Small Wars Journal

The Forgotten War? US 2020 Debates Largely Ignore Afghanistan

Thu, 09/26/2019 - 10:34am

The Forgotten War? US 2020 Debates Largely Ignore Afghanistan

Adam Wilson

Introduction/US Interest

Recent headlines and 2020 debate questions regarding US Foreign Policy largely focus on emerging threats to US National Security such as election interference and regional influence competitions amongst peer competitors such as China and Russia. All of which deserve the utmost attention of US policy makers and implementing agencies. However, there has been a noticeable avoidance or absence of debate centering on America’s longest entrenched conflict Afghanistan amongst democratic presidential candidates. Trump has commented recently that he will do just about anything to complete an entire troop withdrawal from the country by November, even if that means closing the embassy in Kabul. This recent public rhetoric should influence the democratic presidential candidates to come up with their own Afghan policies during future debates. So what should the plan regarding US Foreign Policy in Afghanistan consist of?

The US interest in Afghanistan according to the US State Department includes combating terrorism, stabilizing the region, and keeping our commitment to improve the lives of the Afghan people (State). The US sees Afghanistan as the fulcrum between South Asia and the Middle East and is the geostrategic battle ground between Shia and Shite Islamist movements. Currently, armed forces operating in Afghanistan include: the Taliban, The Haqqani Network, Islamic State in Afghanistan (IS-K), Iranian backed insurgents and US coalition forces. The concern is that Afghanistan, if left alone, could disintegrate into catastrophic power struggles like what’s happening in Yemen and Syria.


Since 2001, the Afghan Government has received $29 billion in civilian assistance and even more in bilateral counterterrorism and national defense security assistance (State). The US State Department coordinates the bilateral incentive programs and the Self Reliance Mutual Accountability Framework, otherwise known as SMAF, to help build the civilian institutions which helps guide economic growth and trust in government. The latter follows the traditional US Foreign Policy responsibility structure. However, under George W. Bush’s administration the military developed the Commander’s Emergency Response Program which prioritizes the planning and implementation of humanitarian assistance (Adams, 54).

The overlap of various initiatives like SMAF and CERP have implications in terms of inefficiencies of financial costs and the natural division of labor of our US Foreign Policy apparatus. In addition to the US unilateral programs, Afghanistan has seen large international contingents focused on nation building. One of the most prominent international security efforts was the creation of the International Security Assistance Force, or ISAF.

Despite the assistance from the US and a coalition of over 100 countries, the government of Afghanistan has struggled to show the capacity or competency to position itself as a sustainable and viable option for the future. “Nation building” on this type of scale is not something that US Foreign Policy has ever undertaken. Afghanistan is a large, deeply divided society in which most of the country lives in rural remote hamlets. Authors Gordon Adams and Shoon Murray explain in their book The Militarization of US Foreign Policy, Mission Creep that the US cannot realistically tackle all that is needed to build Afghanistan. This has led to the phenomenon in which whoever has the funds will carry out the initiatives. The overwhelming size and financial assets granted to the Department of Defense (DOD) means that DOD has become the principal contractor in Afghanistan.

US policymakers also saw added value in the Department of Defense because of the security problems related to terror and counterinsurgency actors within the borders of Afghanistan. The DOD “mission creep” was centered on the notion that without stabilizing the security situation the civil-government institutions would not be able to develop.

Current Situation

The Taliban has been successful in exploiting the difficulties of nation building efforts by wearing down the Afghan government financially and resisting its security forces. The Taliban’s unrelenting pressure on government institutions have also caused a distrust by the Afghan public in their government. The Taliban now controls more territory than at any time since 2014. There have been large scale attacks in Ghazni in which the Taliban have overrun military outposts and were able to decimate Afghan commando units. In addition to poor troop performance, there is rampant corruption among the Afghan security forces specifically in the officer class (Azami, BBC).

There remains concern over recent developments between factions of the Taliban and Russian backed arms deals. Meanwhile, Pakistan’s long-time backwater connections with the Taliban have deteriorated both Afghan and US relations with Pakistan. Even the anti-Shiite Sunnie fundamentalist Iranian militias have been linked to both Taliban and Haqqani Network forces. Confusingly, Iran has also signed a bilateral agreement to build a new port with the Afghani government but is concerned over the Islamic State Khorasan group which has carried out attacks in Iran (Stratfor). The multilateral aspect in Afghanistan is not new but further complicates US Foreign Policy strategy in the country as the Taliban has become entrenched with deep pocketed regional hegemons.

