy-building and nation-building, has failed. We are yet again in a world where for the foreseeable future great power competition and power-balancing will determine winners and losers.
The United States is a global superpower, with interests in key theaters from the Indo-Pacific to Europe. But in this new world redux – short of general war – the likely outcome will be something akin to the Concert of Powers of yore, with strategic competition at the state and sub-state level replacing Washington’s ideologically driven approach that has characterized the post-Cold War years. We need to acknowledge that America’s twenty years’ war has changed the global power distribution, leaving the country’s resources depleted, with an isolationist impulse now in full view. The neo-liberal foreign policy project has also changed the country internally, often in ways that are still difficult to grasp fully.
The U.S. position when it comes to global power distribution is today arguably more difficult than at any time since America first emerged on the global stage after entering the First World War. Unlike during the Cold War, the U.S. is confronted not by one but two military near-peer competitors, with Russia capable of fielding a range of modern weapons, and with communist China – though still lagging in a number of key areas – making an all-out effort to close the qualitative gap in their weapon systems. To complicate matters further, the United States needs to balance its resources between two critical theaters framing the Eurasian landmass, at a time when the European NATO allies are for the most part unready or unwilling to shoulder the core burden of maintaining conventional deterrence on the Continent. In the Indo-Pacific theater, America must project power over the vast expanse of the ocean, while geography favors the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy, as it operates close to its home base. Last but not least, decades of neo-liberal globalist ideology have left the United States dangerously dependent on China’s supply chain network, in the process eliminating the nation’s traditional redundancies when it comes to industrial capacity.
These key developments require a determined reinvestment in the U.S. military to ensure the Joint Force is ready for full-spectrum cross-domain operations – an effort already underway. Next, skillful diplomacy will be a top priority to generate a broad consensus across our alliances about the nature of the threat facing democracies today, and most of all to ensure that America’s allies in Europe rebuild their defenses, with NATO providing real exercised capabilities for collective defense commensurate with the Continent’s wealth. And most of all, national security must be given top priority when it comes to business decisions, with the imperative of decoupling our supply chains from China and ending once and for all the extant bleed of our technology to our adversaries.
If there is some good to come from the two decades of U.S. foreign policy post-9/11 it should be a return to the fundamentals of realism in foreign and security policy that prioritizes national interests and husbands American power, especially its military. We must learn the bitter lesson of our neo-liberal ideological hubris which for two decades led us to pursue a globalist project built around a flawed ideology steeped in post-Cold War triumphalism. The question is not why we went to Afghanistan in late 2001, for the answer was obvious then and is obvious now: the United States was attacked and thousands of American citizens were murdered. If there was ever a case to be made for just retribution, it was then. But it is what happened afterward that will make historians ponder in amazement for years to come. They will ask why this country would dive headlong into two decades of open-ended warfare in secondary theaters, all the while remaining dismissive of Russia’s military modernization and allowing China to grow rich from unfettered access to American technology and money. The most likely explanation is that the trauma of 9/11 unmoored our thinking from the foundational framing of American power, launching the nation on an ideological project breathtaking in scope. That initial retaliatory impulse was pushed aside, setting the country on a series of meandering strategic detours, based on the flawed assumption that one specific terrorist act had invalidated two centuries of American statecraft. Afghanistan has been a bitter lesson, but it is not too late to learn from it and course correct. We should do so posthaste.
A 1945 Contributing Editor, Andrew A. Michta is the dean of the College of International and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies, the U.S. Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.
September 8, 2021 at 7:25 pm
Of course, Dr. Michta makes an obvious and cogent argument for his opinion of what the United States must do in its own best interests post-Afghanistan. However, it appears more than abundantly clear that there is much, much more needing urgent attention amongst the clearly befuddled policymakers and national security intelligentsia in Washington, DC. So much so that the present group in charge may, in fact, not be up to the task that Dr. Michta suggests. A somewhat frightening vision, actually.
