Immediately following the attacks of September 11th 2001, the anger and resolve of the American people was a guiding force of US foreign policy. The world’s preeminent power was faced with a novel challenge: how to go to war with a non-state actor?
In response, Congress enacted the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF), which permitted the use of force against “nations, organizations, or persons”. This piece of legislation set the precedent for future American engagements and engendered two decades of continually expansive American war powers. In doing so, it has brought with it a host of new challenges which must be addressed if the United States is to succeed in future engagements and protect its international standing.
In the continued fight against terrorism and violent extremism, the War in Afghanistan has clearly demonstrated that military might will not suffice. As conflict increasingly involves non-state actors, which do not adhere to the rules of engagement enshrined under international law, they are becoming a more challenging environment for nation states. To succeed in eliminating extremist non-state actor groups and their corresponding ideologies, the United States and its international counterparts must focus on and invest in counter-insurgency.
Obama himself stated that “Ideologies are not defeated with guns, they are defeated by better ideas”. Nevertheless, his policy of drone strikes was the antithesis of his words in practice, and it is time for this notion to translate into action within United States foreign policy. Military operations must be coupled with political, economic, and civic actions to produce effective counter-insurgency and legitimate nation building. A greater focus on counter-insurgency operations would render the groups that threaten the United States ineffective and non-influential.
This can only be done if the US can develop strong relations with the population of host nations. In past conflicts, the distinction between the battlefield and non-war zones has become blurred, and reckless civilian casualties have motivated greater distrust of the West. To ensure the success of counter-insurgency measures, the United States must recognise how its actions are perceived on the ground.
This approach could also serve to strengthen America’s relationship with Britain. From British outrage at the Iraq War, to the failure of intervention in Libya and the House of Commons’s refusal to authorise air strikes against Assad, British and US foreign policies have become gradually detached over the past two decades. A joint effort to tackle the root causes of violent extremism and help rebuild unstable nations alongside the international community would serve to avoid conflicts that drain Western resources for little reward and further strengthen Anglo-American relations.
This said, counter-insurgency is not the only lesson that the United States must incorporate. In many of the countries in which the US has acted under the AUMF – Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia to name a few – non-state actors are achieving strategic success. There is no doubt that the United States achieved individual tactical and operational successes in Afghanistan, but the absence of a strategy was evident, and we cannot continue to let history repeat itself.
To this day, it remains unclear as to what success was meant to look like in the War in Afghanistan. Worryingly, this can be said for any of the aforementioned conflicts and holds true. Victory on the battlefield must be able to be defined in terms of tangible gains and if the United States continues to fight wars in which the tenets of victory are illusive, then victory will be harder to attain.
Afghanistan has been termed one of the ‘forever wars’. This is not only a result of military failure but is directly linked to the attempt to eradicate international terrorism. Ridding the world of risk from international terrorism means fighting indefinitely, and passing the risk that our own civilians face, onto the civilians of the country in which we are fighting. The United States needs clear direction and goals, and must develop a strategy before entering into protracted conflicts.
As we embark on this new decade of global conflict, it is essential that the lessons from Afghanistan are learnt. The United States, along with its Western counterparts, must establish international consensus on what military victory entails, and nations must work together to cull violent and extreme ideologies at their roots.
President Biden was right in his claim that we cannot fight wars forever, but to avoid doing so his country must redefine victory, invest time and money on counter-insurgency, and at last develop a coherent grand strategy.