If the definition of victory has become blurry, it is quite clear what defeat looks like. The end of the US presence in Afghanistan is one example. The United States can no longer afford to mishandle conflicts, as it has in Afghanistan. Such mismanagement has catastrophic consequences not only on US international political authority but also on its strategic capacity.
Misunderstanding the threat
On the eve of 9/11, Al-Qaeda was highly misevaluated. It was a sharp, skilled and dangerous organization, but which had a limited size due to its clandestine mode of operation. The frog dreamed of being as big as the ox and sought to substitute the post-Cold War Pax Americana with an idealized global Salafi califate. 9/11 was a trap to meant to inflate jihadism; the U.S. fell into it.
Although a small number of Al-Qaeda operatives organized 9/11, the US responded by creating one of the most formidable military coalitions the world has ever known. The catch-all concept of “War on Terror” (not war against the enemy, Al-Qaeda, nor even against the method, terrorism) became the No. 1 priority for much of the world. By reinforcing prejudices against Islam and foreigners, it fed sectarian divisions and nationalist trends. It also offered a fantastic rhetorical tool to autocratic states to oppress minorities or opponents with a veneer of legitimacy.
The decision to invade Afghanistan was politically motivated, based on internal demands for reassurance. After 9/11, the American people were in shock; they legitimately clamored for a reaction and reassurance from Washington. But the decision to move in Afghanistan proved to be misguided. It fueled Al-Qaeda’s own political narrative and provided a battlefield to a supposed civilizational clash. The US helped the frog to transform into an ox.
The intervention in Afghanistan fantastically incentivized Al-Qaeda’s supporters. It offered a great theater of operation for jihadis that could annul the asymmetry of power, enjoying safe havens in the Hindu Kush and rear bases in Pakistan. Washington strategists mistakenly thought that a huge demonstration of conventional warfare was the proper answer. The bigger the army, the more certain the victory? Certainly not. Examples of the contrary litter the history of war.
Mismanaging the conflict
On the field, the military immediately found itself unable to handle the situation. The US did not move “in a measured manner,” as declared the then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; and stating that the US would fight until “the terrorist networks are destroyed” has just proved false. Barack Obama increased the military capabilities, before initiating a substantial withdrawal. Donald Trump went further, considering the Taliban not only as respectable, but even as reliable to fight terrorism (although they still organized terror attacks), declaring that it was “time for someone else to do that work and it will be the Taliban.” Nobody really believed in his Qatar-sponsored U.S.-Taliban deal.
Contrary to Washington’s official rhetoric, the US did not achieve its objectives in 20 years. Afghanistan never stopped being a sanctuary for international terrorism. The Taliban’s Islamic Emirate never ceased to exist, and it has finally been authorized to come back. It even took back power without respecting the very clauses of the deal, which included a cease-fire and negotiations with other parties of the country. After 20 years, and despite the support it received from Western nations and the international community, the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan ended up being nothing more than a failed state.
Underestimating the withdrawal’s consequences
Despite accurate intelligence, President Joe Biden’s administration mishandled the situation so terribly that it prompted Washington to flee the country, abandoning people and materials with gigantic consequences. The impacts of this fiasco have been taken utterly too frivolously.
The critical magnitude of the debacle in Afghanistan will deeply impact global geopolitics. It seriously taints the US’ strategic credibility for allies as well as for enemies. By pursuing these four strategic mistakes in the last 20 years, the successive US administrations led to the disaster we know today. Without doubt, this will stay as a key milestone for the struggle of anti-West terrorist movements, guerilla groups and great power adversaries.
Dr. Julien Théron taught geopolitics and terrorism studies at the Saint Joseph University and the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik. Former Senior Research Fellow at the Norwegian Institute for Defence Studies, he teaches now conflict and international security studies at Sciences Po.