Restoring Momentum to U.S. Foreign Policy in the Wake of Afghanistan

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History makes for an uncomfortable mirror if only because it shows us how we have aged. In January 1961, President Kennedy famously stated, “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Kennedy spoke to a global generation that had endured the human and economic catastrophe of the Great Depression. That world also lived through the cataclysms of World War II and the inconclusive Korean conflict, which alone cost the United States 36,000 lives, $300 billion (in current dollars), and put the United States in combat with communist China. The era also faced the omnipresent threat of superpower nuclear conflict with the Soviet Union. The United States viewed the world of the 1960s through the lens of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and alliance with Europe, Japan, and South Korea. Yet, the U.S. split with Britain and France over Egypt in 1956 demonstrated the limits of that historic alliance. It is hard to say that the demands of recent years exceed those of Kennedy’s time.

Fast forward to today. Rhetoric remains a potent tool, and social media amplifies its reach. But the lofty claim of Kennedy’s 1961 speech has been replaced by such hollow, isolationist slogans as “End Forever Wars” and “America First.” Global media has brought conflicts into American living rooms with an immediacy and partisanship that would have astonished the generation of the early 1960s. Policymakers in the last three administrations questioned the value of alliances or regional partnerships. Instead, they at times framed foreign policy by arguing that costs dictate that the United States should avoid involvement. Indeed, each of the last three administrations took steps independent of traditional relationships. Gone, it seems, is the aspirational language as to what involvement might bring to or represent for the United States, let alone for partners, adversaries, and victims of oppression.

The Narrative of the U.S. Withdrawal from Afghanistan

The U.S. war in Afghanistan, or at least the combat phase, is over. However, Washington’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has set in motion events that will dominate foreign policy agendas for months, perhaps years, to come. The president and his team are adamant this decision was correct and overdue; many respected figures disagree. Indeed, few policy decisions have ignited such a sense of rage, grief, and disappointment among national security figures with personal experience in Afghanistan.

The debate will continue and will likely grow increasingly partisan; history will judge. But it will be hard to digest the fact that the international community knowingly allowed an entire people to fall almost overnight under the rule of one of the most oppressive extremist groups in modern times. If Afghans could once hope for a better future, the withdrawal facilitated the return of the Taliban and shattered millions of lives. Consider the lot of a girl born in Kabul in January 2001 compared to a girl born in the same hospital this week. The Taliban may deserve the blame for her fate, but that doesn’t mean that the international community doesn’t have some responsibility as well.

The first real-world consequence of the decision was a multinational evacuation architecture, unprecedented in its fragility, danger, urgency, complexity, and scale. The administration correctly asserted that the evacuation was its priority, although its shambolic first days suggest insufficient resources for the operation and perhaps insufficient interagency coordination on the likely secondary and tertiary consequences of the withdrawal decision. Splashed on international television by a number of heroic journalists, the scenes of chaos competed with Washington’s claims of progress. The evacuation’s success drew upon the skills and heroism of those on the ground, countless official and nonofficial actors abroad, and support from dozens of countries. Far too many Americans, Afghans, and others were left behind, but these collective efforts rescued over 120,000 lives from Taliban brutality and for that the international community should be proud.

There will be those who will look to hurry past the events of recent weeks, seeking to shift attention with robust statements on the determination to evacuate those left behind, the support for women’s rights and refugees, and the intention to hold the Taliban “accountable.” Sympathetic media voices will refocus on domestic issues—ranging from hurricane recovery to infrastructure legislation—to shift public attention from Afghanistan. The need to address challenges from China, Russia, and climate change has the advantage of being both genuine and good press. Some will point to sympathetic polling showing that Americans have moved on, their confidence in the administration shaken, but restored. If the administration is wise, it will take little comfort from this. The aforementioned only paint over problems that will eventually undermine U.S. strategic credibility.

The Question of Western Credibility

But no narrative can mask the reality that the international community leaves this episode deeply bruised, if not scarred. The United States’ closest allies are angry, frustrated, and worried about Washington’s strategic direction. State and non-state adversaries expressed delight as they watched the United States and its allies struggle with the extraordinary consequences of the withdrawal decision.

Doubts about the United States’ reliability and credibility are not new. Nor are foreign policy decisions shaped by domestic political realities. Every president since Truman has undertaken actions that caused some to doubt the United States’ national will. In most cases, the actions damaged the reputation of a senior policymaker or administration; the credibility of the United States in regard to its principles remained generally intact. The actions of the United States on other issues reinforced this view and enabled partnerships to thrive.

