The United States' current involvement in Afghanistan is not, and should not be, solely about terrorism. However, policymakers have failed to adapt to this development, to the detriment of the mission. It is time for policymakers to recognize that resources in Afghanistan ought to be channeled toward state-building and stability rather than fully eradicating terror.
Al-Qaeda’s direct attack on the United States on September 11, 2001 provoked the entire international community to fully support the United States invasion of Afghanistan. The mission: to eradicate Al-Qaeda, who had the support of the Taliban. The declaration of the war on terror was a forceful response to a devastating attack on the most powerful country in the world. The United States invaded Afghanistan within a matter of weeks–a swift, emphatic retaliation. Al-Qaeda and Taliban operatives quickly fled to the border of Pakistan, out of the United States reach.
Over 6,000 days later, the United States is still entrenched in ‘the war in Afghanistan’ left to rebuild a state, with inadequate resources and a misconstrued war mentality. In April 2002, after the initial invasion targeting the Taliban, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared, “the war is over." In March 2018, 16 years later, Vice President Mike Pence declared, “I believe victory is closer than ever before."
We are not at war in Afghanistan. We are state-building in an environment with a terrorist presence–no different from any other state building mission with violent rebel groups. The continued, periodic resurgence of the Taliban distracts from the state-building mission and adds fuel to the fire of war mentality, leading to a misrepresentation of American involvement in Afghanistan.
This war mentality and the desire for victory creates a false sense of hope among U.S. officials and the public. From 2002 until the present day, war and victory have been on the minds of Washington despite the changing realities on the ground. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of the United States involvement in Afghanistan. The initial impetus for invasion stemmed from a legitimate desire to respond to terror. But, the ensuing mess has congealed into a haphazard state-building mission that has been neglected and underfunded for over a decade. It has only been sustained by an inappropriate war mentality fueled by the ebb and flow of Taliban resurgence.
For example, the mantra of maintaining a ‘light footprint' during American intervention has led to a persistent, critical lack of on the ground resources. Without the necessary funding and manpower, the mission has faltered. One of the most glaring holes in the state-building process pertains to security (as distinct from war!). Lack of an appropriate allocation of forces has created a space for the Taliban's continued presence in Afghanistan, paradoxically leading to a continued return to ‘the war on terror’, and perpetuating the ‘war’ and ‘victory’ mindset in Afghanistan.
Continued involvement in Afghanistan is valid and we ought to build the best state possible, but that will require clear acceptance that this is, in fact, a state-building mission and is no longer a 'war.' Prolonged involvement does not have a clear endpoint or an opportunity for ‘victory’. But, it does have the potential to vastly improve the lives of millions of Afghanis and promote stability in an unstable region of geopolitical of vast importance.
The United States had the chance to win the war early on after scaring away the Taliban. We failed by not providing the resources necessary to create a secure environment in which the Taliban could not resurge. As a result, the Taliban continue to pop up now and again in Afghanistan, interrupting the progress of state-building and perpetuating the war mentality. The counter-terrorism aspect of this intervention against the continued resurgence of the Taliban is a legitimate fight, but this is by no means the defining, central feature of American involvement in Afghanistan. This is not ‘the war in Afghanistan’. As soon as we recognize this and let go of the idea of a clear ‘victory’, we can develop a productive longterm strategy.