Strategic Comments

JIIA Strategic Comments (2021-05)
Afghanistan and the US Disengagement from "Statebuilding"

Tomiko Ichikawa (Director General, The Japan Institute of International Affairs)
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Papers in the "JIIA Strategic Commentary Series" are prepared mainly by JIIA research fellows to provide commentary and policy-oriented analyses on significant international affairs issues in a readily comprehensible and timely manner.

President Biden, in his remarks on the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan on August 31, 2021, stated that this decision meant "ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries". He said that the counterterrorism mission in Afghanistan had morphed into "nation building1--trying to create a democratic, cohesive, and unified Afghanistan--something that has never been done" in Afghanistan's history, and that the US needed to move on from such a mindset and large-scale troop deployments. This paper looks back at the US disengagement from "statebuilding" and considers the lessons from Afghanistan and the dilemmas faced by the US and the international community, including Japan.

The US Disengagement from "Statebuilding" and the Positioning of Biden's Speech

There are reports that describe President Biden's speech as marking the end to an era as the president said, while other analyses interpret this speech to be a logical conclusion of President Obama's statement in September 2013 on not intervening militarily in Syria in which he declared: "America is not the world's policeman". However, President Biden's remarks can be best understood as the reconfirmation and follow-through of what President Obama had said at the time of his decision on the "surge" of US troops in Afghanistan in 2009 and the start of their withdrawal in 2011.

President Obama, when he announced an increased deployment of 30,000 US troops to cope with the Taliban offensive in December 2009, specified that these troops would begin to leave after 18 months, rejecting an open-ended commitment to "statebuilding" in Afghanistan. He declared that "Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security", as the US "troop commitment in Afghanistan cannot be open-ended" because "the nation that I'm most interested in building is our own". Mr. Biden, then Vice President, reportedly opposed the surge at first, insisting that the US military presence should be small and focused on counterterrorism operations. In June 2011, following the killing of Osama bin Laden the previous month, President Obama announced the start of troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, stressing again the responsibility of the Afghan government and declaring: "America, it is time to focus on nation building here at home." These two speeches by President Obama are understood to have shifted the US objectives in Afghanistan from military victory against the Taliban and democratic "statebuilding" towards the transfer of responsibility to the Afghan government (meaning the US would not be responsible for what happens thereafter). What President Biden said follows on these statements by Obama and, when he suggested that the US had stayed on another decade after achieving its counterterrorism objective in Afghanistan, he might have wished to say that the US withdrawal should have been completed much earlier following the hand-over of responsibility for security to the Afghan government and its army in 2014.

Seen from a larger context, the US had engaged in "statebuilding" as part of NATO in post-Dayton Bosnia and Kosovo, as well as in Afghanistan and Iraq following its military invasions, but its disengagement had become clear by 2011. In that year, this new policy direction was clearly demonstrated regarding Iraq, Libya and Syria in addition to the start of withdrawal from Afghanistan. In Iraq, the US took the lead in the "statebuilding" project as the principal occupation force following its invasion in 2003 by deploying 10 times more military personnel there than to Afghanistan (and also injecting 10 times more aid money into Iraq than Afghanistan in the first couple of years) but tried to end its "occupation phase" only one year after its start by transferring responsibility to the interim Iraqi government in the summer of 2004. This early hand-over of responsibility and reduction in the American commitment, in addition to the security deterioration created by the disbandment of the Iraqi army and the major purge ("de-Ba'athification") at the beginning of the US occupation, is considered to have contributed to Iraq's slide into civil war in the following years. The US made a major increase in its troop levels (the "surge") but left Iraq before the end of 2011 based on a 2008 agreement with the Iraqi government. US troops returned to Iraq to cope with the rise of ISIS amid the security vacuum in Iraq and the civil war in Syria, but President Biden has said that US troops will end their combat operations in Iraq by the end of this year.

The US disengagement from "statebuilding" was manifest in its response to Libya and Syria in 2011 during the "Arab Spring". In Libya, President Obama maintained his "no boots on the ground" policy and his pursuit of a well-defined achievable goal through multilateralism in order to avoid the mistakes of Afghanistan and Iraq, and therefore limited US intervention to the NATO-led air campaign. In his remarks following Qaddafi's death in October 2011, President Obama proudly declared that the US had achieved its objectives "(w)ithout putting a single U.S. service member on the ground". Following the toppling of the Qaddafi regime, the US and NATO countries that conducted the military intervention did not wish to get involved in "statebuilding", and the interim Libyan government did not want the presence of foreign troops. Thus, a small political mission without a military component, the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), was deployed out of respect for Libyan "ownership", but Libya soon descended into a new civil war and became a failed state.

Regarding Syria, which was engulfed in a civil war following that in Libya, President Obama explained in the aforementioned 2013 speech that he had not sent troops "because we cannot resolve someone else's civil war through force". After referring to the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and Iraq, he said that he would not "put American boots on the ground in Syria" nor pursue an open-ended action like Iraq or Afghanistan in order to "concentrate on the task of building our nation here at home". President Obama's speech in 2013 was certainly a watershed in US policy in the sense that he publicly abandoned the role of "world's policeman" when he explained the decision not to conduct military intervention even though chemical weapons had been used. From the viewpoint of US disengagement from "statebuilding", however, President Obama had been consistent in his approach since 2009. It may be said further that the US commitment to "statebuilding" since the 1990s was rather an exception and the US had completely changed its course by 2011 at the latest, but that fully implementing this policy in Afghanistan took until 2021.