September 8, 2021 at 8:29 pm
Our failure is much greater than this author imagines. We failed because we were not smart enough to understand Afghanistan and how to fight a war in the country. Similarly our contest with China isn’t simply a matter of which country has a better military. It is a contest as to which country is smarter and we are being run over. We have had one of the most mismanaged response to covid19 in the world. We inflicted the 2008 economic meltdown on the world because of our stupidity. We pay 50% more than the next most expensive country in the world for healthcare and get much, much less. We spend 6 times more than other peer countries for public projects. We have the highest illiteracy rates among our peer countries and the highest rates of drug use. Our homicide rates that off the charts. 90% of all mass shootings in 1st countries occur in the US. Our problem is that we have to become a much smarter country, not just pour more money down the Defense rat hole.
September 8, 2021 at 9:40 pm
While we are out of Afghanistan, largely as we were 20 years ago, the AUMF continues in full effect. We may very well have no further need of such a bureaucratic presence in Muslim lands. Maybe I’m just hoping. Maybe 20 years is plenty of time for U.S., NATO, and Israeli defense contractors to develop the means to monitor and interdict nefarious plans. OK, I am hoping. The voters will have their say as regards AUMF management in 2024. It doesn’t take much to figure out how to achieve a draw-down. Don’t hire Joe Biden to do it.
September 9, 2021 at 12:27 pm
This country’s problems in many cases boil down to one simple word; hubris. The sooner we abandon the “we are number one” and “American exceptionalism” mentality the better. The arrogance that is routinely exhibited by so many U.S. citizens is astounding; “we have the best doctors”, “we have the best military”, “we have the best (insert whatever you wish)” attitude will be our undoing. We normalized relations with China because the Nixon administration delusionally assumed that the PRC wanted to be like us. We failed at nation building repeatedly because we assume other peoples want to be like us. In the process we simply ignore history’s lessons and other cultural mores that are far older than the USA. Sorry USA, American exceptionalism is a fairy tale and no, not everyone wants to be an American.
Christopher J Putnam
September 11, 2021 at 1:55 pm
The statement ” the Neo-liberal foreign policy project” begs the question which administration is Andrew referring to as well as is he saying America and our allies attempts to promote democracy in countries with despotic is a failed policy? Why is Neo-liberalism the boogey man who made America fight an entity it previously armed against Russia when it was started by conservatives on a deceit to the people and continued through another conservative administration in the final years? We should have learned this lesson about nation building after Vietnam and to point a finger at liberalism is conjecture.
September 11, 2021 at 4:19 pm
We are at war with China. They are enemy number one (other than our own politicians).
The way to win this war is to bring manufacturing back here, and stop them from stealing technology and ideas from us.
I don’t have enough space here to spell that out; but it won’t happen as long as politicians and a number of big businesses make money from China.
September 11, 2021 at 11:18 pm
Installing the US as the post Cold War “Uni-Polar HyperPower” is the crazed ambition that failed. That’s what the Iraq Invasion and Afghan Invasion were all about. These were strategic high grounds that Neo-ConLikuds (the Wolfowitz Doctrine) and Rockefeller Imperial liberals (Brzezinski) were aiming for. In the process they de-industrialized the US and bankrupted t financially.
So face the music and start rolling back the Empire… prepare for multi-Polar world and rebuild the US economy and society.
September 12, 2021 at 8:32 am
The real choice before us is if we are to continue our empire or go back to being a republic as we were founded.
It is amazing that this is still an active option.
It is equally disappointing that none of our leaders, from our intelligentsia to media to politics are making this choice clear to the people
September 12, 2021 at 9:01 am
But, but, climate change! Gender identity! R-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-cism! Covid! Cops!
While we are distracted by the squirrels of society, other nations are eating our lunch.
We need a sea change in our leadership, from local mayor and school board to the President and Congress.
It’s not gonna happen, so, will keep on shufflin’.