If the arrival of the current administration was greeted with delight by traditional allies, that enthusiasm is gone. Despite Washington’s insistence that it coordinated the evacuation with coalition partners, no ally has come forward to say that they were full partners in the withdrawal decision or planning. Officials in Canada, Germany, and France voiced harsh criticism of the withdrawal even as they wrestled with the evacuation of their nationals. Armin Laschet, considered by many to be a possible successor to German leader Angela Merkel, described the withdrawal as “NATO’s biggest debacle since its founding.” Former British prime minister Theresa May and other members of parliament heavily criticized Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Former prime minister Tony Blair issued an essay excoriating the evacuation. British parliamentarian and Afghan veteran Tom Tugendhat reflected the mood of parliament (and likely British security officials) in a profoundly moving speech condemning the withdrawal. This crisis builds on European frustration over the U.S. refusal to soften the Covid-19 travel restrictions against European nationals.

Inevitably, Europeans worry that President Biden’s policies represent only a more polished version of his predecessor’s “America First” policy. Ironically, Europe offers unwavering support to an Iran nuclear deal that provokes similar concerns from Israel and the Sunni Arab states. If the Taliban are cruel overlords who oppress women and minorities, the same is true for the Iran-supported militias that rule much of Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Europeans who wonder if they must develop strategic autonomy from Washington may better appreciate the views of those Middle East decisionmakers facing Iran.

Such views are dangerous in a world where collective security looks thin. The last thing the United States should encourage is a sense that countries must act on their own to deter aggressors. Responses seen as appropriate by one actor can easily touch U.S. and global interests. For example, Tehran’s regional aggression, support for the war criminal Bashar al-Assad, and the international community’s unwillingness to do something about either led to an undeclared drone and naval conflict between Israel and Iran in waters that carry a considerable portion of global trade and energy. The consequences of accommodation are no less costly. Advocates of talks with Iran say nothing of retaining meaningful coercive options that would encourage diplomacy, while Tehran continues violent actions to compel concessions. Nor do they speak of time limits on such talks.

The leadership in many partner and adversary countries in the Middle East have watched the decisions of the United States and the international community for decades and increasingly worry at what they see. Whereas the United States tends to look at policy in terms of a single four- or eight-year administration, Middle Eastern countries consider a longer history in their policymaking; for example, the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has led his country since 1989. However, the events of the last decade represent a common framework for most regional leaders. The Obama administration’s decisions on the Arab Spring, Syria, Iran, and Yemen unsettled, if not shocked, many in the Middle East who argued that the threats that Washington seemed to discount had been the topic of shared security assessments only a short time before. The Trump administration’s poor relationship with Europe and the perception that he abandoned Kurdish partners added to growing concerns by regional leaders that perhaps Washington was no longer reliable. The actions of the Biden administration—almost exclusively staffed by personnel from the Obama years—seem to reinforce the sense that the United States is increasingly indifferent to aggression.

Perhaps not since the late 1930s has collective security seemed so fragile and international institutions so weak. The United Nations, Europe, and the United States offer little tangible support to victims of aggressor countries (e.g., the Iran-supported missile attack that struck a commercial airliner in Saudi Arabia), hoping instead that diplomacy, a rare stiff statement, and focused sanctions will prevail. Such policy is unwise, and no U.S. policymaker would follow such counsel in response to repeated threats against U.S. territory. Consider the Yemen example. The odds are that the Houthis—sooner or later—will strike a civilian target, producing mass Saudi and expatriate casualties. Such an attack could provoke the conventional regional conflict that all wish to avoid. Indeed, it was such an attack that drove the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. Additionally, if the West will not act against Iranian aggression that threatens the lives of Saudi and Western civilians, why should these partners not distance themselves from Washington’s calls for a more aggressive approach toward Moscow or Beijing?

Adversaries have been quick to exploit such a rare and potent propaganda opportunity. Beijing, Moscow, and Tehran issued a torrent of commentary arguing that the evacuation is another example of Western decline and the U.S. willingness to abandon its partners when costs mount. Islamist militant groups and such Iranian proxies as Hezbollah have issued similar messages to their respective audiences. Compare U.S. behavior, they argue, to that of Russia, China, and Iran, which steadfastly support their (often malign) allies and pursue opponents worldwide. Such propaganda supports adversary diplomacy, discourages human rights activists, and gives future partners second thoughts. Washington’s unfair disparagement of long-time Afghan security partners—who lost 66,000 lives fighting for their country—helped adversaries make their case. Their arguments will only be strengthened if Washington fails to cease its sour commentary and ensure that every Afghan who stood with the United States and is at risk of Taliban retribution finds haven in the West.

Former Afghan coalition partners will themselves debate the withdrawal and their future relationship with the United States. The evacuation images tarred coalition members with a collective narrative of abandoning allies while creating a possible breeding ground for Islamic militants. The withdrawal decision also saddled them with evacuating hundreds or even thousands of nationals, dual citizens, and Afghan staff. European leaders must now wrestle with the political consequences of a fresh wave of Afghan refugees. Last, they must also overcome an impression that Washington excluded its closest allies from its decision to initiate what President Biden accurately described as “one of the largest, most difficult airlifts in history.” Washington should do what it can to help its friends as well as lead an effort to forge a renewed unity of purpose.