There has been progress in developing talks between US officials and Senior Taliban leaders. The Taliban agreed to a cease-fire during Eid this past year and has also sent delegates to Russia to discuss their current issues with the Afghan Government (Lyall). Peace talks between US and Taliban officials who are based in Doha are currently in progress. The Trump Administration has stated that their policy for the foreseeable future will be to maintain a strong military capacity in Afghanistan until the Taliban negotiate in good faith.


The difficult questions regarding the US strategy of countering the Taliban insurgency include: analyzing why the country is prone to destabilizing insurgency movements and knowing which US Foreign Policy agency can combat both the short and long term reasons for the insurgency. The role of the State Department and its expertise in governance, economic development (USAID) and political engagement are crucial in destroying insurgency movements. The Taliban, Haqqani Network and now IS-K all rely on citizenry discontent with feelings of limited economic and civic opportunities. All three groups use opioid drug trade to fund their resistance activities and to support their members. The groups use the Afghan government shortfalls and the US occupation to recruit desperate individuals to a life that promises them meaning and a livable wage.

The Department of Defense is best utilized in its capacity to provide security training and assistance. DOD has an important role in Afghanistan as long as there is combat zones in which to operate within. The nature of the military fits this role and is quite effective when given the freedom to rid a geographic area of armed and dangerous groups (Adams, 115). However, the civilian assistance agencies should be given the tools and a reasonable timeline to build governance once a city, province or region has been relieved of the Taliban forces. Ultimately, collaboration between civil and military programs would best accomplish the US goal of building a reliable long term allied government in Afghanistan.

According to Victoria Holt of the Stimson Center, Afghanistan’s rural areas have not seen the resources necessary for proper nation building. Many of the international efforts and successes, especially in regard to security, have been in Afghanistan’s largest eight urban areas. The Department of State view these successes in a different time frame than the Department of Defense. The re-emergence of Taliban over the last year in Afghanistan is viewed with a more critical lens to DOD officials because they operate under clear task based missions evaluated with generally shorter timeframes.


The US must increase political pressure on Pakistan to further increase its counterterror initiatives while coordinating strategic counterterror and border security. The US military will bridge the current gap between the two neighboring military forces by providing additional training and special assistance to Pakistan during the campaign. This will be implemented and operated until the Taliban has been reduced to their 2014 levels.

Secondly, the US military will continue to provide operational support in attacking illicit drug supply lines that provide vital revenues to the Taliban. US ground forces will also continue to assist in training Afghan forces in defense security who have shown some progress in regards to protecting civilians in urban population centers.

Lastly, multilateralism is a key component to stabilizing Afghanistan and limiting the Taliban’s influence. The Department of State and subsidiaries, such as USAID, should lead the political and policy coordination amongst regional members. The US must encourage regional actors which include Pakistan, UAE, Qatar, India and Iran to support peace talks. The US Department of State can not accomplish its nation building efforts in Afghanistan without behavior improvement from regional actors. This process would start with an improvement in US-Pakistani relations which have been tense in recent years. The US Department of State must also engage with Russia to stop its arms sales to various actors if those weapons are being sold or filtered to the Taliban. A partnership with Russia is unlikely but could serve to be useful in the fight against the Islamic State forces currently waiting to fill the void of the Taliban, should they be distinguished.


Strategically there is no clear plan between various US Foreign Policy agencies regarding who is best suited to bring peace to Afghanistan. The current structure has been ineffective in both providing security and in allowing assistance to flourish without being corrupted. DOD and DOS are inevitably intertwined but have different strengths and weaknesses. It has become clear that the Taliban have no plans to leave or quit and will exploit fractures in US and Afghan coordination efforts. The alternative to increased US cooperation or what is now decades of uncertain path dependence decision making is to pull out of the conflict all together. This would certainly leave a power vacuum in which could result in the return of international terror organizations such as Al-Qaeda or ISIS.

The 2020 presidential candidates Afghan policy stance will surely be focused on short term political gains over the long-term prosperity of Afghanistan. Ultimately, Afghanistan has run its course politically and many would argue there exists no US policy that can “win” in Afghanistan and “win” politically at home in the US. The question each candidate should be asked next is what does your withdrawal look like?

About the Author(s)

Adam Wilson holds a Master of Public Policy degree from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, concentrating on US Foreign Policy and International Security. His specific interests in the field lie in counterterrorism, insurgency, international relations and U.S defense policy.



Fri, 09/24/2021 - 9:53am

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