September 12, 2021 at 10:34 am
We are exceptional because we are allowed to be.
September 12, 2021 at 1:21 pm
We learned our lesson the first time in Vietnam and then deliberately ignored it after the first Gulf War. This time we really can’t afford to continue acting foolishly, but I see no reason to believe that we will learn from our experience. Most Americans don’t understand the threat China poses and most of our rich people profit from ignoring it. The author is too optimistic.
September 12, 2021 at 1:21 pm
Good column, and I say good riddance to neoliberal nation building. However, I take exception to his comment about reinvesting in our military.
Our defense budget is plenty big enough to handle the threats that exist. Perhaps weeding out non essential elements in our military would be the better course.
September 12, 2021 at 3:26 pm
“We are yet again in a world where for the foreseeable future great power competition and power-balancing will determine winners and losers.”
Yet again? We never left that world. The USA has never conceded any real decision-making authority to the UN or any other international body, and its goal in the great power game it is perfectly comfortable playing has always been ensuring that it remains the greatest power.
“… and most of all to ensure that America’s allies in Europe rebuild their defenses…”
Translation: “Now that Afghanistan is off-limits to us, our defense contractors need new markets.”
“…return to the fundamentals of realism in foreign and security policy that prioritizes national interests and husbands American power, especially its military.”
Translation: “Make America great again! America first!” Back to the future, where historical precedent, logical consistency and (horrors!) Donald Trump await overdue apologies…
September 12, 2021 at 3:30 pm
The lesson is:
You make war as brutal and barbaric as possible until the other guy surrenders.
If you are not prepared for that – don’t go to war.
September 12, 2021 at 3:32 pm
“The question is not why we went to Afghanistan in late 2001, for the answer was obvious then and is obvious now: the United States was attacked and thousands of American citizens were murdered.” This is utterly bizarre. The hijackers were Saudis. The planners, financiers, and enablers of the attacks were Saudis. None of them were Afghans. This is part of the big lie. Afghanistan did not attack us. The Saudis did. We beat up on Afghanistan … why, exactly? “They harbored Osama?” That’s the big lie. The Taliban offered to give us Osama if we would supply proof of his guilt. We declined to do so. Stop lying to us.
September 12, 2021 at 7:54 pm
We need to consider not only that we failed, but why we failed, how we failed, and why we insisted on enmeshing ourselves for almost 20 years in something that should have been a 6-month re-do of the 1916 Mexican Punitive Expedition.
Dr. Michta thinks it was ideological blindness. Surely that was part of it, but I would add ignorance of history and dismissal of the little our elites knew, and their overwhelming corruption–there were careers to be advanced and billions of dollars to be made by keeping the war going. The only interest that would have been served by terminating t was the national interest, and looking back over the last 25 years or so, and not only in foreign policy, it is impossible to conclude that the permanent government and most of the elected officials it supports, place the national interest far below their personal grifts and sustaining their personal power.
imho the ideology was convenient to rationalize what they wanted to do for their own benefit–it was a sop to a large part of the electorate, to keep them blind to what was being stolen from under them.
There is no other way to square the statement that they are minimally intelligent, with the policies and practices they actually pursued. They enriched themselves and their circles while destroying the working and lower middle classes, happily gave away our industrial base and technological pre-eminence in return for “access” to a Chinese market that is at best ephemeral access, and for money to spend on themselves in salaries, contracts, and buying back shares rather than investing in capacity and quality to compete internationally (and sustain the nation and its workers). They devoted incredible effort to overturning the results of a fair election, and having regained power are working to destroy what vestiges of democracy are left, so that 2016 can never be repeated.
The only alternative explanation is that they are, individually and collectively, really, really stupid, but their success at the big grift and in “fortifying” the 2020 election belies that. They are not stupid. They are evil.
September 12, 2021 at 7:56 pm
Sorry, in my above, “…it is impossible NOT to conclude…”