First and foremost, the United States and Europe should dispel any sense that the West is no longer united or reliable. Such an effort will need to overcome the United States’ partisan politics and a Europe unaccustomed to bold action. It will take time to restore confidence, and words alone will not be sufficient to address this challenge. The Biden administration will have little time to develop a post-withdrawal foreign policy strategy and it may be that the policy evolves in response to new challenges. In any case, coming months will see multilateral sessions where allies and adversaries will gauge U.S. leadership in a post-withdrawal world at a time when Washington is eager to confront other priorities.

Looking Forward: Four Areas for Policy Focus

Like a large rock thrown into a sea, the Afghanistan withdrawal launched ripples that will touch shores seen and unseen. In the coming months, the United States will need to commit the policy resources to address four significant challenges. These efforts will inevitably draw partisan and media attention, but the administration should commit to a public accounting on its success in these areas.

Support Afghans with More than Words

If Afghanistan had been fragile and threatened in recent months, it is now broken and some of its best minds are dispersed around the world. The United States should lead a generous, long-term multilateral program to resettle the thousands of Afghans evacuated from Kabul. Departing suddenly with little more than the clothes on their back, many refugees will need to learn new languages and new cultures and seek new livelihoods. Ensuring the success of these refugees will enrich societies and perhaps sustain the leaders who will rebuild Afghanistan in a post-Taliban world.

The United States should also focus on the millions of Afghans who rely on international food and medical aid. It is likely that the Taliban—unable to feed this population on their own—will welcome this support. Nonetheless, the United Nations should manage aid distribution to minimize corruption or denial of food to Taliban opponents.

Covid-19 remains a deadly threat to Afghans living under the Taliban. The administration should work with international partners to develop a Covid-19 assistance program for Afghanistan. Although the Taliban have often opposed vaccination programs, Covid-19’s impact on their personnel appears to have made them more willing to accept this program. The involvement of Gulf Arabs—perhaps empowered by statements issued by the Muslim World League and other Islamic voices—could help overcome suspicions of the program. Failure to enable this work risks not only Afghan lives but the spread of Covid-19 to other countries.

The Biden administration has repeatedly claimed that it will be “vigilant” regarding Taliban treatment of women and girls. Ironically, international influence over the Taliban may be most significant in the coming months as they seek the political space and financial resources to strengthen their hold on power. Afghans have tasted two decades of freedom, and many are unwilling to fall quietly under Taliban rule. Anti-Taliban protests briefly erupted in Kabul, underscoring that Afghans are willing to fight for their country. Ahmad Massoud, son of Afghanistan’s late iconic anti-Soviet resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, leads a nascent, if uncertain, armed resistance. Its survival is far from assured; indeed, it may be unlikely. But such opposition will worry the Taliban, and it may be possible to use this period to cement concessions that tie release of aid to evidence-based assessments of progress.

The Taliban lack the economic expertise of the previous Afghan government, but they already realize that they need a vast amount of revenue to rule. Among the few tools available to the West to influence the Taliban is access to approximately $9 billion in Afghan gold and dollar reserves and International Monetary Fund support. The Taliban will demand access to these funds to augment their annual revenue from the seizure of state assets and the approximately $0.3–1.6 billion from taxes, the opium trade, and extortion. Washington should lead an international campaign to ensure that Taliban access to foreign funds depends on the protection of women and girls and action against terrorist elements in Afghanistan. To be meaningful, the campaign will need an evidence-based reporting process by an unbiased source that justifies economic support to the Taliban. On this last point, the United States should insist that any aid architecture be designed to be independent of Russian or Chinese influence. Failure to do so risks a repeat of the sad example of Syria, where Moscow and Beijing have urged that the Assad government should manage aid.

The United States and its coalition partners would be well served by an international program that honors and supports Afghan military veterans among the refugee population. Many officials, including the widely respected former ambassador Ryan Crocker, have correctly decried the criticism of the United States’ former Afghan military and security partners. Failure to stand by these partners in the coming months would be morally wrong and weaken the United States’ ability to convince others to stand with it in future conflicts.

Act Forcefully against Those Seeking to Test Western Resolve

Western credibility is derived from a blend of diplomatic, economic, and even military action against malign actors. In the wake of the Afghanistan withdrawal, adversaries will be tempted to test U.S. resolve or to whittle further at the United States’ reputation. It is imperative that the administration convince adversaries that the United States will respond forcefully to any such test beyond tough media statements.

