Afghanistan’s continuing role in U.S. Strategic Competition in the absence of U.S. troops
By Major Tom Hammerle
The nature of American overseas military operations is once again shifting, this time away from Counterterrorism (CT) and Counter Insurgency (COIN) Operations toward an era of Strategic Competition and Large-Scale Combat Operations (LSCO). After nearly two decades of major operations in the Middle East, few are taking positions against the shift or promoting costly so-called “forever-wars”. But consensus on what the U.S. will no longer do does little to inform what the U.S. ought to do.
As “over the horizon” options for Afghanistan are considered, the U.S. must stay engaged in three ways – Intelligence Operations for indications and warnings of an imminent attack on the U.S. and allied homelands, Direct Action to conduct Counterterrorism where local forces fall short, and a diplomatic approach to maintain U.S. support to the GIRoA. The demand for these capabilities persists in Kabul and throughout Afghan national military and law enforcement organizations, even as American political and operational capacity diminishes.
The American Global War on Terror (GWOT) continues to wane as U.S. Forces reduce their footprint in its primary theaters of conflict – Afghanistan and the Levant – to levels near zero. In the Levant, the reduction in forces slowly continues with no specific target numbers. In Afghanistan, service members who remain in the country are dutifully – and rapidly – following President Biden’s specific ‘get to zero by September 11, 2021’ guidance, as they continue efforts started in earnest following the Trump Administration’s signing of the U.S. – Taliban Doha Agreement in February 2020.
The key challenge here is that Strategic Competition, or competition across the diplomatic, information, military, and economic (DIME) spectrum beneath the threshold of Large Scale Combat Operations (LSCO) has yet to be clearly defined as it applies to the 21st century. Exactly how CT, COIN, and small wars will fit into competition with near-peer and rogue state rivals remains an abstruse conversation as well. In Afghanistan, where the GWOT era began, even the future of the American Embassy in Kabul is unresolved. As the Biden Administration continues shaping its National Security Strategy, two factors should inform discussion on defense policy and engagement strategy in the region – Geography and Terrorism.
As scholars and statesmen ranging from Robert Kaplan and Peter Zeihan to National Security Advisor to President Carter Zbigniew Brzezinski have argued, Geography still matters – the American international engagement system still depends, in no small measure, on either proximity direct access or access via trustworthy partner nations. Entry into Afghanistan, a double landlocked country, required cooperation from Uzbekistan, Pakistan, and several Gulf States among others. Continued CT operations throughout the Middle East rely on many of those same nations and remain dependent on logistics hubs in Turkey and Jordan. While the United States can project military power globally, the GWOT has made tragically clear the limits of the American ability to build democratic nations after toppling authoritarian, rogue, or extremist regimes. The German and Japanese transformation success stories are not being retold in the Middle East despite the best efforts of American and International Coalition Partners. Opportunities for additional rounds of NATO expansion and alliance building seem to be off the table as well.
Given these strategic circumstances, Afghanistan is located in a geographic location of profound importance because it provides a key vantage point in full strategic competition from which to monitor and counter Violent Extremist Organizations (VEO) and strategic competitor states alike. Afghanistan is currently the only substantive U.S. position that has a physical border with China, a border with Iran, and strategic proximity to Russia and North Korea – which are all priority countries according to current national security and defense documents and the ODNI’s threat assessment. It must also be mentioned that along with Pakistan and India, Afghanistan is strategically proximate to five of the eight nations with nuclear weapons. Afghanistan’s position in the geographic center of Sir Halford Mackinder’s great world island maintains options for the continued pursuit of American objectives that positions in Europe and East Asia simply do not offer.
This shift in strategic focus brings with it a new type of problem for strategists regarding Central Asia and South Asia (CASA), and Afghanistan in particular. Terrorist groups will almost certainly continue to train, plan, and conduct operations from the under-governed territories in the region. In spite of the 2020 peace-deal, the Taliban in Afghanistan will very likely continue to work with and provide safe haven for transnational terrorist organizations such as al Qaeda, the Islamic State (ISIS), and others who remain devoted to plotting against and attacking the United States – groups which can be expected to be capable of striking the U.S. within two years of the U.S. withdrawal according to recent statements from the U.S. Defense Secretary. The Taliban’s Deputy Commander and leader of the Haqqani Network, Sirajuddin Haqqani, has repeatedly stated – including in a controversial New York Times Op-ed – that he will continue to conduct operations against the United States from Afghanistan. The ruling party of Afghanistan, the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan (GIRoA) or Taliban, is unlikely to be able to prevent this collision.
U.S. defense priorities are beginning to be resourced as the pending Budget Realignment and Global Posture Review make clear using China as a pacing challenge. Determining what level of engagement in Afghanistan (and subsequent risk) is in the national interest following the withdrawal, and how important is the broader CASA region and broader U.S. global standing will be difficult in the face of these challenges.
Strategists, planners, and analysts working to answer this question for Eurasia would be well served to remember that dominant CT and COIN ideas before 9/11 revolved around state sponsors. Generally, resistance movements were thought to need training, supplies, safe haven, and financing from a larger sponsor state. Since the majority of insurgencies and terrorist organizations had ties to either a communist or capitalist backer, evidence supported this outlook. Competition using principles, agents, proxies, and surrogates to conduct military actions was the Cold War norm. Naturally, when the Soviet Union dissolved, many within the national intelligence and national defense communities assumed that insurgencies and terrorist activity would fade as well. VEOs around the globe from Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in South America to al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda throughout the Middle East and Africa have proven those assumptions wrong. Terrorism was a tactic before, during, and after the Cold War, and unfortunately, it is here to stay. As the United States and its allies shift to focus on strategic state competitors, a forward engagement that allows CT and COIN must remain features of U.S. policy because asymmetric challenges will persist and state competitors will likely continue to employ them. Afghanistan may continue to be the international battle lab that it has become for the foreseeable future.
The Biden Administration’s Interim National Security Strategy follows an evolving understanding of international reach as it advocates maintaining a small cadre of Intelligence Officers and Special Operations Forces to keep pressure on VEOs and prohibit their ability to plan and train in the ungoverned and under-governed spaces around the globe. In like manner, the Afghanistan Study Group published an analysis and commentary piece that explains the leverage that the U.S. maintains over the Taliban as it seeks international recognition. It seems that the new administration is heeding the cautionary advice from Former Assistant Secretaries of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict (ASD(SO/LIC)) against forgetting the lessons of the GWOT altogether and returning to a “boom and bust cycle” of small wars capabilities and readiness. These lighter footprint style approaches are more in line with the United States’ long-standing forward defense strategy and represent a return to a strategy that maximizes American natural and historical strengths. A small cadre with a discrete purpose – keep pressure on VEOs by prohibiting their ability to plan and train in the ungoverned and under-governed spaces of Afghanistan is appropriate moving forward.
As this strategy matures, Afghanistan should remain in the national interest because terrorist groups will continue to train, plan, and conduct operations from the under-governed territory, and Afghanistan’s geo-strategic location provides access to all major strategic competitors. President Biden’s strategy, in accordance with his Interim National Security Strategy, indicates that he intends U.S. Strategy to be a distinctly 21st century way of competition in a gray zone, featuring Special Operations Forces and intelligence agencies, against states and non-state actors, between the traditional war and peace duality. Afghanistan will remain a primary theater for VEOs and Strategic Competitors alike …even if U.S. Forces are not physically there.
* The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the U.S. Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or the 75th Ranger Regiment. *