Lessons from Afghanistan and the Dilemmas facing the International Community

President Bush, who had been unsympathetic to "statebuilding" prior to 9/11, seemed to be temporarily inclined to the idea when he mentioned the Marshall Plan following the Taliban's defeat. However, once Iraq became the main agenda item of his administration, American interest in Afghanistan diminished considerably, to be revived only after the security situation there had deteriorated. There have been many discussions on the reasons why the "statebuilding" in Afghanistan failed, but the following elements probably had their impact.

--Following the Taliban's defeat, the US prioritized its military operations against al-Qaida and the remnants of the Taliban with a small number of ground forces assisted by airpower. The US privileged local warlords whose cooperation it needed, thus allowing them to continue ruling. The collateral damage and mistaken targeting of US military operations led to the increase of antipathy among the general public.

--The NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) could not expand its mandate to cover the whole country during the relatively calm period immediately following the toppling of the Taliban regime because of US concern over the implications for its ongoing military operations. After ISAF's expansion, NATO countries had difficulty securing troops to dispatch, which made it tough to cope with the deteriorating security situation.

--The UN Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) was based on the "light footprint" approach advocated by its first head Lakhdar Brahimi, which meant that it limited the international presence and relied on as many Afghan staff as possible. However, this strategy did not work effectively in Afghanistan due to the difficult security situation and lack of human resources.

--The new Afghan leaders were considered to have been "chosen" by the non-Muslim foreign (US) forces that had invaded the country and could not fully extend their authority. The Taliban was consistently excluded from the political process, making the achievement of an inclusive peace settlement impossible. The warlords saw democratic reforms as a threat to their autonomy and resisted them, keeping the central government from establishing its authority and effective governance throughout the territory.

--The central government also lacked the human capacity to absorb and implement the international assistance, which meant that it could not demonstrate tangible progress in development projects. Afghanistan became a 'rentier state' heavily reliant on foreign money, with wide-spread corruption. Poppy culture and other areas of the illicit economy provided revenue for warlords and the Taliban.

--In the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region, the control of which had been traditionally challenging, the lack of governance by the central government as well as the absence of control by the national army and ISAF allowed the continuation of Pakistani support to the Taliban, which led to its resurgence.

--The building of a new Afghan army was financed directly from the US defence budget, which also undermined the authority of the central government. The national army failed to create nation-wide solidarity and allegiance to the government surmounting the traditional tribal divide, and often lacked the will to fight against the Taliban even when the army had numerical superiority. The DDR of warlords assisted by Japan, when it finally happened after numerous delays, resulted in helping the Taliban advance as the national army remained weak.

Plagued by these difficulties, "statebuilding" in Afghanistan did not succeed and now the Taliban is back. There are many lessons that the international community should learn from this experience. To choose one each in the military and civilian arenas, there would be the need to establish security rapidly and steadily following the toppling of the regime, and the need to secure human resources to implement reconstruction projects effectively, both from the start of the "statebuilding" process. Achieving a stable peace settlement is a prerequisite for these elements as well as the outcome they support. Successful "statebuilding" also needs a strong commitment by the international community but continued foreign intervention will delay domestic capacity building and prolong international reliance, at the same time leading to increased domestic opposition--an inevitable dilemma in "statebuilding".

President Obama wrote in his memoir that he had not liked sending additional troops to Afghanistan but that "the alternatives were worse", involving the possible collapse of the Afghan government or the resurgence of the Taliban. Today, the US and the international community, including Japan, are confronted with this "worse alternative"--an Afghanistan ruled by the Taliban--and faced with even more difficult dilemmas. Regarding security, it is doubtful whether the Taliban severed its ties with al-Qaida but, if the Taliban fails to establish its control throughout the territory, there will be an increased risk that Afghanistan will become a fertile ground for international terrorists, including those beyond the Taliban's influence such as IS-K. On the human resources, women and young people who were educated with support from the US and the international community in the past 20 years, as well as those Afghans who worked with foreign governments and international organizations, may wish to leave the country out of fear for their safety or because they have no hope for their future. In such cases, the US and the international community should provide them with support. Nevertheless, if many Afghans are unable to exercise their talents in their home country as a result, governing Afghanistan will become even more difficult.

The US and the international community declared that they would not abandon Afghanistan following the Soviet withdrawal and the fall of the Taliban regime, but they repeatedly disengaged from "statebuilding" in reality. The US as well as Japan and the rest of the international community are now facing huge challenges: whether they can effectively engage with Afghanistan under the new Taliban rule and direct it towards resolving the two dilemmas explained above, and whether the Afghan people can believe them and dedicate themselves to the new "statebuilding" endeavour.

(This is an English translation of a paper originally published in Japanese on October 6, 2021.)

1 "Statebuilding" is generally used to describe such activities in post-conflict peacebuilding, but "nation building" is used in this paper when this term appears in the original text, such as speeches by Presidents Obama and Biden.


The argument in this paper is partly based on the author's master's dissertation (Libya after NATO Intervention: Reasons behind the 'Minimum Footprint Approach', March 2020).


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