There are myriad actors ready to test U.S. resolve, and each will watch to see what is accomplished by others. North Korea appears to be expanding its nuclear weapons program. Iran’s history and current leadership make it most likely to test U.S. resolve in coming months. Tehran’s recently elected hardline government will be the most repressive (and sanctioned) in the history of the Islamic Republic. Iran’s crimes are myriad and well documented. Few countries so actively threaten so many neighbors with such frequency and intensity. Iran’s proliferation of missiles and drones to proxies, its own drone attacks against international shipping, and its recent kidnapping attempt of a dissident in the United States have gone unanswered beyond sanctions.

Despite genuine U.S. efforts to return to the nuclear deal, Iran has used the Vienna talks as a forum to project defiance and test for concessions while its nuclear program expands. The Raisi regime shows little interest in returning to the Vienna negotiations in the near term, likely believing that the possibility of its return to the nuclear deal shields it against Western retaliation for regional aggression while raising pressure on the P5+1 to offer a new set of concessions.

Tehran is likely to return to the Vienna talks eventually, but that doesn’t mean it will do so to achieve a deal. Vienna offers a unique mechanism to demand Western recognition of Raisi’s regime, but Tehran will not return to the deal until it believes it has extracted every last concession from the United States. If this proves to be the case, the United States and European partners should end talks, tighten sanctions, accelerate the delivery of defensive weaponry to Iran’s neighbors, and announce a readiness to use military action to prevent the construction of a nuclear weapon. Moscow and Beijing will be loath to see an end to the process and will likely press Iran to return.

Iran will undoubtedly respond with tests of U.S. and European fortitude. The Western response should reflect unity and put the blame for any consequences on Tehran. Given multiple recent examples demonstrating that Tehran is unable to keep secret or protect its nuclear archive, al Qaeda officials, or the head of its former nuclear military program, it will expect that the West will discover nuclear militarization or any major military actions sufficiently early to neutralize either. The key in this scenario is that Iran must believe Western intent to respond with force against Iranian aggression. Tehran is most likely to take diplomacy seriously when it confronts an eroding economy, international diplomatic isolation, and an inability to protect its most aggressive personnel and operations from Western action.

If Iran undertakes further attacks against international targets, such as shipping in international waters, the United States—in concert with Europe—should respond immediately with limited military action against relevant Iranian targets accompanied by robust public diplomacy explaining the purpose of the action. A calibrated multinational strike, focused sanctions on Iran’s commercial shipping infrastructure, and clear private and public messaging will demonstrate to Tehran, Moscow, Beijing, and Pyongyang that the West is united in its approach to aggression.

Recalibrate Regional Counterterrorism Efforts

The counterterrorism target has just become more complicated at a time when policymakers are shifting counterterrorism resources to address domestic extremist challenges, China, Russia, loosely connected militant groups in Africa and Asia, and cyber actors from around the world. The intelligence community’s counterterrorism personnel are highly experienced and capable. The administration should task the intelligence community with a comprehensive plan detailing what is needed to respond to Afghan-based terror threats. As in the past, success will require cooperation with third-country partners. An early priority should be a regional effort to identify extremists traveling to and from Afghanistan, prevent private funding from the Taliban or Afghan-based militants, and collect intelligence on the emerging Afghan-based terrorist architecture.

Public and private diplomacy will be needed to prevent al Qaeda’s reemergence in Afghanistan. Iran must understand that it will face harsh consequences if it releases the al Qaeda leadership in its custody. Tehran and Islamabad must also know that they will face diplomatic and economic isolation if they allow foreign militants to transit their territory to and from Afghanistan, much as they did before 2001.

Begin the Long Process of Restoring Bipartisanship to U.S. Foreign Policy

The decisions to withdraw from Afghanistan and the Iran nuclear deal significantly exacerbated partisan divisions in Washington and unsettled foreign partners. Adversaries must relish a U.S. policymaking dynamic in which any administration believes it can make foreign policy agreements more easily with the Taliban and Tehran than with Congress. Successful diplomacy requires difficult concessions, and no deal will be perfect. Restoring bipartisanship will be a long and challenging task. But President Biden and his team owe the American people the leadership required to address this serious problem, and his legacy should be judged accordingly.

President Biden arrived in office proudly announcing that “America is back.” Correct or not, the decision to withdraw from Afghanistan has created a dynamic in which this assertion is in doubt, making it critical that the United States demonstrate its commitment to partners and collective security. The world has changed much since Kennedy’s famous 1961 speech, but the demand for collective security and the dangerous consequences of a fractious foreign policy remain unchanged.

Norman T. Roule is a senior adviser (non-resident) with the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C.; a former senior Middle East official in the Central Intelligence Agency's Directorate of Operations; and the former national intelligence manager for Iran at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

This report is made possible by general support to CSIS. No direct sponsorship contributed to this report.

This report is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2021 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Norman T. Roule
Senior Adviser (Non-resident), Warfare, Irregular Threats, and Terrorism Program